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The Joy of Quiet (nytimes.com)
135 points by neel980 on Sept 24, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 45 comments

This is a bad comment, in that I can't bring myself to complete reading the article.

What steams me about the recent "quiet", um, "discovery" and advocacy, is that many of those proclaiming it are the same fools who, last decade, were proclaiming the value of "collaboration" and cramming me into smaller cubes that eventually started to lose their walls (sort of a notched "ueber-bullpen", without naming it such).

I've known all along that I need peace and quiet to be productive. Not a monastary, but my own quiet room and the ability to use it, and to leave it, as I please.

Even on the shop floor, the relentless, day-long blaring of a radio becomes a significant distraction. There is, for me, a greater satisfaction and productivity in being present, even in the midst of what some dismissively consider to be "menial" tasks. (But which seldom really are; and if you pay attention, you notice the difference in execution, and how this affects things both downstream and up the hierarchy.)

I'm done with the words. I look for actions, now. If you give me a good workplace, a good neighborhood, etc. I'll respect this. If you talk and bloviate about it, no matter the particular words and sentiment of the moment, I'm going to start viewing you as part of the problem.

An attitude I think we should all consider.

Agreed completely, I have always hated the bullpen and complain at every company I work for that thinks it's a good idea. So far the trend in tech companies still seems to be "more bullpen" though.

I tend to work at home as much as I can, so that I can actually get some work done. I'm starting to see going into the office as more of a social thing than a work thing.

I like what you had to say about being done with words and looking for actions now. It seems like an intelligent way to live.

I agree with one caveat. I love quiet, but I also love collaboration.

The solution for me is in purpose-fit team spaces. If everybody in a room is working on the same thing, and all the conversation is team-specific, it can be a joy. It is tricky to get both the space and the cultural discipline, but I really love it when it works.

Which means I thoroughly hate the way "collaboration" has been used to thoughtlessly bully people into cheap-ass, disruptive working spaces.

What about online collaboration? In my experience, that is the only place collaboration has actually happened. There's something about asynchronous collaboration that seems to make it more effective than synchronous collaboration, at least sometimes.

Collaboration happens all the time in the physical world. For many sorts of collaboration, I like it better, in that you can get much shorter feedback loops. Depends on what you're up to, though.

I work on a team part of which is on-site. My experience is that it is easier to communicate with those that are on-site. I guess that's called collaboration.

I've pretty much turned around and walked straight out of shops that were excessively open-floorplan.

I like open floor plans, but I've never been subject to openly playing music.

  recalling that it’s only by stepping briefly away from my 
  wife and bosses and friends that I’ll have anything useful
  to bring to them.
That is deeply true. I picked my 3 year old son up from school two weeks ago, and sat on a bench in a churchyard near the school. Normally we rush through there hurrying to a playdate or just giddy on scooters with friends.

But this time we sat, ate a sandwich and stopped. I pointed out the bird song and it was like a different world for him - the church had become something new, an extra layer to the world.

I won't try to hold him back from the giddy rush of three wheeled scooters and playground running. But I must try to just show him some stillness - perhaps a little more often too.

Did the same three weeks ago with the 7 year old. We watched a blue jay go from tree to tree, coming back to the same one several times. We walked around looking for him, waiting for him to sing. In the church ground where normally my son races about. It only lasted about 15 minutes, but it was very nice.

It's the 15 mins you will remember.

He, on the other hand, remembers Dad going all funny because of a bird. Parents !


The more I disconnect from various information sources, the more I realize how utterly unnecessary they were to begin with.

It started with quitting Facebook back in February. After going through a short withdrawal, I deeply appreciated the "silence" that came from not knowing every single thing about every single "friend" I had on there. These days, not having Facebook is just a minor inconvenience: sometimes I don't find out about upcoming events until the last minute. But even that seems to happen less and less often, as my friends find out I don't have FB and the ones who are my real friends make sure to invite me via email or SMS.

Then I implemented GTD for work email. I use Outlook (sad face) so I disabled the utterly annoying desktop notifications, then went from checking email every few minutes (out of habit) and responding to every email then and there, to checking email twice a day and responding to emails en masse. At first I thought people would be annoyed by not receiving email responses right away, but then realized that's what instant messages are for. With personal email I was more brutal: I disabled push notifications on my iPhone, and started checking it once every other day.

