4 November

Why is the Internet So Loud?

Posted in Culture, Ethics Online

The composer Sir Harrison Birtwistle, after being presented with an Ivor Novello award for classical music, asked the assembled song-writers and pop performers, ‘Why is your music so effing loud?’. Posterity does not record what answer, if any, may have been given on the night, but there may in fact be a good, if subtle, reason for the sheer volume of many pop performances, and this may in turn aid understanding of the sheer volume of internet rhetoric.

While it is safe to assert that Harrison Birtwistle does not write the world’s quietest music, it would still be unfair in the extreme to suggest that his music is only loud. There is, however, certainly some loss of expression in live music using speakers, with compensation proffered only by volume. In mass internet communications something similar happens: mainstream media, blog sites and comment boxes issue endless sensationalism, hyperbole and (at times) abusive broadcasts, articles and posts, all seemingly to counterbalance the electronic incommunicability of what they have to tell us.

At the opposite end of the spectrum there is a deeper kind of risk — indeed of urgency — in sounds that are very quiet, in part because they may at any moment be overwhelmed. A cough, a mobile phone, or a passing car might smother the delicate softness of a violin. The risk under which such instruments operate is an important element in their very expressiveness. Such sounds are in short supply. When, however, they are captured by recording, to be played at will and as often as we wish through speakers or headphones, their urgency and proneness to risk evaporate — and with them expressivity. The same — or a very similar — process can be seen in operation on message boards, and on news outlets across the internet, as the urgency of written communications, and the risk of messages getting lost, have — in theory, at least — evaporated. We need no longer attend closely to the wisdom enshrined in words when these can be captured for ever in the giant archive of the internet.

As with digital recording, one of the internet’s great strengths is its ability to copy things. Articles and videos may ‘go viral’ as they bounce from one person to another across a network of millions. A post or a picture may raise a smile, or even make one stop and think, but the effect is necessarily short-lived, for such items are by no means in short supply. There is no risk that they will not be there again should we want another encounter, and so the urgency with which we attend to them diminishes.

As with digitally produced music, being able to copy ad infinitum weakens the expressivity of the messages. Those who believe the urgency of their particular message is greater than that of everyone else must compensate by making it sound bigger, more world-shatteringly important, than the rest. The simplest manner of achieving this is with hyperbole, selective citation and, yes, pejorative or abusive rhetoric. Where expression of what has to be said is compromised by the very means used to say it, the only way to get noticed is to turn up the volume.

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