The New York Times is ratcheting up its onslaught. As of the first week of January, the paper was featuring not one, but two articles about escaping our noisy modern world, simultaneously. They’re still bouncing around Facebook and Twitter. Pico Iyer contributed “The Joy of Quiet,” and Nick Bilton resolved to “Enjoy The View Without Help From An iPhone” in 2012.
These are, ultimately, ethical arguments, but they don’t do any ethical work. They don’t influence people’s behavior, other than maybe convincing East Coast readers to vacation in California. Dealing with sensory overload is the cost of doing business for both men. They’re journalists, and they have to keep up with plenty of information streams. Neither article suggests the author is going to change careers; Pico Iyer may appreciate the company of monks, but writing political analyses of Asia Minor suits him just fine. So, on one level, these authors are just arguing that it’s useful to take short daily breaks, and to go on vacation, which nobody would dispute.
Since “searching for quiet” is a standard topic, you have to dig a layer deeper to see what is new(-ish) here. Iyer’s article, quite honestly, begins with the fact that “quiet” is now a focus for marketers. He just doesn’t realize that his column is helping their sales pitch. It ends with Iyer talking to an exec from MTV, who is also on vacation; Iyer never addresses the obvious hypocrisy. If both guys are so keen on quietness, why work for MTV? Isn’t that contributing to our national overstimulation? Iyer talks about resorts where there’s no Internet, no cell reception. He doesn’t realize that the appeal has nothing to do with guests who lack discipline, and everything to do with self-selection. The guests come in order to enjoy a “retreat” with other people as rich and exhausted as themselves.
Bilton is promoting a new book on creativity, which suggests taking time each day for daydreams. In isolation, this is a harmless piece of advice. But if you take it seriously, that means you now have to schedule daydreaming into your already busy day. Since nobody is going to do this, unless they were, like, really leaning in that direction already, the “take away” is self-justification. If you’re daydreaming, you’re being mentally healthy. If not, then of course you often feel creatively blocked and inauthentic.
There’s a price to pay, long-term. These articles make readers feel good in the moment, because they seem to share values like balance, creativity, and relaxation. In the long-term, though, they create a sense that the modern world is destroying us, and that there’s nothing most of us can do about it. They make us even more anxious. One of the only practical solutions Iyer brings up, practicing yoga, was the subject (not two weeks later) of “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body,” in the same newspaper! Again, short-term, this article flatters the reader. If you hate yoga, no worries! You’ve avoided wrecking your body! If you love it, you can identify with the “real” yogis who know what they’re doing, as opposed to the stupid yuppies. Long-term, it plays right into our feelings of vague contempt for all those other idiots — other Americans — who either do or do not yoga, or who don’t yoga correctly.
Naturally, Iyer brags about staying away from Twitter and Facebook, on the theory that if you happen not to have a hobby, the least you can do is brag about it. (I’ve often boasted of my lack of interest in stamps.) When I ask myself why I like to check up on Twitter, the answer has everything to do with the “joy of quiet.” Looking through today’s Twitter feed:
Cupcakes can suck my dick. I want a full cake. Fuck cupcakes & the people who make them. (@robdelaney)
Sang “Hello, My Baby” in my garage today. Took a series of elaborate bows. Pulled a muscle in my arm. Goodnight. (@KaseyAnderson)
There’s no avoiding these topics. Cupcakes are in. Karaoke is, so often, a litmus test for being a “fun” person. These jokes help us survive the daily tsunami of lifestyle recommendations. Essentially, by making a joke about karaoke, the tweeter is saying, “Who cares about karaoke?” Not only is this good if you don’t like to sing, it’s good if you do. It lightens up a low-stakes decision about how to spend Friday night. Notice that Anderson doesn’t say “I don’t do karaoke.” He says he does do it, and under the most ridiculous conditions. Iyer would probably brag that he never sings; Bilton would argue that we need karaoke to be creatively alive.
The recent Community episode making fun of Glee is a lot like those tweets. The show’s writers are obviously watching Glee: the satire requires it, first of all, but they were probably watching even before that. At the same time, they’re liberating us from the absurd dramatic arc of that show, particularly the big episodes about glee tournaments that nobody’s ever heard of (“regionals,” “sectionals,” all that). We come away feeling a little less crushed by a group of high schoolers who appear to be leading more meaningful lives than us, because they’re winning sectionals.
I realize that a lot of legitimate objections have been made about irony in pop culture; it has its problems and limits, for sure. But anyone who is trying to live deliberately in 2012 is bombarded with all kinds of well-meaning advice, all kinds of criss-crossing, incompatible values. Irony is one way of clearing the space one needs in order to thrive — and clearing it where it counts, in the virtual world of our thoughts. Iyer doesn’t get it. Twitter is a pair of noise-canceling headphones. Like them, it accomplishes quiet with a little bit of noise.