With iOS 6, I've been experimenting with keeping my phone on DND mode most of the day. I changed my voice-mail message to say that I only answer calls between 6pm and 9pm, and tell them that if it's urgent, they can call me again within 3 minutes to override DND mode. I've found that most people don't in fact have anything urgent (maybe they realize it wasn't urgent after hearing my VM message) so that seems to be going pretty well also.

It's difficult to overstate the benefits I've seen from limiting my information consumption. For the longest time I had felt like my life was controlling me, and I was simply reacting to stuff happening. But once I started voluntarily restricting my exposure to stuff that demanded my attention (usually overblown in importance), I realized that it was all bullshit. I have become calmer, more productive, and happier. Feels good, man!

A phone has a "DND" mode? Genius! Can you do a write-up on how to get that set up?

I have an iPhone and sometimes just keep it on airplane mode all day to get research done. This is a bad solution for people who really need to contact me though.

For those looking for ideas to break away, just try the St. James way in northern Spain(or any similar walking experience). You only walk, eat, rest. There is nothing else to do for a month(if you start from the Pyrenees). You sleep mostly in pilgrim hostels, or cheap hotels. You can start alone but surely will finish with at least 10-15 new friends (if you want to of course). Every day you´ll walk for 5 to 8 hours, get to the hostel relax, talk to people from around the world, have an amazing dinner in some cheap small town restaurant drink some wine. Just awesomely simple, but really enjoyable. I really recommend it. It makes you think how we are somehow a nomad species.

I agree 100%. I too walked the Camino de Santiago, in 2009.

Probably the best thing I've ever done. I came back centred, happy, relaxed and motivated. I met great people, had great times (and trying times - like walking 40km, into a town with no spare beds, and then walking another 10km to the next town, to again find no beds) and really challenged myself.

Walking alone through those fields is something I'll never forget. Hours of walking brings about a meditative state, and inner quiet which is rare to find.

Start by yourself, this will bring you out of your comfort zone and you'll meet more new people.

It's a great metaphor for life - you meet people, you lose people, you say goodbye, you learn to rely on yourself.

I recommend it to anyone.

That sounds amazing! I'm locking that in for my next Europe trip, thanks for the tip :)

Iyer conflates a number of things here.

Quiet is generally good, but how important it is depends a lot on one's personality, needs at a given moment, and so on.

Not being constantly interrupted is also a good thing, but, again, it depends a lot on one's personality type, work being undertaken, and so forth.

Being disconnected from other people (I suspect but can't prove that Starck is basically full of shit, but there do exist people who could credibly claim such isolation) is something else entirely. Maybe it is good and maybe it isn't: I've never had the chance to try over an extended period. I'll submit that you can have isolation without quiet or lack of interruptions, by the way.

Get those mixed up and there's nowhere you can go, precisely where Iyer takes us.

My own personal version of this happens during my work day commute. No radio, no podcasts, no phone calls.

I've found that unless I have about 30 minutes/day or so of thinking time, I tend to lose focus on my longer term projects.

This was one of the most surprising things about commuting 25 minutes on the train for me, the break between 'home' and 'work' and the ability to just sit and think are really useful.

Robot apologist here, but for some reason neo-Luddism has become fashionable again and it bothers me. Is this really a war over little pings from email inboxes? Are we truly that oppressed by the ability to find out anything about anything? Do we need a virtual Moses to part the red sea of push notifications? I find it really difficult to sympathize with this line of argument. This is either a case of misconfigured notifications or of honest Amish-like fear of technology, and neither of these make sense to me.

I envy you; you haven't had your "this is all bullshit" moment yet. It will happen. It's not questioning the value of the technology (as you believe), it's questioning the place in your life.

This isn't "neo-Luddism," this is people questioning whether all of those things are actually important enough to us to warrant a context switch. As I get older, the context switches hurt more and more, and I desire a higher SNR throughout my life. That means less Facebook, less Twitter, and a lot less HN. All push notifications are off on my phone. I wouldn't recommend my system to everyone, but I do derive a tangible benefit from being less connected. (There is also something to be said for keeping the constant, mostly inane chatter of random Internet denizens out of your mind, but it's too early to draw any conclusions there).

