Tag Archives: media distractions

The Acoustic Sponge of White Noise

While some sources of ambient noise can’t be stopped, communicators seeking the ideal environment will do what they can to minimize it.

Photo: Wikipedia
Photo: Wikipedia

Sound produced by a person is as fragile as a feather.  As a slight disturbance of air pressure it exists only in the moment, decaying almost instantly.  And at normal levels it is often no match for the environmental noise we accept as the price of living in hives of activity.  Humans produce sound as speech over a frequency range of roughly 100 to 5000 cycles per second.  That’s a fairly narrow range in comparison to what the ear is capable of sensing.  Moreover, the relative volume of our speech is modest. We need to be in a small room and in good voice to generate sufficient loudness to be easily heard, somewhere in the neighborhood of perhaps 60 decibels (db).  But this measure of sound pressure increases logarithmically, so that continuous exposure to noise above 95db is sufficiently risky to be recognized as a workplace problem by OSHA.

Our ability to be the primary source of another’s attention is easily swamped   by a passing ambulance with its siren on (about 110 db), the shrieks of a child on a bus or a railway coach (95 db), or even the nearly constant drone of background music or others talking in the same general area (perhaps 40 db).

Most of the background sound in our lives is this kind of noise. Unless we are in the unlikely space of a anechoic chamber that is built to exclude all external noise (and where the only sound heard would be our own heart pumping),  we pass our days in a constant circus of external noise.  We are often not conscious of it.  Indeed, our brain is pretty good at tuning it out.  Awake from a deep sleep, and you can actually hear the ambient noise of a room quickly being “turned on” by the brain.

But here’s the challenge.  We use our voices to do a lot of important work.  We need to be heard often and clearly. Sometimes our livelihood depends on it (as in teaching, face to face sales, conducting meetings and interviews, and so on.  At other times the din of constant noise destroys the chances for making an impression, or for a family to function as a family. The requirement to compete with other “convenience” devices in our lives—dishwashers, televisions, air conditioning, another’s constant chatter—can leave us exhausted.  Nothing is more fragile than the attention of another person.

The most common source of this fatigue is “white noise:” a collection of many sounds thrown together in the environment.  Because it contains many different frequencies, white noise is a sponge soaking up whatever else is existing in the same space.  And because it does not necessarily seem loud to us, we overlook the fact that it is blocking our ability to connect with others.  Here’s a sample with its video counterpart:

The ambient sounds in your life will often be more subtle, but still disruptive of the ability to easily dominate another’s attention.  The major culprits: air handling systems in buildings, others talking at the same time, transportation traffic on the ground or in the air, even wind filtering around buildings and other natural objects.

While some sources of this ambient noise can’t be stopped, a savvy communicator seeking the ideal environment for reaching others will do what they can to minimize it.  Shutting doors and windows can help. Turning off air conditioners is sometimes possible (and a common decision in location filming when the sound crew realizes the problem).  It also makes sense to ask others in the same space to carry their conversations outside.

We use public address systems to increase the loudness of a voice.  But the better solution with a smaller group is to seek out a small room, or at least to arrange seating so that each person is just a few feet from others in the group.  Part of being successful as a communicator thus means also being at least an amateur acoustician.  As a person who lives by presenting ideas orally, I always check out the space in advance, doing what I can to make it easier to be heard.  A few months ago that meant asking a group to stand by while I ran out of the building to wave off two gardeners with noisy leaf blowers strapped to their backs.  Gas-powered motors are monster sponges that can sabotage anyone’s best efforts.



Too Much Noise on the Line

If you are old enough to remember The Carol Burnett Show and her famous remake of “Gone with the Wind,” you can probably also describe the momentary loss of picture or sound with some version of the phrase, “There’s too much static on the line.” We tend to see the world through the vocabulary we’ve acquired, so some form of this expression hangs around, even though we now think of it as a holdover from older forms of analogue media. Listen to AM radio today and there can be so much static that it may actually drown out a station. Scratches on an old 35-millimeter print of a film or dust lodged in a cherished vinyl LP are similar versions of the same problem: what audio engineers call a bad “signal-to-noise ratio.” It’s still true that if you still have a land-line phone, you may also find that there are times when you sound like Sheriff Andy Taylor trying to be heard over an old wall phone at the far end of Mayberry.

“Too much static on the line” might seem like a complaint whose time has passed. After all, digital media generally have the potential to strip a message of extraneous noise. But it would be a mistake to think that we’ve licked the problem, especially if we can see its significance in slightly larger terms. I’m struck by the fact that the very devices that carried the promise of freeing us from bad connections have done just the opposite. If anything, those weighed down with various forms of the latest digital devices are now assaulted with more stimulation than we can ever accommodate. In our age, the fragile line represented by a focused consciousness is easily overwhelmed by visual and aural noise.

Talk to a friend while they are surfing the internet or texting someone, and you sense that there’s definitely too much static on the line. Ask someone to do their desk job while they are also trying to process a barrage of useless e-mails, cell messages and Tweets, and they’ve got more than their powers of concentration and discernment can handle.

This has become a familiar and much-discussed issue, especially among older adults who see what they describe as the distractions and attention deficits of the young. To be sure, our children will survive, and no doubt help us tame the twin Twenty First Century monsters of information overload and empathy fatigue. But it’s also worth remembering that many enduring achievements in life tend to come in broad swaths of linear development. The mind works best when it has time to put our heads around a challenge and master its demands. We know this when we’ve finished a great novel, witnessed the performance of a sprawling but magnificent symphony, or taken in the words of a provocative thinker who was given a generous  space of time to lay out their views. To reduce these efforts to anything less—especially because of a felt need to accommodate more truncated bits of “information”—is to produce its own kind of mental static.

There’s an important lesson in the fact that a number of great composers wrote their best works in fevers of concentrated effort. It was continuous and sustained chains of invention that gave us the Jupiter Symphony and the gathering brilliance of The Messiah. We can be thankful that Mozart and Handel didn’t have the distractions of 24-hour cable news, Facebook pages to fret over, or e-mails waiting to be answered. It is undeniably true that we have reduced the presence of unwanted electrical noises that dogged the transmissions of  older media. But they’ve been replaced by relentless and insistent demands on our attention that represent their own forms of noise.