We live in an age of noise. Even an absent-minded soul can expect to be bombarded by information that is manipulated to distract, entice and further influence us. Our platforms, our infrastructures, our economy, our society all endorse the commodification of attention. Our contemporary attention economy glorifies the tactics of intrusion in pursuit of profitability. The inundation of attention-grabbing strategies puts us under a constant sensory avalanche. Yet in most cases, there are no human values — but mere numeric values — in the attention blindly sought after by the profit-driven corporations. Gradually, we grow accustomed to the blinding distractions and learn to be numb to the suffocating noise. We learn to block the pop-up tabs on our browsers; we learn to skip the ads on YouTube after five seconds; we learn to adapt to the noise we created without a purpose.
Even when it comes to aesthetic experience, we learn to comply with the surrounding noise. The new norm is to listen to music in a semi-distracted state, something that will most likely come as a shock to previous generations. Contemporary noise is not only pervasive, but invasive. We are forced to cease dedicating our full attention to music to avoid the nuisance of sensory overload. A new model of the appreciation of the sound has thus been established to redefine the aesthetic experience in the age of noise. Under such circumstances, it is almost too predictable that lo-fi hip hop study beats would go viral. In terms of aesthetic experience, it certainly wouldn’t matter whether you listen to the whole two-hour track uninterrupted, or if you actually finish listening to the track at all. In the case of the ceaseless streaming of lo-fi hip hop beats, people minimize their attention to details and call it the future of listening.
This overarching refusal of the full dedication to the arts is manifested through the trendy prevalence of AirPods. The earbuds help people live in harmony with the omnipresence of noise — while their insulation alleviates distraction for the attentive accentuation on sound, their semi-open structure also immersively blends the surrounding noise with one’s listening. Let’s admit it: We use AirPods because we want to listen to our earphones while doing something else. The invention of AirPods signifies a future of ubiquitous listening in which noise is smoothly integrated into rather than removed from our listening experience. Driven by the demand to mitigate the nuisance of noise, which has grown to be too vexing to be neglected, the rise of AirPods signifies a fundamental shift in aesthetics that turns to the current solution of tuning out.
So, does that mean AirPods is the future of listening in the age of noise? No, but they are rather a sign of compromise. Such irony is in the fact that the product is a market success when its very essence is to help people cease paying full attention (a remark that I find to denote a regressive trajectory of post-humanism). Is this the future where we not only deviate but regress from the audiophile’s approach to sound?
Noise has been forcibly occupying our attention for free. Is this exploitation of free labor? Yes. Are we the victims of the noise pollution of the attention economy? Yes. For some, tuning out may work perfectly fine for now, but it won’t work for long. When it comes to digital pollution, sustainability is still very much an urgent objective. Therefore, it is not the minimization of attention that is the solution to the crisis of sensual overload. As the founding editor of Wired said in the inaugural issue of the magazine: “In the age of information overload, the ultimate [solution] is meaning and context.”
I believe the solution to the invasion of noise would be noise music — precisely because it endows noise with meaning and context. Leveraging noise as the medium, noise music transcribes the static into its own signal. But first, before we all pretend to be pseudo-intellectual hipsters, what exactly is noise music? No, noise music is not pure noise. If you start clicking your pen without meticulously crafting the precise length, pitch and texture of the sound, I’m sorry, but you’re just making noise. And that’s worse than using AirPods.
So, what exactly differentiates the noise music you hear at a warehouse party in Bushwick, Brooklyn from the everyday noise of the metropolis? Or is noise music just a fancy term coined by hipster music critics who just don’t know how to properly appreciate music? It is with attentive intentions that the conscious production or reproduction of noise would be considered as an alternative form of music. Say, if noise is used as the medium of a statement, the very same noise could well be considered as an artistic expression. This corresponds to the pioneering theory in new media studies that “the medium is the message.” If you attempt to “perform” with the pen-clicking noise by reconfiguring the sample with synthesizers and sound effects, it is an artistic endeavor to curate noise with the objective to proclaim a manifestation with noise as both the medium and the message.
Noise music is the last frontier. As it challenges the very essence of aesthetics in our digital culture, it can help initiate a wave of digital resistance against the noise pollution of the attention economy. In our contemporary technoculture, aesthetics reserve significant flexibility for the experimental collision of noise, contingency, variability — precisely because if it did not, it would disappoint, it would fail to deviate, to surprise, to excite, to make a statement. Criticism against noise music often focuses solely on its defiance of aestheticism, yet I would contend that it is exactly the obliteration of current aesthetic values that would help reinvent a new way of listening in the turbulent age of noise. By its nature, noise music is characterized as chaotic, unfamiliar, offensive. This is accentuated through the use of abrasive frequencies, profuse volume and atonal sound. These immeasurable and eccentric qualities of noise music are exactly the solution to the automation of noise, as these could well be a potent force to emancipate the number-driven contemporary music streaming platforms from the capitalist trap of chasing of quantifiable metrics.
Spotify is the locus where we can observe the noise pollution of contemporary technoculture. Its algorithm-driven playlists weigh numbers like clicks, followers and streams so heavily that they malform music into loud, screeching noise. In the case of noise musicians, they often wholly reject these streaming services that will inevitably silence their music. Rather, they endorse platforms with true open access as a grassroots act of solidarity with all marginalized communities. It is high time that we stop streaming music on Spotify when we are barely listening and deal with the noise emitted by our very own decisions. Give platforms like Bandcamp a trial. They actually help foster the urgently-needed digital resistance. It is about time that we leverage new media technologies to make the world more equal and connected but not more distorted, polarized and noisy.
Stephen Yang is a sophomore in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Rewiring Technoculture runs alternate Mondays this semester.
Rewiring Technoculture is a column that aims to critique the digital infrastructures that dictate the fundamental shifts in arts and culture. The present continuous tense indicates the unremitting introspection on how new media technologies are reinventing our artistic and cultural expressions. The name of the column is a direct reference to Wired, a publication that focuses on how emerging technologies are reshaping our society. Yet in contrast to Silicon Valley’s rhetoric of openness and meritocracy, arts columnist Stephen Yang aims to offer an alternative narrative to the discourse on digital culture. Ultimately, he hopes that the column can further shed light on a foreseeable digital future of the arts.