Appreciating silence

In The Medium is the Massage, Marshall McLuhan argues that sound is all-surrounding. Print, by contrast, is linear. We follow letters from left to right (or right to left) and piece together their meaning in a sequential fashion.

Sound doesn’t behave in an orderly fashion. It overlaps. It has discrete and indiscrete components. It comes at you from every direction, and doesn’t follow a logical pattern. Just because something is LOUD doesn’t mean it is important. Just because you hear something first doesn’t mean it is a priority. When you read, you’re receiving a carefully constructed narrative. When you listen, you’re taking in the entirety of your environment. That’s the narrative, the context, and a lot of unrelated nonsense. You have to do the heavy lifting of determining what’s essential and what’s… well… noise.

Television and cinema domesticate sound. They tame what you hear, and, more importantly, what you don’t. Constructed audio (and audio-visual) media focus your experience into a single coherent (hopefully) story. The sound is organised on your behalf.

Silence can also disrupt.

Without a doubt, this ad, from FedEx, is one of my very favourites. It ran during the SuperBowl when I was a kid. (Test patterns were a thing then, and, oh god I’m old.) But imagine this running amidst the celebrity bingo and monkey tennis of a ‘normal’ SuperBowl ad break.

Similarly, a few years ago, Forbidden Planet’s Jamie Beeching highlighted the power of the rare and wonderful ‘silent’ comic book. Rather than being a ‘quicker’ read, it forces the reader to concentrate more. And, hell, “Hush” is a stand-out from an otherwise disastrous season of Buffy. Silence, used when you expect noise, can be thundering.

Silence is disruptive because it is rare.

If you’re reading this in an open plan office, you’re being buffeted by a dozen conversations, fragments of music, segments of phone calls, coffee machines, photocopiers, heavy walkers and the occasional sneeze. At home, you’re picking up the shouts from the street, faded TV shows from your neighbours, low-flying planes, traffic, dogs, mating foxes (the worst noise), a humming fridge, a grumpy boiler…

And all of those have nothing to do with you. These are extraneous to whatever narrative you’re actually trying to hear: to the work you’re trying to do, the conversation you’re trying to have, the show you’re trying to watch. It isn’t merely that sound is chaos, it is that most of it is completely irrelevant. We are perpetually filtering. The world is noisy, and it is only getting noisier every single day.

It should therefore come as no surprise that:

These allow us to manage noise, or to block it out entirely. They’re ways of buying silence.

In Darren McGarvey’s Poverty Safari, the author notes how silence was a core feature of public libraries:

As well as not costing any money, the library is one of the few places in a deprived community that is quiet enough to hear yourself think.… A safe and supportive environment where vulnerable people can educate themselves or regroup mentally.

[However there is] Council pressure for libraries to provide more services, in order to justify their survival. This is at odds with this basic, but essential, service.

He goes on to detail how libraries have had to ‘pivot’ to become de facto community centres: offering everything from entertainment to exercise to meeting rooms to childcare - not only to replace other, rapidly disappearing services, but also to continue their own existence.

Unsurprisingly, there’s been a corresponding rise in private libraries. The primary feature of a private library, according to the Chair of the Association of Independent Libraries is that ‘many of those joining independent libraries are drawn by the offer once seen as core to public libraries — a hushed, calm retreat centred on books.’

Silence is now a luxury.

As marketers, we’re part of the problem. We strive for ‘share of voice’. We literally measure ourselves on how loudly we shout and how many people hear us. We look to interrupt and disrupt; devise new schemes to ‘reach’ new audiences with our messaging. We have entire strategies around generating buzz. There are awards for it - like creating an irritating hum is something to celebrate. We’ve confusing our ability to shout with a consumer’s choice to listen. We strive for volume, but call it ‘awareness’. Somewhere along the way we tricked ourselves into believing not only that nature abhors a vacuum, but that it is our solemn duty to suck as loudly as possible.

What if we just shut up?

Have you ever been in a tube station when the ads are being changed over? It is surprisingly peaceful. And, even better, you realise that, holy shit, this is a really lovely building? The station is bigger and lighter. It is quieter. How can we make creative work that is as rewarding as its absence?

This feels like a fundamental benchmark. Is our poster actually any better than the blank wall behind it? Are we creating an experience that is as pleasant - or as appreciated - as simply not bothering the consumer in the first place? If not, are we really doing the brand - or our audience - any favours?

Speaking of noise:

  • I recently spoke at the Cultural Insights Forum, on the topic of ‘Why the Working Class Turned Blue’ (Conservative, that is - not very, very cold). Thanks to everyone that turned out. There are videos, I believe, of all the (non-me) speakers, and I highly recommend pouncing on them. In the absence of video evidence, I’ll try to type up my presentation on ‘the folks who have given up faith in the system entirely’ for a future newsletter. It is very cheery.

  • Also a lecture at Oxford Brookes on ‘Visual Storytelling’. Again, something that needs to be written up. But if you’d like the examples I used, without any context whatsoever, go wild. I’m not saying those are all good ads (or even ads I particularly like), but they were all a lot of fun to discuss.

  • Next month: back at Oxford Brookes (for the post-graduate crowd) and Bath (different topic, but I’ll probably still show the FedEx ad).

  • And beyond: The Best of British Fantasy is in excellent shape for publication in springtime. I’ve somehow bagged pieces on two of my favourite books (Lonesome Dove and Condominium) for two different projects, so if you’re a fan of post-revisionist Westerns and/or disaster fiction… Watch this space?

  • And I may have a semi-regular(?) column(?!) soon(?!?!)

And two reading recommendations:

  • Susan Wolfe’s Escape Velocity: A con artist goes straight and gets a job in Silicon Valley. Winds up using her powers for good, as she tries to keep the company afloat. Absolutely should be a Netflix series.

  • Winifred Watson’s Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. So sweet! Only slightly racist (good for 1938), and utterly adorable.

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