On Noise

This orig­i­nally appeared on mis​ter​agye​man​.blogspot​.com on September 17, 2014.

Space. The trotros have got me think­ing about space a lot these days.

Stars are in space. Stars are balls of fire. There are as many of them as there are grains of sand on the beach. So why don’t we see them in a body like we do the beach? It’s not a ques­tion we often ask – I just told myself those star-stud­ded skies in movies were fake- but some very smart people have wor­ried over this. They have a long, com­pli­cated answer, which boils down to this- stars fur­ther back shine less light than stars in front. And because they aren’t evenly dis­trib­uted and static, this means that some never get a chance to show their glory to us. Stars seem to be okay with this. Humans could­n’t be; we keep a list of areas lit brightly enough to be seen from beyond our atmosphere.

Civilization is all about inter­ac­tions, and space is a big factor in our inter­ac­tions. But in every system there’s inef­fi­cien­cies. So let’s divide inter­ac­tions into ‘com­mu­ni­ca­tion’ and ‘noise’.

Noise is use­less sound and wasted energy. Sometimes we speak of ‘joyful noise’, but gen­er­ally we accept that noise is not a good thing. It might be bad because of the con­text, or in rela­tion to the envi­ron­ment, or just because it’s nasty. Flies are nasty. I’ll fight with anyone who dis­agrees with that.

Why would you? There’s ‘vomit’ in its sci­en­tific name.

But I use the word ‘noise’ in a wider sense. We can be noisy in space, or in appear­ance, or in rela­tion to others. Even ideas can be noisy, I think. If any com­mu­ni­ca­tion escapes its pur­pose, I call it noise. A shade of lip­stick might be loud, as may a manifesto.

I recently saw two gen­er­a­tors- one of the big, pow­er­ful ones in the pro­fes­sional yellow uni­form, and one of the dinky little ones that would strug­gle to power two-and-half scoot­ers. There was a steady roar in the area – sounded like a fifty-foot giant; nat­u­rally every­body assumed it was the big yellow guy. Turns out, it was the young blood. The roar was its main con­cern; elec­tric­ity was a small by-prod­uct. I’m con­vinced that if it could be per­suaded to con­cen­trate and just gen­er­ate power, it could save Mahama’s government.

We talk a lot about effi­ciency when dis­cussing machines, but not so much when deal­ing with life. It’s gen­er­ally accepted that every­thing is better when it’s stream­lined. Athletes have engi­neers and sci­en­tists fig­ur­ing out how to help them improve air­flow, but the human is still tempted to trust power more than tech­nique. We are built in a way that puts our cen­ters of grav­ity high up. Ideally, one would assume every­thing would be a sort of ball. The fly is a ball, but it wastes so much power buzzing. The amoeba doesn’t – but then it’s amoeba.

So as sys­tems get bigger, we can assume that their waste grows expo­nen­tially larger. Fine. Humans are pretty com­pli­cated sys­tems. Social inter­ac­tion and self-image are gov­erned by one of the sys­tems within us. Ever noticed how people are more likely to scratch them­selves when they are dozing off? It’s an invol­un­tary action, so your con­scious­ness get over­rid­den. Once that first action gets through, your body uses the window of oppor­tu­nity to do other uncool things that it has wanted to do for a while. In troskis this phe­nom­e­non keeps slap­ping you in the face. It’s bad enough when people catch a cough­ing fit – but then they start groom­ing them­selves. I try to for­give them, though it is hard when nose-pick­ing is involved. Anyway. Point is, we seem to lose feed­back from our envi­ron­ments when a prob­lem requires a self­ish solu­tion. I know what a total slob I become when I’m sick.

But we are not always sick. Our work as civ­i­lized people is to elim­i­nate every­thing we cannot jus­tify. Everybody says funeral DJs play their music too loud. They do, and for self­ish rea­sons; every gig is an adver­tise­ment for the next. But night­clubs are equally loud- because it makes people lean into each other to speak, cre­ates inti­macy. Then movies have to be loud – now they master for sur­round the­atres, which is why the gun­fire is loud and the dia­logue is barely audi­ble – but they have to be, because how else will you feel it? Then music has to get louder to show it’s get­ting richer; we call it crescendo!

In this way, noise becomes short­hand for emo­tion and organic interaction.

With close friends, all you need to do is squeeze a shoul­der, or raise an eye­brow. That’s the prob­lem with noisy living; it sac­ri­fices inti­macy. The same things that we fight for random face­less people to pre­serve for us on the Internet, we sac­ri­fice in our cher­ished Real World. When you shout some­thing, you auto­mat­i­cally include every­body within earshot. My eigh­teen inches are mine; that’s the unspo­ken Golden Rule of per­sonal space. Any sound that invades that space when it isn’t meant for me – that is litter. Everybody has a right to resent other peo­ple’s litter.

Eco-estates are a new thing now, a rebrand­ing of the vil­lage cul­ture for the over-clut­tered 21st Century middle-class. One of their fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ples deals with pop­u­la­tion den­sity: they aim for an aver­age max­i­mum of five people per hectare. That’s more per­sonal space than I think I need, but it’s an inter­est­ing con­cept. As humans we are aware of how we are per­ceived by others; this influ­ences our appear­ance, our opin­ions, our actions. It just takes a little more con­sid­er­a­tion to begin to con­sider if we are also broad­cast­ing per­cep­tions which aren’t really part of us; our loud­ness, our brash­ness, our this-is-what-I-am-ness. Because what you are is what you are. What people see is what you put in their space.

I have to think about this stuff because I mis­trust my abil­ity to judge social cues; I can’t rely on organic feed­back to adjust on the fly. That means I have to work to achieve a stan­dard pro­jec­tion of myself that doesn’t dis­turb the major­ity. It’s hard work for me. I’m a loud and con­trary person; I like to plead that this is because I’m the last kid in a big family. But it is enjoy­able work. It’s nice to get your space to your­self, know­ing – or believ­ing, which may be all we get – that every­thing is tucked neatly within it. It is the sat­is­fac­tion of spring clean­ing, spread all over your life.

There are exam­ples we can look to. The earthy colours of our tra­di­tional clothes aren’t entirely cir­cum­stan­tial; in a way, rural life teaches you to be unob­tru­sive, to be in har­mony with nature. Then we have Oriental cul­tures, where most overt ges­tures are assumed to be con­scious and mean­ing­ful. They say almost all busi­ness­men in Japan wear dark-blue suits. Some fash­ion mag­a­zine claims, some cen­turies back, one English lord made the happy dis­cov­ery that this colour is often darker than black. Already this hap­pens in most urban cul­tures, till the tie and socks may be a male worker’s only chance for colour­ful self-expres­sion. But why do we need colours to speak for us?