Sound bubble as filter bubble

As I debate buying a pair of noise-canceling headphones.

If you liked Dan Barry’s quest for true Manhattan silence or Charles McGrath’s defense of city noise in last week’s Times, read the book I mentioned here earlier this week. Author George Prochnik begins the journey of In Pursuit of Silence at his home in New York, and some of Barry and McGrath’s explorations mirror his. The way Prochnik has of connecting the two arguments, for silence and noise in a metropolis, is thoughtful. The explanation is what I noted in the Clarence Clemons post: the gaps in noise bring an appreciation for both sound states.

Finishing the book here at the beach since my initial post days ago, I want to point out two more sections that may pique your interest.

First, architecture and design. Prochnik visits Gallaudet in D.C. He and architect Hansel Bauman dig into Bauman’s conception of Deaf Space, environment design that not only addresses the needs of the deaf but seeks to create more natural communication among the community at large. This ’08 Post story describes the work at a more cursory level.

Second, after Prochnik checks out soundproofing tools, there’s this:

… The further I went in my research, the more I found myself forced to reckon with how often I liked hearing the noises of people going about their rounds of domestic being in the same way I liked listening to birds. I like the tings of glass and tableware, the pastiche of voices, swinging doors and lifting blinds. Of not necessarily brilliantly played instruments being practiced. And of impish children streamering gales of silliness over even my most solemn ponderings. That unpredictable panoply of unprocessed sound — when not too loud and when sometimes broken up with something like silence — is part of why I continue to live in a city.

Yet if so much of today’s noise really is discretionary, what better solution than to distribute automatic quiet kits to everyone, enabling them to manufacture their own discretionary silence? Arm us all with Silence Machines and we can go around zapping every noise we find obnoxious in our vicinity — creating “personal sound shadows” right and left and not having to worry anymore about how much noise our environment may be making. Free choice of whether to zap or zazz for everyone!

You’re right, but… I have a confession to make. When I really think about it, I don’t actually feel much better about a world in which everyone has their own personal Silence Machine, sealing them in private silence cones, than I do about one in which everyone is walking around with their iPods turned up loud. Soundproofing, after a certain point, is just another way of cutting oneself off, and I don’t want to feel cut off. More than that, I don’t want to feel like I want to be cut off. More than that, I don’t want other people to want to be cut off, either. Here we all are, after all.

I hadn’t thought about the Filter Bubble’s applications to sound, but the concern makes such sense. The Filter Bubble is Eli Pariser’s best-selling, TED-talking argument about how technology is far too easily placing us amid content filters, without us knowing what we’re missing and often without us knowing we’re in a bubble at all. We’ve spent some time talking at work about the issue, given NPR’s two raw goals of keeping people listening for as long as possible yet also exposing them to more unheard stories and topics than other news outlets.

Additionally, it turns out friend Beth’s brother Sam — last seen in this blog running a marathon in a burger costume — works for Pariser.

With sound, like news, the content is an intrinsic part of your life. You experience sound no matter what, making sound different from music, which is optional in your life. Even as we’ve constructed so many tech filters around music, we listeners have seemingly found passageways through them. Choices made with music don’t stop you from leaping bubble to bubble. But sound is natural experience and surroundings. When you have a hypothetical sound-zapper, or when you just keep your iPod going all day (whatever its volume), you cut yourself off.

How serious are the implications of sound bubbles? Not deadly, unless you accidentally step into traffic. But as we introduce more and easier walls of sound into our lives, you have to begin to consider what you might miss. Birds can’t go viral. Stunning accents lack a Shazam app or forward feature. There’s no recommendation engine for perceiving life, no counterbalances besides fate to throw into our algorithm.

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