Modern Cigarettes: Loudness

Pervasive, addictive, inescapable, chronically damaging. 

Pervasive, addictive, inescapable, chronically damaging. 


It is both related to hearing, but is not explicitly hearing. Loudness is the complete filling of a sense that occupies the mind. You cannot look away from loudness, it arrests the attention. You can close your eyes, you can refuse to eat, but you cannot escape the roar of modern life. In a McLuhan sense, loudness is hot. In a Claude Shannon sense, it’s information. In that sense, it’s unpredictability. Incompressable, but not random which is why it arrests the attention. If it was predictable, you could tune it out (like pop music).

Our music is hot. It’s loud, over the top, obscene, repetitive, not requiring attention, filler. It’s yelling, not a conversation. Cool jazz (real cool jazz like this, not Kenny G) requires a deft ear. Cool environments invite nuance, but our hot and loud urban ecosystem has muted our senses from nuance. We block out hearing, intentionally with noise-cancelling headphones or Airpods. We aren’t allowed to talk about things for fear of offending, fear of personal harm, or fear of scratching the surface on an uncomfortable truth.

In a very real sense, modern society no longer allows us to “feel” (literally and emotionally). The only sense we’re allowed to indulge in is taste, and we’re in the midst of the greatest obesity epidemic of all time. When you cut off people’s abilities to experience and sense anything, they overcompensate with all that remains. What’s scary about this is while there are qualms with all of these sensory suppressions, loudness is the most insidious.

The Modern Cigarette

Loudness, like cigarettes, is pervasive, addictive, inescapable, chronically damaging.

The extremely long feedback loop of damage makes it too late for you to change. Worse off, we are terrible at assessing it’s true effects. We have a very rough approximation about the physical effects, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

What’s special about audio is that it’s nearly impossible to hear words AND think independently simultaneously. What’s scarier about loudness is that it allows us to substitute our own voice for someone else’s. A singer, an activist on Twitter, a politician. This global suppression of inner voice should terrify everyone. Many turn to meditation, not for the chance to not think, but for the opportunity to hear themselves again.

So what happens if I’m not listening to a talk but reading it? This is still loudness. It is related to hearing, but is not explicitly hearing. Your brain processes reading so similarly to listening, it suppresses your ability to think in the same way. You see letters, you hear sound. Twitter is loud, Instagram is quiet. YouTube is somewhere in the middle. You can’t tune Twitter out because it’s too loud. You’re hit with an arresting wave of interesting, variable reward loudness that allows you to escape your own thoughts. With YouTube you can at least look away or mute the sound, letters no longer occupy your mind and you can think. With Twitter, the conversation fills your mind, the letters fill your mental capacity, and you’re in their inescapable grasp.

In a hot and loud society, we are all programmable creatures. Cool and quiet societies are forced to sit, ponder, discuss among friends. They’re forced to be bored, and when people are bored, they’re forced to occupy their minds by exploring the nuance of a space. Many think this is the territory of intellectuals and elites, but go to rural areas and you’ll find deeper conversation in the common folk there than almost anywhere in the programmed loudness of urban life.

Loudness, Everywhere, Everyday

You can see manifestations of the loudness of every day life in young people. Walk into any coffee shop and every young person has noise-cancelling headphones or earbuds. If they don’t have headphones on, they are almost certainly enraptured by a phone or laptop screen. Why?

To escape the loudness. Engagement of the visual sense numbs the perception of noise.

A book is not numbing enough to the ears to bear in public, it must be a screen.

There is an unbearable nature to every day life that we have ignored. We have to distract ourselves and avert our ears lest we become so irritable as to become unsociable. We need the trance of loud hot music to dig into, we need the all-encompassing screen, we need the conversations on Twitter to yell into our ears so we aren’t subjected to the chaotic, information rich environment around us. We are not equipped for this new signal-to-noise ratio of urban life. 

Modern architecture exacerbates the issue. High ceilings, hard stained cement flooring, all designed for the eye, and to ensure we cannot dissect the conversations around us. Designed to create the indiscernible loudness we all live with.

To hear, we have to find a narrative within our environment. Eavesdropping on someone’s singular conversation, observing a singular interaction, we subconsciously know we cannot bear the intensity of the full picture.

