Sunday, October 01, 2017

The Quandary and Legacy of Overamplification

Every now and then, I have a bone to pick with Princeton University. These aren't the usual bones, e.g. University expansionism, it's impact on property taxes, or moving the Dinky station. These are smaller bones, like the stadium lights that used to be left on for long hours while the stadium was empty (which also turned out to be one of former university president Tilghman's pet peeves), or the ineffective recycling at Jadwin Gym (they improved it for awhile after my input, then reverted). All of these bones play against a background of overall gratitude. My wife is a professor there, my older daughter had a good experience as an undergrad, and I've attended many lectures open to the public. The bones are often not specific to the University, but are symptomatic of a culturally pervasive problem. The bone du post has to do with toxic sound levels.

In a world of speed limits, seat belts and emission standards, where toys, play equipment and nearly everything else we buy and consume are carefully regulated for safety, the exceptions to this safety-first mentality stand out. The most grievous is carbon emissions, upon which no constraint has been placed. The future remains unprotected and has already suffered what is now playing out as tremendous damage.

Another is decibels, whose impact on the ears, as with climate change, is unintended and often long delayed. That impact became apparent at an event this past spring (this post lingered in the draft folder): the big Princeton University graduation party known as the Senior Prom at Jadwin Gym. My daughter was part of the 2017 graduation--a meticulously planned 3 day affair that involves mass transport and accommodation of far-flung families, and a tightly scheduled series of events, all of which seems to have come off without a hitch.

Why, then, would a University that watches closely over its students not pay attention to the sound levels at the big party to which we were all invited? The cavernous gym was packed with people young and old, dancing and seated. The food was a healthy mix of humus, vegetables and fruit, but the air was toxic with thunderous sound. About one hour in, my daughter's ears "popped". Traumatized, she fled to the building's entryway, texting me with worries that her hearing had been damaged.

As someone who has played in wedding bands, I know that people who complain about loud music can be pegged as fuddy duddies trying to ruin the party. That's probably why I wore earplugs but didn't try to convince others in the family to do the same.

Regulation is often viewed negatively, but it can often lead to better products. Regulation of the producer can protect and simplify life for countless consumers. The deafening volumes in Jadwin Gym not only stymied any conversation at the tables, but by overwhelming the ears, paradoxically, the music was harder to hear with any clarity. The philosophy seems to be that people are so inhibited, so awkward at parties, that they must be pummeled by loud music in order to break down inhibitions, while providing an excuse to avoid conversation. In nightclubs, loud music is intentionally used to encourage people to drink more and talk less. But the University has no profit motive at a graduation party.

It's true that tolerance for loud sounds varies, and spectacles like a big party or a sports event are expected to be loud. But it's possible to achieve the desired intensity, sense of spectacle and celebration without destructive sound levels. In the 1980s and 90s, I struggled with this while playing in loud bands, and concluded that human nature conspires with technology, leading to volume creep. Soundmen, subjected repeatedly to loud music as part of their job, are not the best arbiters of volume. A band's volume can creep upward out of youthful exuberance. It's easier for a musician to turn up than to risk resentment and bruised egos by asking others to turn down.

These factors pushing volume upwards have no countervailing force. Audience members are very reluctant to give feedback. I remember a deafening Maynard Ferguson concert--my first but one of his last before he died--where people sat like trapped animals in their seats. A few walked out, but I was the only one to appeal to the soundman, clearly a veteran and victim of nightly decibelian overdose. He shrugged, perhaps unable to hear what I was saying. We searched for a quieter place in the auditorium, but finally had to leave.

At the least, at events where sound levels could be extreme, big bowls of foam earplugs should be displayed in the lobby. Soundmen should be required to conform to decibel limits. And any noisy establishment should be protecting its workers and customers from hearing damage. Workers in particular, such as the waiters at the Senior Prom, with longer exposure and no option to leave, are particularly at risk. Once requirements and procedures are in place, good habits are reinforced and our lives become simplified and safer. Otherwise, everyone pays. Hearing aids ain't cheap.

As with climate change, it's the delayed damage done unintentionally that slips through society's otherwise elaborate safety net.

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