the hidden pollution
Part 1 of 2
I first drafted this piece in January 2003. It was stimulated by my reaction to public noise and my subsequent thoughts flying home for New Years. The worked expanded to include noise of another kind: as it is defined in information theory. I added some material in 2004 and 2005 and there it sat until April 2008 when I expanded and finished it - as finished as anything gets in this an Autobiographical Notebook. This 5 year process lead to an expansion of the original impulse and thought. Perhaps too broad a scope for a coherent paper with an appropriately sharp focus. However, there are important relationships among the diverse subjects which are covered here. These are the kinds of connections which tend to be missed by more formal, “correct” presentations. Too much correctness and efficiency deters original thinking. Weak signals [future link] and remote connections, which are not obvious, lead to new possibilities more often than the well known, correct thinking which has its place in the engineering phase of the creative process [future link]. It is better to think of this piece as an exploration not as something to read in the conventional way. Therefore, as always with this web site, it is important to follow the links. These pages document my “thinking out loud” process - this is why I publish them in their raw form. This has great utility for me and more limited value to you the reader unless it encourages your active exploration of the subjects I address. As I have said before [future link], it is the thinking you do, because of your reading experience, which creates the value - not what I say. I am reporting my experience of reality - yours is different yet, by reading this, mine becomes part of yours. The THEME of this writing is NOISE. Noise turns up in many ways and many forms. The critical aspect of noise is not volume - it is distraction. It is when noise buries information that we should become concerned. My basic point is that the “noise to signal ratio,” of our society, is such that useful discourse is becoming impossible at the historical moment when we need it most. This is to the determent of the vast majority of Humanity. It may be to the short term “advantage” of a powerful minority who use it to advance their own hidden agenda. To the extent which this is true it illustrates a masterful yet unethical employment of the requisite variety principle [future link]. I recommend that, in a “knowledge economy,” it is important to follow the noise and the money in order to understand what forces are at work in our time and what may be the outcome if they prevail.
Late December, 2002, I was flying back from Nashville to spend the New years at Elsewhere. I flew from Nashville at 6:30 am to Memphis where I had an 8:30 am flight to San Francisco. Sitting in the waiting area I focused on the busy flow of people and the general ambiance of the place.
I was struck by the noise and the intrusiveness of media and announcements. Where I was sitting, I could hear two different television stations, both loud, and the announcements from several gates; added were several conversations of nearby waiting passengers (shouting over the media). This was not an exciting, rich public space; it was intrusive, full of discord, filled with loud competing messages.This was no place that anyone sensitive to the requirements of their own body-mind would want to be in. Yet, it was accepted; either it did not disturb or it was accepted as normal and necessary - or, the ubiquity of this kind of experience had buried awareness far from consciousness. No matter, the metal/physical results are the same. Stress is stress and it is well documented in terms of cause and consequenses.
Flying back to Nashville, after the new year, I returned through a larger connecting city. An advertisement I found interesting was one announcing, proudly, how many million “impressions” where made in the airport concourse daily [future link]. Impressions is an accurate description. It is, after all, a public place. Interesting concept, public place. It is argued that if I am offended by all this that I have choices. I can not fly, stay out of public places, generally, or maybe just stay home. I can exercise my free choice in a free society. I can even drive across the country if I do not mind bill boards.The concept of choice is not as simple as it first seems. If you walk into a super market and look at packaged goods you will see a great “variety” of each kind of product. Seems like a lot of choice. However, it is choice of a kind and when you realize that in many cases the cost of the product is packaging, advertising and distribution [future link] you realize the “choice” is often only with whom you will waste your money. The average person uses only a few thousand works in a life time [future link]. The average super market has at least an order of magnitude more products on the shelves than the shoppers have words [future link]. I have pondered this apparent paradox for years. Is this visual pollution? Do people actually see and recognize these tens of thousands of brands/labels/packages [future link]? Does this assertive positioning of images, plus the verbal/visual intensity of radio and television, crowd out language [future link]? Does this have any relationship to what seems to be the declining art of dialog [future link]? Or, do people just tune out most of their physical reality and if so what is the consequence of doing this [future link]?
Have we thought about what effect all of these “impressions” are having other than encouraging us to do our duty [future link] and become more of a consumer society [future link]?
As a society, we have forgotten the virtue of rest, quite, silence, contemplation - of self assessment and independent thinking [link]. We live in a hyper-world of shouting, demanding, spining, self-perpetuated crisis making; a self-feeding positive feedback loop [link] that is driving an increasing returns of noise upon noise - an architecture of negative programming messages. Our collective public behavior, in an individual, would be considered a mental problem worthy of attention. It would be legal to lock someone up, for their protection and ours, if they acted in the way that we as a society are behaving. We are not paying attention to ourselves and our actions - nor our future - as a society and as a species we are acting as if were are insane. For all our self-centeredness and species-centric focus, we are blind and deft to the world we are making [future link]. Most of us, at one time or another, will complain about the conditions I mention here, most often as if they came from outer space disconnected from our own actions and ability to change them. We do not seem to recognize that we are making these conditions [future link]. There will become a time - at least I hope there will become a time - when we look back upon this era in amazement - we will not believe this self-abuse and drive to self-destruction.
