Silence and Noise

Last month I saw some nifty looking embedded Ngrams in a blog post by Chris Long, and I was reminded of two things: 1) I haven’t messed with Ngram in awhile, and 2) I wasn’t entirely sure how HTML iFrames would embed on this new blog. I’m happy to report that both turned out great—in fact, much better than I expected.

One of the things that comes up in my research in is how “noise” was incorporated into environmentalist discourse in the 1960s as a kind of “pollutant.” This was, in part, a technique mobilized by anti-supersonic flight activists who thought the sonic boom was a problem. (They were right.) Though one Ngram certainly doesn’t tell this whole story, it was interesting to see it corroborated: the occurrence of “noise” surpasses “silence” right around 1961.

This change seems to have started around 1920; before that, silence and noise have remarkably similar curves, with silence occurring at a much higher rate. Of course, what is also interesting—and, to me, totally unsurprising—is the meteoric rise of “silence” in the last decade (2004-onwards). Silence has again become a kind of urban and environmental cause of the moment, which is again reflected in the data.

There is certainly a lot more to say about this, but it’s a great kind of synergy when testing some new tools and website tricks leads you down a more productive and stimulating road.



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