Whatever Happened to Silence? by Dan Coffey | An Argument for Peace & Quiet

If you’ve ever worked in retail over the Christmas holidays, you know that the biggest problem you’ll face is keeping your sanity while trying to work under the barrage of non-stop Christmas music. Likewise, people who work at Menards must constantly endure the “Save big money at Menards” jingle, many times an hour. These workers are being deprived of their peace of mind, and working under such conditions is a fool’s bargain.

When I first visited Yosemite park, I trudged up a beautiful trail to an overlook and found, to my disappointment, that the Sierra Club had been there first. They had erected a sign telling me to breathe deeply, remain silent, and listen to the wind in the trees and the bird songs. I had intended to do those very things, but now that I was being lectured by do-gooders who had colluded with the Park Service to enhance my experience of Yosemite, I found myself screaming obscenities at Half-Dome instead.

Now that Ken Burns and PBS have commoditized the entire national park system, I’m sure the process of offering unasked-for advice to hikers has accelerated.

What we’re dealing with here is nothing less than the corporate takeover of nature and the Disneyfication of the wild.

Here’s a quote by a well-meaning but misguided Disney executive, Kym Murphy:

The Walt Disney Company is experimenting with ways to communicate with its visitors by non-visual means in order to enhance visitors’ experiences and protect the visual landscape. We have successfully created a technology for pavement “grooves and ridges” which cause tires literally to hum a tune as a vehicle passes over them! In the future, this non-visual “cue” to guests could let them know they are approaching a Disney property and bring smiles to their faces.

I hope it’s not the “It’s a small world after all” theme. I think I might drive the car off a cliff, if it is. This is all part of the encroachment by vested interests, using technology, on the commons of silence. Social Philosopher Ivan Illich wrote an essay “Silence is a commons” back in 1983. Computers were just starting to invade every possible activity. The Internet had not been invented yet.

People called commons those parts of the environment for which customary law exacted specific forms of community respect. People called commons that part of the environment which lay beyond their own thresholds and outside of their own possessions, to which, however, they had recognized claims of usage. . . .

Illich goes on to describe the arrival of the first loudspeaker on the island of Brac, in a village on the Dalmatian coast, where his grandfather lived. It was 1926.

Up to that day, all men and women had spoken with more or less equally powerful voices. . . . Henceforth the access to the microphone would determine whose voice shall be magnified. Silence now ceased to be in the commons. . . . Unless you have access to a loudspeaker, you now are silenced.

A bad tool is a tool that creates a problem that only it can solve. We are awash in bad tools, but instead of blaming them, we grasp at them as the solution to our problems. The Internet is great, if you have a computer. Only a quarter of the world’s population has access to one.

So the incursion of technology into our lives first of all separates us into different classes, then takes away our common heritage of silence. As Joni Mitchell predicted, someday you will go to a tree museum and pay for the privilege of seeing something that used to be ubiquitous and free. Many of us don’t enjoy instruction.  In fact, when I encounter a tour guide, I become so irritated I stop listening. Angry and uncooperative, I sulk until I can escape the well-intentioned museum docent or park ranger.

Disney has already built its own city, in Florida, near Orlando. It looks a lot like an Iowa small town. Tree-lined streets front wood-frame houses, each with a large front porch, garages tucked away in the back, facing onto alleys. There’s a gazebo downtown on the square. This faux Midwestern town is called “Celebration,” and there’s a waiting list to buy the very expensive properties, each selling for at least ten times what they would cost in small town Iowa. There are no poor people in Celebration. You must paint your house from a limited palette approved by the Walt Disney corporation.

The residents of Celebration, Florida, probably would not object to having their roads sing out Disney tunes as they drive along. If I lived there, I would be the crazy old man, wild-eyed and screaming at cars, like the doctor in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, yelling “They’re coming to get you. They’re already here!"

You can buy a whole book of Dan Coffey’s essays online: My World & Welcome To It.

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