White noise, the other tech addiction

134163090Among the dumbest pieces of technology in my life is our white noise machine. It is literally stupefying. My wife and I paid $30 for it and would’ve paid ten times that. White noise has us over a barrel, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re over one, too.

The more I investigate this odd little dependency, the more common I discover it is. Chat rooms hash out the perfect models and settings, while the app world churns out ever more variations on the basic idea: a bland, hissing obliteration of any other sound that might interfere with sleep. It started innocently enough, as a mask for competing frequencies — the nearby freeway, a neighbor’s stereo. But I’d argue its purpose has become more insidious and illuminative of the world we live in. Increasingly it’s our own frantic thoughts we seem to be drowning out.

As with many white noise addicts, my wife and I first got ours for our baby. In no time we were hooked. A relaxing trip up the coast would end not with peaceful slumber, but a pair of restless minds whose scattered thoughts were suddenly laid bare. Where an artificial waterfall once bulldozed our mental unquiet into submission, our frenetic rumination could now spiral unchecked.

So what’s new about this? Minds have always been unruly, insomnia always the reward. But research clearly shows that we’re more addled than ever, thanks largely to our sprawling computer use. It’s not hard to trace the thread, from screen time to bedtime: The helpful aspects of technology let us jam more correspondence, work and diversion into our days than ever before. By the time head hits pillow, we’ve checked more off our to-do lists than anyone ever did throughout history. But consequently our engines are running at higher idles than ever. Rather than gradually cycling down at nighttime, our digital habits runs at full tilt till the last minute, at which point we abruptly muffle everything with a fake babbling brook.

So far the science suggests this dependency is harmless, and even beneficial at times. Maybe the worst that can come of a white noise addiction is the occasional withdrawal pains, when we forget to throw the thing in our suitcase. And maybe it’s a sensible solution, given an exploding world population living more and more on top of each other; the need for an illusion of quiet, if not quiet itself, makes sense.

But it’s hard not to wonder whether there’s deeper psychic trouble brewing, if silence is so deafening to our modern ears. Switching on one technology to help soothe the effects of another — it feels a little like swallowing the spider to catch the fly. Which is buzzing so loud I just need a quick hit of “Ocean Waves.” Really, I can stop anytime.

Chris Colin
Chris Colin is the author most recently of What to Talk About, as well as What Really Happened to the Class of '93 and Blindsight, named one of Amazon's Best Books of 2011. He’s written about chimp filmmakers, ethnic cleansing, George Bush’s pool boy, blind visual artists, solitary confinement, the Yelpification of the universe and more for the NewYorker.com, the New York Times Magazine, Outside, Pop-Up Magazine, Wired, Smithsonian, Mother Jones and Afar, where he's a contributing writer. Email him at [email protected]
Chris Colin
Chris Colin
Tags: Downtime,Tech Culture