Is the World Growing Quieter?

It was a late night in 2009. High-school me rolled out of bed to get some water. Opening cabinets and filling the glass, I was trying to move in a way that generated as little noise as possible, so as no to wake my parents.

At that moment, late at night, I had a strange notion: what if this were a sport? After all, it was kind of fun to try and do it well.

Beyond that, let’s assume it wasn’t just a sport, but THE sport of the world it existed in. What kind of world would that be, where it meant something to prove how quiet you were?

After thinking about this for a while, I wrote a short story, which would become the first thing ever created of what would become the Feedback Serial.

The story followed Calome, a young woman who later became a side character in the published series. Calome (this initial version, anyway) was an expert in Decibism. Taken from “decibel”, a unit of sound volume, Decibism is a sport that involves sitting at a table or moving in a very small space and performing slow, articulate tasks while wearing bells on one’s wrists. Microphones detect the total sound being made, and the competitors are also timed. Because women are naturally daintier than men, decibism is a female-dominated sport in the world I created.

That story exposed a full scope of ideas I had, a set of adventures between recurring characters with their own places in this world: one that valued silence above all else.

When I wrote the stories of the Feedback world and showed them to people, seeking critique and suggestions, I got one comment repeatedly: “This sounds like how things are going to end up today, eventually.”

For the longest time, I didn’t get that. I didn’t believe it. There are plenty of dystopia writers, like Huxley, who insist that their work is not only evocative or entertaining, but a direct prediction of the future. I thought that was pretentious and silly. I could’t make the connection my readers were making.

But ten years is a long time. We divide our own history as a species into decades. The 90s are definitively different from the 80s or 70s. And I can confidently say, now that we’re nearly through them, that the 2010s are very different from the 2000s.

And, much as I hate to admit it, yes, this story I wrote for fun, on a whim, is becoming socially relevant.

Now don’t get me wrong, anti-noise laws have always existed. In the same way that you have freedom of speech unless you are giving away someone’s private information or slandering them, you have freedom to make noise if it doesn’t, say, disrupt your sleeping neighbors or expose children to profanity. Sensible stuff.

But here’s an article I found about a high-schooler who was arrested for being noisy. Not given detention, not sent to the dean, arrested. That part, though, doesn’t really interest me. Sad to say, I’m not shocked by that sort of thing. Not in the world we live in, where pretty much anything can happen.

What interests me is that a girl who recorded the incident on her phone, and encouraged other students to do so, was also arrested.

I ask you, how is that a crime? She was in a public place, a school classroom, and she was recording what was being done to a fellow student. She didn’t interfere with the arrest or try to stop it. If anything, shouldn’t the government want this kind of behavior? It creates more clean records of what actually happened.

As long as the police are not doing anything wrong, why would it be such a problem, such a ‘disturbance’, to speak out your opinion on an arrest and record it?

That sort of scenario is exactly what went through my mind, when coming up with a society who viewed it as legally right to enforce silence. It wasn’t just a gimmick, not “Ooh, Hunger Games but people can’t play music or sing.” It was a psychological principle that was erected into law and society. Causing a disturbance is bad, therefore don’t do it or you’re arrested. It doesn’t matter what form that disturbance takes, or what qualifies as a disturbance. If other people can hear it, and we don’t like it, you’re in trouble.

I’m not going to cry hysterics and claim that the Feedback serial is really going to happen. Frankly, nothing I write is really going to happen; my ideas are too weird. I’ve never been the politically conscious sort anyway. But this kind of thing really reminded me of what would happen with characters in Feedback. That moment really could have been a scene out of my story.

In the very first scene of the first book, the main character, Eric, happens to bump into another student at his college by mistake, causing the student to fall and reveal he was carrying illegal noise-making paraphernalia. A security guard starts to arrest the student. Eric, being knowledgeable of the law and its technicalities, and someone who believes in freedom of expression, tries to reason with the officer and draw attention. But the officer is just as ready to arrest him as well, for disruption, so he backs off.

It’s from that point that we see Eric deal with the guilt of not pushing hard enough to get arrested as well. And, when his life gets pulled into a conspiracy by forces far higher than him, he takes that first experience as inspiration to abandon the law entirely.

You can say that the Feedback serial is high-concept, silly dystopian fiction, stuff made more to excite and compel its audience than to teach them something. But to me, stuff like this proves it’s still half right. We may not live in a culture that was specifically bred to hate music and other forms of noise, but there are things our society doesn’t like in general, and it’s very easy for you to be labelled as “disruptive” if you have the “wrong” opinion about it, and try to spread that opinion.

Just an observation.


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