23 April, 2011

Sodcasting: more prevalent, and more serious, than you thought

I was interviewed this week for a BBC Radio 4 programme on sodcasting (the programme will be broadcast in the UK on Tuesday June 14 at 1330) and it's made me think more deeply about the issue.

Sodcasting is defined by the online urban dictionary as "the act of playing music through the speaker on a mobile phone, usually on public transport. Commonly practiced by young people wearing polyester, branded sportswear with dubious musical taste".

I think we need to widen the definition from the much-berated hoodies on the bus genus (let's call this form territorial sodcasting, because it's very akin to dogs and lamp posts in its motivations) to include all thoughtless inflicting of noise on other people. One person's 'dubious musical taste' (aka noise) is another person's delight. It's well documented in field trials that those same teens who enjoy tinny renditions of N-Dubz or Eminem find the public playing of classical music unbearable enough to move away from it, which is why it is deployed at over 100 London tube stations and in many other places around the UK to move them on and to reduce vandalism. So is that state sodcasting

This wider definition brings in some many other perpetrators; though far less obvious than the gang at the back of the bus, they can be equally annoying to those around them.

I tweeted the other day in real pain from a quiet airport lounge where around 30 people, all modestly and sensitively minding their business and controlling their noise, were forced to listen to one end of a phone conversation from a man who clearly thought he had to speak loudly enough to reach the UK from Germany without the help of modern technology. While most people murmur into their phone in public, dismayed by the very idea they could be overheard in an unintended bond of intimacy with those around them, there is a breed (is this perhaps genetic?) who unashamedly broadcast like this without a shred of awareness of their imposition on their neighbours. I think we can call this white collar sodcasting. (One even more irritating refinement of this behaviour is pacing, especially with a wired headset: the unwanted conversation swells and fades with predictable frequency, so that the dread of its certain return compounds one's simple irritation into a sort of exquisite torture.)

Then there's in-car sodcasting (or should that be ex-car sodcasting?), a practice taken to the extreme with insane 20,000 watt car stereo systems, but sadly perpetrated all over the world by enthusiastic amateurs who confuse their ability aggressively to dominate other people's soundscape with their self worth. These are not the same thing, guys. Please get some therapy, grow up and enjoy your music in private, with the windows up.

And there's more... what about mechanical sodcasting? In my book I quote the estimate from the EU noise mapping project that one noisy scooter driving through Paris in the middle of the night can wake as many as 200,000 people. That's a major piece of sodcasting! Its less impressive but far more widespread relatives include leaf blowers, hedge trimmers, power tools and the like.

We're not done yet. Domestic sodcasting, aka neighbour noise, is a major social issue, and it kills people. Not the noise itself, but the ensuing arguments, which (especially when added to alcohol and firearms) have all too often ended in murder. Just last month there was the tragic case of a man who strangled his own daughter in a row about TV noise, but there are so many of these sad events, including the famous 2008 case of the Cleveland fireman who shot dead three people because of firework party noise. Duration, repetition and intensity are all aggravating factors in these disputes.

Which brings us to the big one: commercial sodcasting. I don't mean sodcasting for money: thankfully I don't believe there is any money to be made by imposing unwanted noise on people. I do mean commercial organisations thoughtlessly broadcasting noise of all kinds. That's thoughtless as in completely unconscious (noisy vehicles, chiller cabinets in supermarkets and corner shops, squeaking trolleys, checkout beeps) – and equally, thoughtless as in conscious but unconcerned with the consequences (mindless music in shops, restaurants and other public spaces). I have blogged elsewhere about the commercial pressures for this latter practice: the music industry is desperate for the cash and public performance is a rare revenue growth area. In most cases, shops play pop music for no better reason than that every other shop does it too. It's become a meme.

Fortunately for pressure groups like PipeDown and their high-profile proponents such as Daniel Bahrenboim and Peter Maxwell-Davis, the science shows that companies can make more money by designing appropriate, pleasing soundscapes for commercial spaces (just like aural wallpaper, and including careful acoustic design) than by playing pop everywhere. We can therefore hope that the mindless music meme will die out soon.

The motives for these various forms of sodcasting may differ, but there are two necessary factors in all cases. First, lack of listening. As I have recently said in my TEDxDanubia talk, people are losing the habit of listening to the world, and especially to other people – and if you don't listen, you simply are not so conscious of the effects of your own noise on others. Second, lack of empathy. In my view this is directly related to the first factor: if we don't listen to one another, we won't understand one another's realities and so we can't empathise so well. I suspect it may also be a by-product of the modern, Internet version of connectedness: we choose to care about the friend we're on the phone to, while ignoring completely the effects of our loud conversation on the people sitting right next to us. Perhaps our empathy is becoming selective and routed through the web, instead of naturally being bestowed on the human beings around us.
The solution? Legislation is not the answer, and nor is citizen power, as anyone who has ever approached a sodcaster to ask them to stop will know all too well. I believe the heart of the solution is in teach listening skills in schools. If we teach our children how to listen properly to the world, and especially to each other, they will understand the consequences of their own sound and be far more responsible in making it. Sodcasting is a symptom of societal deafness. Let's collectively open our ears and start being responsible for our sound environment.