It is commonly accepted that:
Noise above certain decibels causes hearing damage and perhaps neurological damage [future link].
Discordant, loud, intrusive, random noises trigger the “fight or flight” mechanism which, if left unresolved, is a major source of negative stress [future link].
That we navigate by sound almost as much as we do by sight [future link].
Hearing a message up to six or seven times reinforces it and then further repetition actually starts to degrade attention to and memory of it [future link].
That we are “programmable” thus the repetition, intensity, meaning and esthetic sense of our social experiences has a profound effect on our psychology [future link].
Yet, look at the environment we have created for ourselves. I want you to think, given the total experience of traveling to one city from another, just what are we doing to ourselves? What messages are we entraining? What impact does this experience have on an individual’s sense of self, identity, responsibility and personal empowerment? to the extent that everything in the environment is a “command,” (Lilly [future link]) what are you being told to believe, to do, to become? I am not arguing against “free will” - I am saying that the total body mind processes orders of magnitude more information than what we are aware of and can respond to consciously [future link]. The rational response to this is be aware of the impact the environment has on our thoughts, feelings and behavior and act accordingly to shape the environment to be benign (at least) and that delivers the “messages” most appropriate for that which we have chosen to become [future link].
We have started to create non-smoking zones, I wonder if we will learn to establish non-noise zones. Too expensive some would argue. Well, we - as yet - do not price the cost of war into our cost of gas nor do we price the cost of pollution into health care. It is interesting to note that war and health care costs seem to be significantly on the rise. And so is noise. All, I suspect, a notable consequence of UpSideDownEconomics [link]. Usually, when fixing something as obvious as this is named as “too expensive” it means the costs are being deferred to another part of the system so that the “profits” - which are not really profits at all - can be reaped from the part of the system in question. Have you ever noticed that those things most often called too expensive are those that take thought and effort, build the general good, require a long term effort and returns? I wonder what the numbers would be if we compared the total cost, in the US, of legally recreational drugs [future link] to the school budget [future link]. We often hear that we cannot “afford” to pay teachers well and equip our schools as we believe we should (even though we say our children are our future). I have never heard of a looming beer, wine, cigarette and excess food consumption crises. I wonder if we will have enough in 2006 and if it will be affordable? I do, by the way, consider food in great excess of physical requirements and legitimate celebration to be a drug. Why do we have an obesity problem in the “advanced” societies? Do that many people really want to be overweight? If it is genetic, how did it come about on this scale in my life time? Why is it showing up in societies that are becoming affluent? Why is this considered to be a medical problem except for the few percent of the population with whom it actually is?
Well, back to public places. I do not deny the fun, beauty, energy-building and life-supporting aspects of large public gatherings such as concerts, sporting events, shopping malls, parks and properly-executed cityscapes. No, these can be as wonderful as a contemplative walk in an ancient, silent forest can be. Events (and some public places/experiences) are often designed and can be designed well. Forests are natural (meaning intrinsic - “given”). The compromised middle, between the intentional and natural environment, is becoming the bulk of human experience: noisy, threatening, non-fulfilling, meaningless, non-intentional, distracting, unhealthy and unavoidable because of the ubiquity of circumstances. In these accidental environments, neither evolved through eons nor competently designed, the majority of people exist (I could not say live) while they are feel assaulted, threatened, out of control and experience their lives chopped up into micro moments of constantly shifting highly “stimulating” and stressful situations. In fact, if one wanted to do damage to the human system, s/he would be hard-pressed to out do a typical airport, hospital, classroom, public transportation vehicle, public highway, or average cityscape to name just a few (not to mention TV). As a consequence of this “assault” senses become dulled [future link]; the immune system exhausted [future link]; metal focus scattered and distracted [future link] one’s sense of life distorted [future link]. More of each precious life becomes devoted to recuperating from this self-imposed insanity. Spend an evening surfing television channels and observe your physical and emotional reactions. What world view [link] Do you see? What are you being told? What would have been the same at home experience 5, 10, 20, 40 years ago - is this hyper-mania accelerating? Viewed as a work of art - which it is - what is the touch, feel, meaning and sound of your society?
