Saturday, January 3, 2009

Come on, feel the noise.

WB recently had a chance to eat "road food" for several days in Chicago. Three of those meals were at restaurants that offered dim lights, soft music overhead, and $100 wine lists — the strongest possible cues that diners should relax, slow down, and speak quietly over their dinners. A fourth meal was at Subway, where lights blazed harshly, a staff of seven worked behind a busy counter unseparated from the "dining" area, and $2 drinks came from bottles in a cooler by the cash register.

Of the four, the Subway experience was the most peaceful and relaxing.

Even Amtrak, that hulking, greasy, clacking monster of mass transportation, understands that there are still some people who enjoy quiet. For the past ten years the railroad has offered a Quiet Car on many of its northeast corridor trains, and frequent commuters who know about it cherish the chance to travel without having to hear every cellphone detail about the lives of other passengers, the loud public corrections of kids by parents who wouldn't be yelling if they knew what they were doing, and a soundtrack of a dozen competing laptops blaring separate DVDs without headphones.

Of course, not everyone agrees that Quiet Cars are a good idea. And fewer and fewer of us appear to agree that a quiet meal at a quiet restaurant is a good thing, either. The demise of quiet is directly connected to the demise of privacy — the antiquated notion that we're entitled to keep certain information about ourselves to ourselves — and the result is a fascinating study in pathological conflict. We spend hundreds of dollars on computer software to protect our identities, then use the computers to splash those identities all over the Internet on Myface/Spacebook. We get up in arms when the government wants to know where we are and what we're doing, then update Twitter and our AIM status messages a dozen times a day to let everyone else know the same thing. We build houses with tiny entrances in front but massive decks out back so that the neighbors won't get into our business at home, then conduct our business publicly via bluetooth everywhere else.

All of the hyperconnectedness is accompanied by a steady slide into visual illiteracy when we no longer recognize or understand the signs — semiotic or linguistic — hinting at how we should comport ourselves. A candle-lit restaurant table is taken as a sign to talk at twice the volume to make up for the darkness; a sign saying "Quiet Please" somehow indicates that whoever put it there is a jerk and that all objections to it should be registered at top volume.

WB saw an estimate recently that world population probably reached seven billion some time around New Year's Day, 2009 — a couple of days ago. Things are definitely getting crowded now as the locusts steadily chomp their way through the last of the crop fields. But at least Subway offers some sanctuary from all the noise.

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