July 27, 2023
Over the last few years there has been something of a loud and widespread backlash to the idea that we need to have constant access to information and our colleagues to work effectively. The touchstone for this pushback is of course the open plan office which has become something of a scapegoat for the universal problem of interruption and distraction and a renewed interest in the complexities of acoustics in office design. It is also one of the main reasons people prefer to work anywhere other than offices some or all of the time.
One of the most vocal proponents of the idea that sometimes we need to work quietly and alone is Susan Cain, the author of the 2012 book Quiet, its 2016 follow up Quiet Power: The Secret Strengths of Introverts and the person responsible for the old TED Talk presented below on sound and acoustics which first framed the debate in its current incarnation.
She is not alone, and nor is the message new. Nearly 80 years ago, before anybody had even imagined to name the open plan office, Aldous Huxley bemoaned the din of technology in his 1946 essay Science, Liberty and Peace, which covers a range of topics including this prescient piece on silence and the brain scrambling effect of distractions.
“The twentieth century is, among other things, the Age of Noise. Physical noise, mental noise and noise of desire — we hold history’s record for all of them. And no wonder; for all the resources of our almost miraculous technology have been thrown into the current assault against silence.
All the resources of our almost miraculous technology have been thrown into the current assault against silence
That most popular and influential of all recent inventions, the radio is nothing but a conduit through which pre-fabricated din can flow into our homes. And this din goes far deeper, of course, than the eardrums. It penetrates the mind, filling it with a babel of distractions, blasts of corybantic or sentimental music, continually repeated doses of drama that bring no catharsis, but usually create a craving for daily or even hourly emotional enemas. And where, as in most countries, the broadcasting stations support themselves by selling time to advertisers, the noise is carried from the ear, through the realms of phantasy, knowledge and feeling to the ego’s core of wish and desire.
Spoken or printed, broadcast over the ether or on wood-pulp, all advertising copy has but one purpose — to prevent the will from ever achieving silence. Desirelessness is the condition of deliverance and illumination. The condition of an expanding and technologically progressive system of mass production is universal craving. Advertising is the organized effort to extend and intensify the workings of that force, which (as all the saints and teachers of all the higher religions have always taught) is the principal cause of suffering and wrong-doing and the greatest obstacle between the human soul and its Divine Ground.”
Mark is the publisher of Workplace Insight, IN magazine, Works magazine and is the European Director of Work&Place journal. He has worked in the office design and management sector for over thirty years as a journalist, marketing professional, editor and consultant.