When famous violinist Joshua Bell performed at a D.C. Metro station a few years ago, he received no fanfare. In fact, no one seemed to notice. For over an hour he played before a constant stream of pedestrians. Bach’s “Caconne,” Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” Ponce’s “Estrellita” — the world’s most famous music, played by a master violinist. A thousand people passed during that hour. Not a single person stopped to listen.
Next time you venture across campus, D.C. or most any city, take a moment to listen. You’ll hear noise, sure. But rarely will you hear a single melodic note. Instead of walking in the midst of music, we walk into a medley of incoherent, ambient noise.
What’s more, often we don’t even hear the sounds. The shuffling of busy feet, rustling of trees and whirring of passing cars — we catalogue it all as extraneous and filter it from our immediate senses. Most of our environment — seemingly pedestrian and commonplace — is purified before we notice.
But if we ignore most of the world around us, can we still find natural beauty? The problem is that we live in a white-noise world. Thus, most of the music of life is absorbed by the landscape around us. We don’t hear it simply because we choose not to.
By turning off our environment receptors, we do more than filter out noise. We eliminate the common human experience. We miss the meaning and import of our context. We purposefully make life mundane. All the while, things of a higher order fall on deaf ears.
In the meantime, we prefer to pick our own background noise. The iPod (or any other personal music player) gives us access to a precise list of personal favorites, saved and categorized. Then, by plugging those ubiquitous, thin white cords directly into our brains, we can tune in music and tune out everything else.
Almost exactly one year ago, The Atlantic columnist Llewellyn Hinkes-Jones wrote about this phenomenon in an article entitled “In an iTunes Age, the Case for Vinyl.” Hinkes-Jones argues that the modern iPod is the epitome of antisocial behavior. Through personal devices, we make music — which evolved as a communal form of expression — into a decidedly asocial activity.
There is beauty in the fact that technology allows us to orchestrate a personalized, mobile symphony of sorts. But we have to wonder if self-defeating shallowness prevails, especially when we pick Lady Gaga, Kanye West or Taylor Swift as soundtracks of choice.
The relatively new addition of the smartphone deceives us even further. These devices, created to cater, do that and nothing more; they serve our personal and private interests, never pushing us to experience the extra background noise as we go through our day-to-day routines. In place of the real symphonies around us, we inundate ourselves with distractions we choose for ourselves. It’s scary that we laugh at The Onion headline, “Area Man Somehow Endures Harrowing Entertainment-Free Commute.” Are we really that dependent on distractions?
The answer is probably yes, judging by the flicker of phone lights in every class, theater and Metro car. But it’s also more than just an attention-deficit problem. How much do we really absorb even when we’re actually trying to focus? With all the glassy eyes and open Facebook pages in a given class, it’s a fair question. Ultimately, we do engage — and often times in exciting, stimulating and quite beautiful ways — but the depth of our concentration has changed.
There’s a lack of active listening in almost everything we do. Popular first-person phrases are sprinkled into every conversation: “I think,” “I feel,” “I wonder” and “I’m curious.” This form of participation features a peculiar lack of external engagement. Not every answer comes from within.
All of this describes something more than just tunnel vision — an oft-repeated, somewhat trite characterization. We’re quick to internalize, personalize and preference, but slow to realize, expand and extrapolate.
The result is a void. We’re missing out on the stuff that makes any place interesting, exciting and unique. We’re missing out on the ripples, the melodies and most importantly, the meaning of life. Did you notice?
Michael Meaney is a senior in the School of Foreign Service and Matthew Hoyt is a senior in the College. They are the president and director of communications of the Georgetown University Student Association, respectively. THE STATE OF NATURE appears every other Tuesday.