Silence and technology

Is silence the absence of sound and noise or is it something palpable, a substance, a “being”? Max Picard approached silence as a phenomenon and elicits in his reflective fashion all the characteristics of silence as real and independent. Like Heidegger, Picard presents silence as ultimately leading us to the issue of technology, for the noxious sounds and noises of modern technology suggest that the issue of silence is more pressing than ever.

In part the issue is pressing because silence is related to an internal psychological disposition or state. Meditation works best in ambient silence because it represents emptiness or nothingness, and the goal of meditation is to bring the mind into this state of being. There are meditation centers and old churches, etc., in large cities that must function with background sounds of emergency vehicles, the murmur of traffic, and occasional voices punctuating the air. But this is of necessity and clearly not optimal. Noise represents a deprivation of privacy, and is today paralleled by the increasing alienation from nature that urban children experience — and adults as well.

But the pace and scale of technology alone does not influence our view of silence or lack of it. Our perception of space has changed with the twentieth century, as our conceptions of outer space define black holes and dead stars and the enormous flux of energy. Silence is the absence of vibrating frequencies, we may say, and noise is disturbed energy. But silence is the nature and primordial being of space, and vibrating frequencies represent activity, not being, becoming not the substratum of what is. Modern technology has had the inadvertent effect of highlighting these facts, or indeed demonstrating them.

The pace and scale of modern technology is intended to disassemble not only privacy but independence of self, as it organizes and groups what is autonomous into what is controllable. Whether it be control of the atom and energy in the nuclear bomb to the manipulation of consumerism in electronic media to destruction of nature through highways and urban sprawl — modern technology is pressing the individual into a psychological and social confine. Silence is the enemy of modern technology and those who benefit from it. Silence is exterminated by increasing technology and its technology-dependent products and circumstances.

Silence frightens many people. They are content with the buzzing sounds of society around them and within them. It reassures them that they are not alone, that they will not see or sense the yawning emptiness that is reality. I don’t mean emptiness is any nihilistic sense. Whatever your tradition or philosophy, the universe is all the same stuff in different modes and manifestations. I only mean that many people don’t want to acknowledge this interconnectedness, this identity of all beings in a single reality, because it drives out the meaningfulness of their lives. Their lives are without meaning, dependent on contrivance, technology, the interplay of society and noise. Silence reminds us of this contrivance and puts radical thoughts in our heads.

Silence is the fullness of being. To enter silence is to enter fullness of self. As we disengage ever more from contrivance into solitude, from artificial culture into reflection and self-consciousness, we befriend silence.