Editor's Note: Noise
“In the age of media facts are generally defined by their signal-to-noise ratio.”
––Friedrich Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter
“Noise is the things that are not yet known, meaning that it is the future,”
At thirteen, my friends and I taped halves of ping-pong balls over our eyes and plugged our ears with white noise. If you denied yourself all sensory stimuli, we had read online, your mind would fill in the gaps, sculpting fuzzy audio and blurred light into all kinds of sights and sounds.
We needed the white noise for this exercise because ears adapt. When the room goes quiet, you start to hear the whirring of the air conditioner and the hums of lamps and radiators. You drag audio signals out of the sonic backdrop in order to have something to fill up your ear canals. Silence is relative––there’s always something more to hear. There’s a room somewhere in Ohio where they suck all the sound out, as if you could vacuum it up. Your ears adjust; you start to hear the behavior of your own organs. If you sit in there long enough, you’ll go mad listening to blood make its way through your body.
Since we’ve been working on this issue, I’ve been paying attention to the acoustics of rooms where people gather. In the Harvard Art Museums’ atrium, like in most atria, the ceilings are so high and the stone so absorptive that sound diffuses into auditory mist at a five-foot radius. The air feels thick with the cancelled noise of the conversation next to you. In every bar where you have to shout, you will eventually forget you’re shouting. There are quiet cafés where you feel yourself being overheard, where you can hear your voice striking the ear drums of others and it sounds terrible. Most restaurants play music to help you avoid this.
Noise lives a double life. It’s the random fluctuations in the background, where voices and images are born and where they go to die. It is also the car alarm, the lawnmower, the kid crying on a plane where you can’t get away and can’t make it stop. It tends to get between you and whatever you actually want to be hearing. “Noise is unwanted sound,” says the collective voice of Wikipedia’s legion of anonymous editors, speaking from the digital abyss.
These pages are home to a silent unwanted uproar. They are dedicated to sights and sounds neglected, to everything that reaches your eyes or ears but still evades notice. This issue of The Harvard Advocate tries to listen.