You may think I exaggerate. Well, look up the annual sales of antidepressant drugs. There have been, and are, societies that do not require these. It is interesting that the wealthiest civilization in known history scores so low (specifically the US) in all known measures of health. That we are “living longer” does not explain the health of our children, who are now getting several “diseases” once only associated with old age, nor does it explain the ubiquity of drugs we give then to “control” their behavior [future link] - a necessity I do not recall when I was growing up at the end of a depression and he execution of a World War. Ever notice that the catalog of mental and physical diseases are growing together in lock step with the number of pharmaceutical cures? I guess that this can be taken as evidence that we are keeping up with things or it could indicate something far less flattering. Of course, to know would require authentic information, rigorous process, unbiased judgment, leisure time, accurate reporting, peace of mind, honest reporting, a spirit of reconciliation and a government which could not be bought. In other words, the opposite of noise in the system. Does this sound to you like a fair description of our present physical, social and governance reality? Spend a weekend of quite contemplation removed from the influence of social noise and think about this.
At the time that I am writing this part of this article (Spring of 05), there is an ad running on television which illustrates the present ubiquity of “impressions.” It shows a very sad fellow pining away looking in the window of restaurant. This one, it can been seen, specials in pizzas. Our hero is clearly not able to participate in this culinary delight because of heartburn. Inside, in the light and warmth, are many happy shown enjoying food and comradely intercourse of which he is exiled in the bleak exterior. This is presented as a tragedy His life is compromised - apparently hardly worth living (that word again). He is not happy. Then (trumpets, please), a heart burn medicine, presented by a “doctor” in a white coat and equipped with stethoscope, comes to his rescue and he returns once again bonding with his friends (who cheerlfully great him back into the fold) and enjoying the food he loves. Sounds like a success story all around - that is, of course, if you don’t listen to the messages about possible side effects (stated rapidly in a much lower volumn and different tone). Our hero in this saga is not the healthiest looking individual, one could imagine him obese in a few years. This is unlikely an accidental selection. Clearly there is a target audience here. Interesting term, target. A good nutritionist who understood, blood and metabolism types, food combining, regional and seasonal implications of food consumption might suggest that the heart burn was feedback and all the medicine is doing is “shooting the messenger.” I am certain that there are some who have a genetic propensity to heart burn and I bet that this is a low number as real obesity and diabetics is. These people, no doubt, require both life style regulation and treatment. For most, it is more a matter of self awareness and paying attention to what different foods, in different combinations, at different times (season and time of day) and in different amounts in different circumstances does to them. The message of this advertisement is clear: Your are a victim. It is not your fault (or responsibility).You deserve what your unexamined habits have programmed you to desire. You can have what you want and there is a pill to deal with the consequences. Very effective programming. The ad is well done. An excellent piece of propaganda. One cannot but relate to our hero and be happy with his ultimate triumph. The cost of his success will fall - as most such things do in our society - to the future and to the social commons. This ad is noise in two ways. First, as all of them (I am told it is not true) it plays louder than the program I am watching does. Second, it is noise in terms of information theory: the information in this ad is deliberately distorted. The health facts related to this scenario are well know and not seriously debated. This ad is a skillful process of systematically making victims. At first, by misinformation (one feels a victim) and ultimately by action (becomes one by trusting the “information” and continuing what his body is saying is wrong for him). As a rare and isolated case in an educated society this would be humorous and do little harm. This example is not rare and there is no way that the hero in our case - and the target audience he represents - can be considered educated.
I am not against pizza, nor advertising. I do wonder why the ads are always louder than the program - I am amused by the recent assertion of a network executive that muting ads is “stealing.” I do believe that people should understand far better how the brain actually works and what the true impact of advertising (on the scale and scope we “enjoy it today) has on them - the people running the ads clearly understand the science involved (this being a great example of “knowledge is power”). And, I believe we should think deeply about this “noise,” (along with the many other sources of noise in various the forms we encounter it) that now dominates our public spaces (and private spaces when we allow it in). I do not think this can be or should be “fixed” by regulation although out and out fraud perhaps should be considered. Was the man in the white coat really a doctor? Does the pill really cure the condition or does it merely mask the symptoms? Why are not the “risks” as dramatically illustrated as the “benefits?” Will rejoining the pizza party really bring companionship and happiness? Did our friend - and those watching the ad - take a course in logic and propaganda and demonstrate competency before being issued a high school diploma? Would you cut off the whiskers of a cat and then make it run down a narrow trap ridden maze? It seems there is something inhumane and fraudulent here somewhere. Or, is it merely “let the buyer beware?”
