The Soundtrack to Hell

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It was one man against the noise of multiplying faceless machines near his Arizona home — until his neighbors eventually noticed the pervasive hum emanating from CyrusOne, a data center that used massive, thrumming chillers to cool its servers. As Bianca Bosker reports at the Atlantic, when residents banded together to demand peace in the neighborhood, at first CyrusOne went silent, but only metaphorically speaking.

Desperate ears call for desperate measures, and the noise-afflicted go to elaborate lengths to lower the volume. Kanuri taught himself to code so he could analyze New York City’s 311 data and correlate noise complaints with elective districts; he hoped he could hold politicians accountable. Having tried moving bedrooms and also apartments, Ashley is now moving across the country, to a suburb in the Southwest. I spoke with a New Yorker who, unable to afford a move, has been sleeping in her closet—armed with earplugs, headphones, an AC unit, a fan, and two white-noise machines. A Wisconsin man who’d re-insulated, re-drywalled, and re-windowed his home was ultimately offered sleeping medication and antidepressants. An apartment dweller in Beijing, fed up with the calisthenics of the kids upstairs, got revenge by attaching a vibrating motor to his ceiling that rattled the family’s floor. The gadget is available for purchase online, where you can also find Coat of Silence paint, AlphaSorb Bass Traps, the Noise Eater Isolation Foot, the Sound Soother Headband, and the Sonic Nausea Electronic Disruption Device, which promises, irresistibly, “inventive payback.”

Scientists have yet to agree on a definition for noise sensitivity, much less determine why some individuals seem more prone to it, though there have been cases linking sensitivity to hearing loss. What is clear, however, is that sound, once noticed, becomes impossible to ignore. “Once you are bothered by a sound, you unconsciously train your brain to hear that sound,” Pigeon said. “That phenomenon just feeds itself into a diabolic loop.” Research suggests habituation, the idea that we’ll just “get used to it,” is a myth. And there is no known cure. Even for sufferers of tinnitus—an auditory affliction researchers understand far better than noise sensitivity—the most effective treatment that specialists can offer is a regimen of “standard audiological niceness”: listening to them complain and reassuring them the noise won’t kill them. Or, as one expert put it, “lending a nice ear.”

We were silent again and listened to the data center moaning. Which was also, in a sense, the sound of us living: the sound of furniture being purchased, of insurance policies compared, of shipments dispatched and deliveries confirmed, of security systems activated, of cable bills paid. In Forest City, North Carolina, where some Facebook servers have moved in, the whine is the sound of people liking, commenting, streaming a video of five creative ways to make eggs, uploading bachelorette-party photos. It’s perhaps the sound of Thallikar’s neighbor posting “Has anyone else noticed how loud it’s been this week?” to the Dobson Noise Coalition’s Facebook group. It’s the sound of us searching for pink-eye cures, or streaming porn, or checking the lyrics to “Old Town Road.” The sound is the exhaust of our activity. Modern life—EHHNNNNNNNN—humming along.

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