Generally, if it happens on the Internet, it probably doesn't matter very much. I'll see it when I need to see it.

Perhaps some of us were wise enough to not fall for the "bullshit"? "It will happen" seems a bit condescending.

Your envy reminds me of an old man wishing he were younger.

It's not that you were wise enough to not fall for the bullshit, but that you have not yet realized that it is bullshit.

The real wisdom comes from the realization that the only reason people are consuming so much information today is because it's a habit that feels like a necessity.

> It's not that you were wise enough to not fall for the bullshit, but that you have not yet realized that it is bullshit.

Are you a mind reader, that you can see what this person does or does not know?

I am disinclined to accept "wisdom" alongside such presumptions.

Attention has limits. Focus, by its nature, excludes.

When scarcity quickly turns to abundance, people take a while to adapt. That's most obvious right now with food; people are learning how to live with a vast surplus of unnaturally delicious things.

The same thing is happening with information. When I was a kid, I was a vacuum cleaner. I read every word on every cereal box, because that was only thing I could find to read at breakfast. My first 300-baud modem was a gateway to miracles. Now there is more text available to me than I will ever finish.

Once abundance forces you to start making choices, you must ask yourself "how much of this do I need?" I don't keep cookies and chips in the house for the same reason I've blocked Facebook on my work machine: I want more than is good for me.

Or, so I can be more specific, remember that we're made out of meat. The meat wants more than the more thoughtful part of me wants. If I want more thoughtfulness, that means less distraction. Fewer blogs, less Facebook, disabling notification sounds and blinks and rumbles. More quiet.

I love technology, but I don't always love what it does to me.

The crystallization moment for me was on walking into the lobby of my university library, with its several million volumes, and realizing that there was no possible way, no how, that I would ever read more than a very small fraction of those works. Followed some time later by the realization that there was no need for me to do so either.

I did explore the library extensively, some portions in depth, others not at all. Our consumption of information is by necessity highly selective. The real key is in who makes the selections.

In an economy of information abundance, most of the information you're presented with is selected for you by someone else, with their own agenda and motivations as for why you should read it.

This is among the most crucial reasons that I care very much about the ability for me to be able to exclude (and occasionally preferentially include) specific information sources. Advertising and marketing in particular.

The Luddites were a labor movement. They opposed what they saw as a system that replaced traditional craftsmanship with unskilled labor. This is a different issue. It's more about spare time than work life. (But now that we spend so much of our spare time doing "work" for companies like Facebook, the lines are blurring...)

What would happen if nobody ever resisted? If nobody did what the Amish do? Is there no value in questioning the trajectory of technology in society? In experimenting with alternative ways of living?

My case is boringly simple. A big part of my life is something I could call "internet addiction." It's not uncommon. You can say it's purely my personal responsibility and so on. Sure. But I'm a real person and I'm affected by technological conditions.

I don't fear technology. But pretty much everything is technology. Looking around me: furniture, cheese graters, toasters, candles, tea pots — it's all technology, no? It all has its purposes. It all shapes my life. The toaster is much simpler than my iPhone. I'm never tempted to sit and play with the toaster past when I should go to bed.

I dunno, I can only write clichés today, but I really don't think it's fair of you to call this "neo-Luddism" a "fashion." It's the way a lot of people who got turned onto tech in their youth are now beginning to perform some kind of resistance. Just because it doesn't resonate with you, because you don't need it, doesn't mean it's stupid or silly.

I think of it more like pollution. The modern world gives us all kinds of amazing things, but there are side effects that are not immediately apparent. London was once infamous for it's "fog" until they started implementing pollution controls. It was just there. (Not that I advocate anything like a top-down diktat re: technology.)

You clearly are self-aware of the impact when it comes to things like push notifications, but many aren't, or at least not until the trickle hits tsunami levels.

Nicely put! I assume everyone here loves the role of technology in our lives...but that didn't stop me downloading LeechBlock the other day minimize my distractions.

I would not describe the Amish relationship with technology as "fear". It's not emotional; it's very reasoned and deliberate. Modern shop tools are common in Amish villages, but anything that connects with mass media is rejected, as is easy transportation. The idea is that they want to keep people connected to the local (self-reliant) community and make it difficult to connect to outsiders. It's reasoning we on HN don't agree with, but it's definitely reason rather than emotion.

