Relationship Between Silence and Progress


March 31, 2002
National Public Radio


Browse in Technology

I suspect I’m not the only person who read about Father Llopis and thought, ‘Good for him.’ Probably I’m not the only one either who often wished that I, too, could jam the cell phones on a train, in a coffee shop or sometimes just walking down the street. So perhaps it’s time to ask some questions about those cell phones and noise and this strange thing the experts call ‘progress’ and ‘growth.’ I mean, what gives people who use cell phones and the corporations that operate them the right to fill our air with their noise? The air belongs to all of us. So how come those who want to fill it with their yakking and beeping get first dibs, and how come those of us who want to keep the quiet have to suffer in silence?

Here’s another thing. The device the priest used to block the cell phones in his church, it’s not legal in the US. Police departments use them, according to a manufacturer, and probably the Defense Department and the CIA, too, but you and I can’t. Why is it legal to use electronics to fill the air with noise, but not legal to use electronics to reject that noise? Why should those who trespass on our peace go free, while those who try to keep the peace could go to jail? It’s the same with the economy in general. It’s what’s happening with this whole big thing called ‘progress’ and ‘growth.’

Almost every day we get news reports of the nation’s growth. We get those reports right here on this station. When the growth rate is up, we’re all supposed to cheer. But somehow the reporters never stop to ask exactly what is growing and what it’s growing into and what the consequences for our lives and health might be. They need to ask those questions. The noise that assaults us on so many sides is one expression of growth. The economy is growing at the expense of our quiet. That’s not something to applaud, unless you manufacture earplugs, Ritalin or Prozac.

I have a hunch the economy is entering a new phase that the economists haven’t caught on to yet. For over 200 years the challenge was to make more, to do more, to fill up more space. Now increasingly the challenge is to refrain from doing, to leave things alone and, yes, to appreciate the quiet. The “era of progress,” quote-unquote, began when Martin Luther nailed a list of demands to a church door. Just maybe the next phase of progress has started with a device to block cell phones hung inside the church.