13 April, 2011

Wind pain?

Whilst renewables are clearly essential in so many ways, it's vital that we understand all their effects, positive and negative. Giant wind turbines have three downsides, of which potentially the most serious is noise. 

The first downside is visual. Anyone who's visited Denmark can testify to the visual blight huge turbines create. This can of course be overcome by offshoring or placing in sensitive locations - though wind does usually demand prominence.

The second is ecological. I am not an expert but I believe some birds are being killed (though at the moment the numbers appear to be small compared to, say, deaths from domestic cats), and it seems likely that ecosystems are being disrupted in other ways. This is not my field but I'm sure there are effects and that people are investigating them.

The third downside is aural. The noise of those giant blades can be loud and can travel a long way from the turbine: people living up to 2 km away have reported disturbance, with predictable effects on sleep and elevated levels of stress and annoyance. The World Forum for Acoustic Ecology regularly has discussions of the topic for anyone interested - you can join here - and there is also a growing body of academic research. An expert panel review in 2009 (sponsored by the wind turbine manufacturers) found no adverse health effects though it did admit that annoyance results – rather disingenuously the panel concluded that 'annoyance is not a disease'. This ignores the findings of the WHO that long-term exposure to noise, working through the mechanism of stress and annoyance produced, does lead to increased incidences of many diseases, including heart attacks, strokes, gastric issues, depression and more. 

The evidence against wind turbines is patchy, maybe because the big bucks from industry are all paying for evidence that supports wind energy. Dr Nina Pierpoint's book Wind Turbine Syndrome may have been based on a small sample, but we should not dismiss collections of individual, qualitative evidence, and it does seem that she is becoming a magnet for a growing, though still small, number of personal testimonies of major negative noise effects from around the world. I know from my years studying the effects of sound that in general very few people complain about noise: for example, noisy shops could claim (just like the wind industry does) that nobody complains, implying that there is no problem – and yet many retailers are losing up to 30% of potential sales as people leave the store faster or don't even enter, often without being conscious of the reason for their behaviour. We have become used to suppressing noise, so it should come as no surprise that there are few complaints about wind turbine noise. This does not mean there are no adverse effects.

Giant turbines, especially the older ones, create two sounds in my experience: a tearing sound as the blades rip through  and also a thumping bass sound, both of which are not constant and therefore are probably as irritating as a dripping tap (though much louder) and as hard to ignore. Research shows that sound we can't control, and particularly regular, intermittent sound like this, is the most annoying and affecting. There is also the possibility that infrasound (ultra low frequency noise) is in play, though the jury is out on this whole topic. Much more impartial research is needed to defuse the current pro v anti posturing, where individual campaigners like Dr Pierpoint claim devastating effects and industry consultants like Dr Geoff Leventhall dismiss any negative effect at all. I suspect the truth, as so often, lies somewhere in the middle. It would be odd if high energy, low frequency vibrations did not affect human beings in some way given that we're entirely composed of vibrating matter, though probably some people are more susceptible than others, just as with audible noise. Dr Pierpoint wants a 2 km gap betwen turbines and people's houses. This may be on the high side, but from my experience I can say that I would definitely not want to live close to one, and certainly not within 1 km, whatever the pro-wind research says.

For wind turbines, the phenomenon of super-additivity (cross-modal effects where one sense multiplies the effects of a stimulus in another) seems to be in play, and is an issue which has not yet been addressed by any of the research I have seen. The visual pollution seems to be making people more sensitive to the aural; the annoyance factor seems to vary with the context, for example the profile of the location, with rural areas and hilly or rocky terrain increasing the likelihood of annoyance.

It's a balancing act of course... each energy source has its pros and cons, but it is important we know what they are before diving in head first, as the Japanese experience with nuclear power has just shown: industry experts were categorical that Fukushima was earthquake-proof when it was constructed, and they were wrong. In the UK there are now such large incentives for farmers to erect turbines that it pays for them not to farm land and instead to lease it for wind power; once erected, these things are not so easy to remove. The noise effects are as yet unclear, so I do believe we urgently need to know far more about this before we cover our countryside with wind farms.

Posted via email from Julian Treasure's posterous

04 April, 2011

My Thinking Digital talk

Last year I had the great pleasure of speaking at Thinking Digital, Herb Kim's brilliant tech visionary conference in Newcastle (or to be more precise Gateshead). It was a fantastic experience and I realise that I have never posted a link to the video. I hope that the embed code inside this post will give access here. Just in case that doesn't work, you can see the talk on the Thinking Digital website here.

Posted via email from Julian Treasure's posterous