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15 March 2009


low tech writer

I love it when the power goes out. I’m not immune to the inconvenience: I am a computer user after all (note that I don’t publish these essays on parchment paper). But the possibility of a power outage is no real threat to me because I’m a laptop user (built in battery backup, you see), so I never worry about losing work, or even productivity. But if the power does go out, I will save my work, fold my laptop up, and revel in the silence and the dark.

Last year, I was in my favorite coffee shop near my office, Printer’s Cafe in Palo Alto, when the power went out. It was shocking: the overwhelming silence was a major surprise. There was, normally, so much noise in that place–the fridges, espresso machine, blenders, microwave, dishwashers, the general hum of unseen appliances and infrastructure–that the sudden absence of it was almost unnerving. I got tingles. There is a kind of silence that is hard for a city kid or suburbanite to adjust to. It’s heavy. I wish it could be recorded, but like most beautiful things, there’s no real way to capture it.

I love it when the power goes out: I often threaten to throw the circuit breakers in my home because it just doesn’t happen often enough. To light candles and just be in the beautiful glow of little flames and listen to the subtle, natural sounds … wind, footsteps, pages turning. To move from one orange and shadowy space through dark passageways to other orange and shadowy spaces. Of course, this is a treat because we don’t have to live without power the rest of the time. It’s a little unplanned vacation from modernity. I am glad for the conveniences of electricity. But there are always consequences that result from our tireless pursuit of convenience.

Take a mental walk around your work space or living space right now. Where’s that noise coming from? Central air? Refrigerator? Computer fan (or some deeper, subtler electronic movement)? Lamps are always buzzing, whether fluorescent, incandescent or the high-powered kind above streets and blazing behind warehouses. Then there are the radios, televisions, Internet media, and the loud-and-low, primevally-musical thumps and rumbles coming from passing cars, or teenagers’ rooms.

There is an episode of the radio show This American Life, from the end of 2007, which includes a segment on the sounds that surround us. In the episode, reporter Jack Hitt visits Toby Lester, a musician who pays close attention to the ambient noises in his environment. Lester discovered that the sounds of his office heater and telephone dial tone combined to form an “augmented fourth”, a musical interval that has the unfortunate distinction of being described by medieval catholic monks as the “most reviled sound … feared as the diabolus in musica, the devil in the music.” Certainly the monks never imagined a place so terrible as The Office Cubicle, but it would not have surprised them to encounter the devil’s harmonies therein.

Musicians work very hard to combine sounds that are pleasing to the ear, just as artists use light and color to create images to please our eyes. But we live and work in places that could be described as cesspools of noise pollution: most of the noise in our work and home environments is the unintended waste product of technological progress. Our aural experience could be described as collateral damage in the endless campaign to power our lives. The only way to beat the noise is to cover it with some noise of our own choosing–music, or television: noise-isolating earphones are a growth-industry. Sometimes, mercifully, the wind picks up and overpowers the noise inside, briefly masking it. But our homes are well-insulated against nature, and so ensure that we remain prisoners of our comforts for most of the time. We could buy one of those tiny machines that synthetically reproduces natural sounds and rhythms to relax us (ocean waves … gentle rain … mountain storm). Or we could pray for the power to go out.

Sure, the world has always been a noisy place, and not all the noises are pleasant. But Lester notes in the radio spot that we’re the first generation of people to live in an environment with so may appliances steadily droning at us. That, of course, is the difference, when compared to the always changing sounds of nature that have surrounded humans for eons.

Having the power go out and encountering the silence of it, is like the feeling of walking out into the warm sun after a week of being in a sick-bed in a dark room: a little uncomfortable at first, but then you remember something you didn’t even know you’d forgotten.