Three decades ago this year, the electronic band Depeche Mode released the song Enjoy the Silence, one of their biggest hits ever. Chances are that when Martin Gore, the band's main songwriter, penned the song he had little idea that it would become the perfect soundtrack to the lockdowns adopted by so many countries around the world over the past months to slow the spread of coronavirus. Because for the first time a lot of us living in cities have been experiencing a dramatic decrease in noise pollution and therefore enjoying a form of silence on the streets.
You might have been one of the many city dwellers who revelled in this urban silence. For me, sleeping with my windows open and not being woken up by loud people returning from a party in the middle of the night but by birds singing in the morning was a first in Aix-en-Provence, where I stayed part of the time.
Talking about the positive things that have come out of the Covid-19 crisis so far is tricky, to say the least, and could be perceived as insensitive and lacking empathy for those who suffered and still do. Given the death toll and the dramatic consequences in terms of health, economic and society that are ahead of us, it is difficult to truly appreciate any unintended consequence, even if it is beneficial to the environment and our lives.
The decrease in air and noise pollution was significant for a while. Yet, this new found silence has been disorienting, at least at the beginning. Not just because it was a reminder of the seriousness of the Covid-19 situation. But also because we are not used to silence since noise is embedded in urban life, unfortunately.
During my first night walk in the empty city, it felt really strange. It somewhat reminded of an experience I had during a trip I made to Sydney, Australia last summer to spend time with the members of the research team of my company. Our research and development facility is located on the beautiful, and very quiet, Macquarie University campus. Some of the university’s researchers with whom we collaborate to better understand the brain’s auditory system invited us to visit their anechoic chamber. That was an unusual experience.
An anechoic chamber is a room that can absorb all sounds, noises and even electromagnetic waves. Even the floor is a suspended mesh to avoid noise when one walks. These chambers allow us to study our auditory system, to test audio gear and are used by aerospace agencies so their astronauts can be trained to get used to silence in space. Once inside, you can experience true silence – you start hearing the “mechanics” of your own biorhythms.
If you don’t move, you can hear your breathing rhythm, and some report hearing their own heart beat. A lot of people, after a few minutes in an anechoic chamber, can feel dizzy because of the novelty of the experience. How sad that we are so used to noise that we find silence disturbing.
Another reason why the Depeche Mode hit fits so well with the current times is because of the paradox it reminds us: words break the silence. And speaking about the silence itself is no exception.
During the lockdown, noise prevented me from truly appreciating this silent parenthesis. The annoying noise I am referring to is the noise made by echo chambers and digital wildfires. There was the noise made by those who overnight proclaimed themselves experts in epidemiology or crisis management, gurus in working from home or stress and anxiety management.
More recently we have had to suffer the predictions of those who, despite the lack of experience or data, know what “life after” is going to look like. Add to that their supporters and opponents fuelling digital wildfires with fake news and no wonder this noise was unbearable.
Even when we have the best intentions in mind, warning about fake news on social or traditional media means that we are advertising these pieces of fake news. Raising concerns about inaccurate information with a thoughtful message to debunk it constitutes a risk: it can bring this news to the attention of people who may not have heard it otherwise.
A concrete example is when heads of state have been advocating coronavirus treatments that could be dangerous. The person who started the fake news is responsible. But so are those who spread it – even by opposing it they put lives at risk.
For centuries, there has been an ongoing debate regarding whether or not we have free will. One thing for sure is that we have “free won’t”. The power “not to”. Not to comment and share information that is unverified or still under investigation, for example.
Being informed is a human right. But enjoying the silence should also be one. Given how unbearable the noise made by echo chambers has become, I wonder if we could create digital anechoic ones.
Professor Olivier Oullier is the president of Emotiv, a neuroscientist and a DJ