Much of the "war over little pings from inboxes" strikes me as similarly deliberate. It's not a fear of technology, it's just a recognition of certain consequences we wish to avoid -- excessive distraction, possibly even addiction. So we reason about which technologies are really worthwhile, and reject the ones with too much downside.

Having moved in London two years ago, I struggle to find a moment of intense quiet. The reason is mainly the planes that are authorized to fly above the city (a stupidity in my opinion) and even in the middle of a park, you can still hear them, flying just above your head.

At night, cars, ambulances, you name it, will take the relay.. Frustrating.

About 10 years ago I was living in the UK a few miles from Heathrow and near a motorway. I was working late shifts so I'd be walking home anywhere between 3 and 5 am. Once or twice in that couple of years I noticed it was totally quiet for up to a minute at a time. That was it: maybe two times in a a year! (I also often got stopped by the police, who wanted to know what I was doing _walking_ at that time of the morning. But that's a different story...) Coming back to NZ was a joy.

Yep, same experience. Horses on cobblestones at 4am.


That's still something I recall from the days immediately following 9/11.

No airplanes overhead.

Occasional fighter overflights excepted. But where normally every 60 seconds or so a commercial transport (or two) would be heard ... nothing.

This actually impacted weather patterns too -- cloud cover notably diminished as was reported at the time (subsequent studies dispute some of the findings):


It really depends where in London you are as well. Where I am (N London, 25 mins on the Tube from Moorgate or the west end, so not exactly far from town) it's quiet enough that I can hear owls at night and only the occasional car or plane.

I'm about a mile from the centre of Birmingham. Quiet, except for the sound of the wind.

In central London, I find the river side reasonably quiet, and there is always the crypt of St Brides' of Fleet St - very quiet!

If you travel, you may enjoy Iyer's Why We Travel story.

"If a diploma can famously be a passport (to a journey through hard realism), a passport can be a diploma (for a crash course in cultural relativism). And the first lesson we learn on the road, whether we like it or not, is how provisional and provincial are the things we imagine to be universal."


Nice share, thank you.

This was wonderful. Pico Iyer is an amazing writer from a family of intellectuals. The University of California obit for his father, Raghavan, notes that Raghavan was "an inspired and inspiring scholar and teacher on the Santa Barbara campus from 1965 to 1986". I have personally had teachers inspired by the works of both Raghavan and his son.

His point, too, is one that I have found increasingly important for myself. Joel Gascoigne's post "6 things I do to be consistently happy" (http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=4405127) in some sense echoes similar thoughts. Like Joel, I exercise most mornings, and like Joel, I stop all electronics at 11 most nights and read (fiction) for an hour. While it is often difficult to step away from computers and smartphones and the Internet, I find that exercise and books satisfy me deeply in a way the Internet is frequently unable to.

A friend pointed out to me that books possess a pretty much optimal SNR, which may have something to do with this.

This weekend I lost myself in the mountains of West Virginia on a whitewater rafting trip. The great thing about bouncing around class 5 rapids is that you have no time to think about anything but the present. The phrase "laser-like focus" is tossed around amongst the tech community, GTD folks, minimalists, etc., but I never knew what it actually felt like until I was on the water. Getting away from the computer for long periods of contemplative thinking is one of the best activities I've done for my mind in a lifetime.

If Iyer's ideas or my own experience resonate with you, I recommend checking out a copy of Hamlet's Blackberry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age [1] from your local library.

1: http://www.amazon.com/Hamlets-BlackBerry-Building-Good-Digit...

This is the first piece I have read by Pico and it reminded me of a quote by Gandhi I had noticed on the London Underground "There is more to life than increasing its speed".

If you enjoyed this piece, you might like the book "The Information Diet" [1]. It's not particularly compelling writing, but the author has good ideas that are very much inline with this post. Boredom is essential.

[1] http://www.informationdiet.com/

To those who liked this article, I recommend Net Smart[0]. It eschews doing away with digital media altogether, acknowledging their unprecedented power, talks about the need for intention and focus when using the web and social media, and explains using basic literacies and mindfulness techniques to that end.

0. http://rheingold.com/netsmart/

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