Technology and the tragedy of quiet as a commons

Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash
Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash

This post is about noise. It follows us everywhere, and there are lots of it.

I am writing this in the middle of Melbourne at an open-plan office where the floors above and the property next door have been renovated for months. Drilling, grinding, banging, hacking, boring, buzzing, sawing.

On a mission to quiet down

One of my former colleagues used to carry his noise-cancelling headphones around almost religiously. Sometimes when he was wearing them, I had to knock on his desk to get his attention. The headphones were his shield against the endless auditory distractions in the corporate office.

I recently ordered a second-hand pair off the internet, in a true keeping-up-with-the-Joneses fashion. Boy, are they a revelation – I now understand why the marketing geniuses decided to call them ‘QuietComfort’.

These headphones offer you temporary solace from the endless barrage of noise in our modern environments. As a bonus, I can now turn my listening volume down instead of up, since the background noise is so well attenuated.

I have bought back a little sliver of quiet. But there’s more to pay.

The inflation of noise pollution

technology has been creating new problems for society far more rapidly than it has been solving old ones.

The prehistoric man never needed noise-cancelling headphones. These headphones are a technological solution to a problem that we have created ourselves, through technological innovation and evolution of social structures.

it becomes difficult or impossible for an individual to function without using that technology.

Imagine if everyone was wearing noise-cancelling headphones. The ambulance and police sirens would be even louder still, the transport announcements would have higher volume, the pedestrian crossings would click at you more angrily. This is the inflation of noise pollution.

Tragedy of the commons

Let’s consider quiet a commons, a shared resource, not privately owned.

What happens when:

  • a tenant keeps up the whole floor with their late-night party music
  • a driver revs down the residential street in the morning hours
  • a businessman takes off over a suburb in a private jet or helicopter
  • a public transport authority is force-feeding commuters irrelevant, loud video advertising on the train platforms.

In each case the noisy offender can easily control how and when they create the noise, yet it is very difficult for the community to protect against it.
In each case the noisy offender gets the benefit and the community is left with the cost.
Hardly equitable, is it? This is the tragedy of the commons.

More noise; less freedom

technology is by far the more powerful social force and continually encroaches on freedom through repeated compromises.

Thus the system can move in only one direction, toward greater technologization. Technology repeatedly forces freedom to take a step back, but technology can never take a step back

Being able to walk around, wander and think in quiet is a form of freedom that once upon a time could be taken for granted. However, this freedom is being continuously eroded by the unyielding technologisation of our world, especially in cities.

This development appears to be a one-way road. The noise-cancelling headphones are but one step.


The quotes are from Theodore Kaczynski’s 1995 essay Industrial Society and Its Future. I can’t endorse Kaczynski’s mission or methods; however, his criticism of technology was quite apt and prescient, especially for 1995.

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Author: Jussi

Design and experience. Creating something meaningful.