This is Water

The most difficult part is the fish in water nature of loudness. Have you ever noticed the loudness of your local grocery store? (credit Don Delillo who wrote about this back in 1985)

We use background music to intentionally mute the ears, to focus on our work. I’m afraid eventually we will forget how to hear, if we don’t destroy the physical structures first. A scary thing about loudness and hearing loss is there’s no other sensory equivalent. You cannot eat yourself into not tasting. You cannot look too much and not see because of it. You cannot touch too much and lose your ability to feel. It is only hearing where after decades of misuse, the chickens come to roost.

I’m not longing for perpetual silence and solitude, that’s torture of the same kind, but when we eat the same flavor daily, we forget what it tastes like (modern people don’t know this). Variance allows us to perceive. It’s easier to distract ourselves from the discomfort of our own thoughts now more than ever. The loudness jolts us from getting in the rhythm needed to hear our own voices. It takes a bit for our minds to warm up. When was the last time you heard yourself think for more than 5 minutes? Really sat down, phone down, no TV, no book, no music, and just thought. Uninterrupted thought. Deep thought, exploring and considering the implications of your own strong beliefs. Allowing yourself to briefly hear your own voice say “what if the other side was right?”.


If we subject ourselves to the loudness, to the social programming, to the variable reward randomness, we may lose our ability to choose. Our ability to think. If we lose this, we lose the ability to be an independent populace, and subject ourselves to the whims of the powerfully quiet. 

“If I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I'm going to be pissed and miserable”. -David Foster Wallace

The paradox is we need the headphones to briefly arrest our own attention. If we fill our minds with hot loud music, it quickly overwhelms our attention. An hour or two later, we finally realize that we’ve forgotten to think.

This is the state many Americans find themselves in. Few recognize that they have a choice and they’ve been programmed to be this way. We let ourselves be worked up by media and politics designed not to make us angry, but the people on the default setting angry. It’s escapable. There’s no intellectual you must be this tall to ride this ride to achieve this. We all have a choice to be aware to escape the loudness. The point of all this is to say, when we’re subjected to the loudness of daily life, we not only numb and degrade our physical senses, but also our mental and social lives as well.

Eloquence, at its highest pitch, leaves little room for reason or reflection, but addresses itself entirely to the desires and affections, captivating the willing hearers, and subduing their understanding.”  

-David Hume

The loudness subdues our understanding and captivates our minds.

The Alternative

We simply have to choose. We have to make a preemptive attack on our environment’s loudness.

Take this challenge: Leave your phone off for more than 5 hours. Just try it once. Watch how quickly your ability to think returns. Your mind opens back up like it did when you were young. You’re less irritable, more observant, more considerate of others.

In this new state, we can choose to perceive situations in many different ways. We can choose to reject uncharitable writing without rejecting reality or truth. We can chose to reject temporarily strong emotions in favor of probabilistic views on truth.

We can simply check out of the programming by saying “Maybe so”. It may be true people are evil, but we don’t *have* to give it the attention that the default wants to give it. Maybe we can direct our attention into a more charitable reading of reality. The next time you read something and instantly feel your emotions rising, simply say “Maybe so”. You’re not required to accept things as 100% true, and I don’t think you want to. But when you read the programmatic writing style, the default assumption is that “what I’m reading is 100% true” and if this truth hurts, or speaks about a moral wrong and injustice, you may find yourself thrown into a violent storm of emotion.

It may help when reading disparaging things to simply assume there may have been a slight miscommunication that caused someone to write something uncharitably. That maybe the ideas are mostly right or mostly wrong, but not 100%, bet your life certain. I found that as long as there’s not 100% certainty into the correctness of a thing, I can keep my emotions from running amok. I can escape the loudness, and I can choose.

The catch is that my ability to choose improves by orders of magnitude when I put the phone away. It’s only when the current thing I’m looking at is my priority can I remember to choose. Otherwise, I forgot to choose and let my fleeting emotions rule my perception of reality. The loudness of the phone will always siphon off attention and ability to choose.

Remember to Choose

Escape the loudness of modern life. Take the headphones off for a time and make a choice to think. We can choose how we react, as long as we make the time to create our new environment. Remember to choose.