the politics of noise in historical perspective

I blogged last week about the micro-politics of noise. I didn’t put a great deal of thought into the use of the qualifier ‘micro’: I recognised a legal framework within which noise is regulated (or not), a structural context which shapes working routines, technological changes which create capacities and tendencies towards noise generation and a cultural context which mediates and shapes our responses to ‘noise’. But I’d just assumed the questions I was addressing, matters of right and obligation that emerge through our everyday interdependence and that elude final resolution, must in some sense be confined to the micro-social. Not that these considerations wouldn’t factor into, say, policy-making but that they’d be secondary. It hadn’t occurred to me that there could be a social movement emerging out of this micro-politics. But there was one and it’s really interesting. As Evgeny Morozov explains,

Vienna is perhaps the most interesting example. Whenever the anti-din advocates — led by German intellectual Theodor Lessing— called for individual reforms, they were mostly unsuccessful. However, their struggle was not in vain, for through public debate they turned quietness into a leading indicator of urban life quality and firmly established it as a challenge for city councils. Or, as historian Peter Payer notes, “by changing public awareness of the acoustic environment, their endeavours influenced not only the way that urban peace was to be restricted, but also how this space was to be perceived and used by the people living in the city.” And even though many of Lessing’s proposals sound eccentric – he wanted a professional, centralized rug-beating service to do all the work in some restricted area and for people to play musical instruments with their windows closed – many others sound quite reasonable even today, such as “the use of rubber tyres and quieter paving materials to dampen the cacophony of vehicular traffic, the careful packaging of freight shipped through cities to cushion it from rattling and banging, and the construction of schools in public gardens and forest preserves to ensure the tranquil atmosphere needed for learning.”

To Save Everything, Click Here pg. 222

What I find particularly interesting is that these ambitions were tied into a broader commitment to socialism and feminism. There’s always a faint hint of the reactionary around noise complaints. At least that’s my perception. As if to seek systematic regulation of noise somehow puts one in opposition to technological change. I’d like to read more about these historical noise campaigns, with other examples including the Anti-Noise League in the UK in the 1930s and the Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary Noise, to understand how they conceived of their objectives as a movement. To what extent was it seen as creating social norms to regulate new technology?

Given the revolution in our personal capacity to generate noise in recent years – I say while surrounded by an iPhone, an iPad, a portable speaker and sitting at a desktop computer – I wonder what a comparable movement would look like now? Is it even feasible? How has the noise in question changed and the meaning it has for those producing the noise? I’m particularly interested in whether the use of music to isolate oneself within public space, creating a zone of immersion through volitional noise, has historical precedents or if it’s something radically new which simply wasn’t technologically possible until relatively recently.