In an interview a few years ago, the British writer George Steiner spoke about “the constant din” that surrounds us 24/7 now in this postmodern high-tech world we have created. He was speaking of the need to find silence from time to time, to get away from the constant din of life and find a sane way of living with technology. And Time magazine essayist Pico Iyer later dipped into the subject and wrote a splendid op-ed in the New York Times titled “The Joy of Quiet.”
Steiner was asked by a young woman in the interview: “You have argued that new technologies are a threat to the “silence” and “intimacy” necessary for an encounter with great works.”
Steiner, now in his 80s, replied: ”People are living in a constant din. There is no more night in cities. Young people are afraid of silence. What will become of serious and difficult reading? Is it possible to read Plato while wearing a Walkman? I find this very worrying.”
Iyer, for his part, spoke about how he had read an interview with cutting-edge designer Philippe Starck. What allowed him to remain so consistently ahead of the curve? Iyer asked himself, and then he asked Starck the same question:
“I never read any magazines or watch TV,” Starck told Iyer. “Nor do I go to cocktail parties, dinners or anything like that.” He lived outside conventional ideas, he implied to Iyer, because “I live alone mostly, in the middle of nowhere.”
Iyer also thinks that silence is golden.
“In barely one generation we’ve moved from exulting in the time-saving devices that have so expanded our lives to trying to get away from them — often in order to make more time,” he wrote in the Times. “The more ways we have to connect, the more many of us seem desperate to unplug. Like teenagers, we appear to have gone from knowing nothing about the world to knowing too much all but overnight.”
Pico Iyer knows what the constant din is all about and why it is bad for us. George Steiner has known this all his life.
The average American spends at least eight and a half hours a day in front of a screen, Nicholas Carr wrote in “The Shallows.”
Mr. Carr also knows what the constant din is all about and how damaging it can be. So do important thinkers and writers such as William Powers, Edward Tenner and Emily Bazelon.
“The average American teenager sends or receives 75 text messages a day, although one girl in Sacramento managed to handle an average of 10,000 every 24 hours for a month,” Pico Iyer told us in the Times piece. “The urgency of slowing down –to find the time and space to think — is nothing new, of course, and wiser souls have always reminded us that the more attention we pay to the moment, the less time and energy we have to place it in some larger context.”
“Distraction is the only thing that consoles us for our miseries,” the French philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote in the 17th century, “and yet it is itself the greatest of our miseries.”
Pascal also once said that “all of man’s problems come from his inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Ouch! Oi. He knew about the constant din, too. Perhaps in French he called “le din constant?”
Iyer noted: “We have more and more ways to communicate, as Thoreau noted, but less and less to say. Partly because we’re so busy communicating. And — as he might also have said — we’re rushing to meet so many deadlines that we hardly register that what we need most are lifelines.”
The constant din, 24/7, threatens to do us in! That damn constant din.
So what to do?
Iyer observed that two of his journalist pals observe an “Internet sabbath” every weekend, turning off their online connections from Friday night to Monday morning, “so as to try to revive those ancient customs known as family meals and conversation.”
Iyer also says he friends who try to go on long walks on Sundays, or conveniently “forget” their cellphones at home.
For Iyer, who lives in Japan now with his Japanese wife and his two step-children, he claimed has never once in his life used a cellphone and he’s never Tweeted or entered Facebook. True? Really?
”I try not to go online till my day’s writing is finished, and I moved from Manhattan to rural Japan in part so I could more easily survive for long stretches entirely on foot, and every trip to the movies would be an event,” Iyer said.
Iyer says he’s looking for a kind of postmodern joy that goes beyond the constant din, which a monk named David Steindl-Rast describes as “that kind of happiness that doesn’t depend on what happens.”
Me, I’m looking for a way to put the constant din its place and keep it on a tight leash. We do not need “a constant din.” We need a constant peace. Iyer says it well, and Professor Steiner knows it all too well. We are stressed, stressed, if we don’t keep the constant din at bay.
And it will only get worse, no? As someone said long ago in Latin: “Constantus dinn ergo sum.” Or as Jonathan Rauch said in the Atlantic a few years ago: “Hell is other people at breakfast checking their iPhones.”