Look at the faces and body language of people in public spaces. Listen to the “tone” of the surrounding sound. If this were a movie would you have any doubt about the “message” that is being delivered? I referred to the prolific, ubiquitous public ads as one major contributor of hidden pollution - as “noise.” If the ideal is a sane, tranquil yet stimulating society of free agents able to judge, conceive, design and act, then much of this is noise. If the goal is the opposite then these are not noise - they are signals. They make up a great part of the message we as a society are sending to ourselves. Theye messages, in many environments and venues now overwhelm other messages that are necessary to our balance and well being. If you look at these messages as “instructions” - which is is useful to do although they are more than that - you will see the point that I am getting at. These, and what passes for “news” today, are delivering a focused drum beat of threat with salvation through unconscious consumption. We are becoming a society of propaganda and “spin.” These messages, while not bad in themselves in balance with others, become our social space. One has to be very aware and actively work to build a healthy mental environment in defense of this assault. Recent research suggests that we humans are built to focus on change, newness and stimulation [future link]. This was, no doubt, a great survival mechanism in prior ages. In our modern society it may be be a major factor leading to our premature demise [future link]. I know that few believe that we can fail as a society. Arrogance comes in all forms. Study the civilizations of the past. Many were quite advanced and sophisticated. All of these prior experiments failed - why do we assume we have it all figured out? Do we really think that we can have three plus billion cars (in their present form) running on this planet within 15 years? [future link]. Do we really believe that we are health now and paying attention to those opportunities and threats that we have created for ourselves? [future link]. There are many different views of what may make a better future. This is as it should be. Yet, let me ask these two questions: How many do you know think that things are just fine? How do you judge the quality of our social discourse in regards understanding where we are and our demonstrated ability in coming to common terms and forging right action? In other words, are we doing the work necessary to secure a viable future for Humanity? [link: a future by design not default].
One reason that authentic [link] architecture is so popular, on that rare occasion when it is created, is that it delivers, on an environmental scale, a complex (a design) of messages that are life facilitating. When most people get into such an environment, they get it. Not knowing what “it” is, and how it is created, when they leave they forget and succumb to the environment that is being manufactured for them and aimed at them - an environment that does not take their self interest and long term health as its primary mission. The reason that I consider domestic architecture to be the most important form of architecture is that it is the opportunity for each individual and family (traditional and extended[future link]) to shape their own environment [future link] according to their own values [future link]. This important branch of architecture has also succumbed to merchandising with most homes being a potpourri of selections from catalogs. Predigested taste.
I believe that one reason that we are seeing a return to religious fundamentalism all over the world is a reaction to the failure of secular society to be aware of the kind of world we are choosing to create given our social, political and economic freedoms. The humanists have let the values debate default to the religious right. This is not healthy for either secular society nor religion and philosophy. I am opposed to the too close linking of religious, political, economic and military power. History shows us the dangers of this. I can understand, however, why so many feel revulsion and threat from the public spaces we are building. They simply do not want to participate in these spaces nor do they wish to have their children exposed to them. I resist legal constraints on what are strictly personal values and actions. It does not follow that anything goes in the commons. If it does, if either side of this debate wins totally - there will be no commons. This is a confused issue. I am always amused when I see ads, run by corporations that are clearly aligned with the conservative movement, showing behaviors that I am sure that those who control these corporations would be distraught if their own children indulged in the ways “glorified” in many of these ads. But, I guess, it sells beer and cars, cigarettes, sugared water and “legal” drugs. I might suggest that it would open the possibility for an improved and effective dialog if all campaign contributors (to all parties) were treated the same and their corporations subjected to the same standards, public “jaw-boning” and economic censure. I realize that only an idealist would suggest such a thing [link]. But there you have it.
I suspect that one reason the iPod is so successful is that it allows one to shape their acoustic space when in public places. This is certainly the major way that I use mine. Yet care is necessary here also. These tools can become just another way to isolate oneself from the public commons - an acoustic equivalent of the heartburn medicine. I “protect” myself and a once viable commons dies by another immeasurable increment. TANSTAAFL. Every choice and act has consequences. This piece is not so much about we individually choice to live - I am too much a libertarian to tell people how to do this - it is about being aware of the choices we each make, their long term, systemic consequences and how they effect us all. I believe if we can increase awareness of the collective consequences of our individual actions, and if we can learn to employ vigorous dialog and true design collaboration, we can solve the problems we face and create the physical and social space for each of us so as to live the life we wish to make for ourselves.
GoTo: Part 2 of 2
Part 2 explores...
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A City Where You Can’t Hear Yourself Scream
Published: April 14, 2008

Who Are We? Coming of Age on Antidepressants
Published: April 15, 2008

How Psychiatry Is Medicating a Nation
Interview with author Charles Barber
Published: April 17, 2008

Chinese Student in U.S. Is Caught in Confrontation
Published: April 17, 2008

Return To Index
Goto: The Nature of Experience
GoTo: A Future by Design Not Default

Matt Taylor
January 3, 2003


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posted: January 3, 2003

revised: April 17, 2008
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(note: this document is about 90% finished)

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Copyright© Matt Taylor 2003, 2005, 2008

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