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  • Archive for September, 2009

    Flanagan on Noise Wars: where’s the beef?

    And out-of-home TV consultant asks tough questions of book critical of his industry

    For media professionals, there are probably few industries more exciting to be in right now than out-of-home TV. The technology is advancing, the advertisers are climbing on board, the networks are expanding. Anyone who’s on the top of their game in this industry is no doubt surveying this realm and finding it good—which makes it quixotic for anyone to step in front of this locomotive and ask the industry to become introspective for a moment, which is what I try to do with my book Noise Wars.

    Out-of-home TV is based on a conceit that people who board a train or a bus or who go to a store to buy shoes welcomes a blaring TV, and that if they don’t, they can just ignore it. But many people don’t welcome it, they resent it, and they can’t ignore it. And what’s more, people today who don’t find out-of-home TV intrusive will find it intrusive tomorrow because at some point the industry will cross a line and start testing even the tolerance level of people who otherwise wouldn’t give it much thought.

    With a message like that, it’s to be expected that anyone involved in the industry would dismiss the book as the tirade of a Luddite, yet industry consultant Paul Flanagan, who writes about the book on his blog Experiate, doesn’t do that. Although he’s an out-of-home TV professional who has helped develop projects for some impressive and admirable companies and organizations, he takes the concerns raised in the book seriously and tries to see things from the side of the critic.

    “Mr. Freedman starts a compelling discussion on the use of media in society,” he says. “Clearly there is a problem here. . . . The book brings to light that our industry is not desired by everyone; there are many people and organizations that do not like media in society. This is important. We need to understand that for every action there is a reaction.”

    Flanagan also acknowledges the black eye the industry is getting from out-of-home media companies that target children on school buses and in the classrooms, captive-audience settings that are simply indefensible.

    But then he hits back hard against the limited empirical research in the book to support some of the claims made. How many people are not joining gyms because the TVs are intrusive? The book raises that question but doesn’t support it beyond a blog comment. When looking at boom cars (a topic addressed as a form of captive-audience media), the book fails to link research that’s mentioned to the affects of boom cars.

    More importantly, the book relies too much on the blogosphere and not enough on quantifiable research on the impact of media on society. “[T]he execution may have been better suited to a research paper or critique,” he says.

    Flanagan’s criticism is fair. Although the blogosphere today is too important to ignore, and the book’s use of it is appropriate, in my view, the book could do a better job linking the research that’s out there to the concerns over invasive media. Until a better job is done bringing the two together, I would agree the book can only serve as a starting point for discussion rather than a definitive report on the problem.

    That said, the book tries to find a middle ground and discusses technological solutions to the problems that are raised. Among other things, the book talks about the role directional audio and screen filters in making environments comfortable for willing as well as unwilling audiences. I would have liked Flanagan to have talked about that, because here the book is doing more than expressing a problem; it’s expressing a solution as well.

    Flanagan deserves credit for not only approaching the book with an open mind but for poking holes in my arguments in a fair and constructive way. I welcome his input.

    His review, called “Noise Wars . . . or just noisy?” is posted on Amazon as well as on his blog.

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    Quiet time: a dozen anti-noise books

    We enjoyed quite a bit of interest in our anti-TV book list, which now features 42 titles. So we thought we’d create a similar list for anti-noise titles, but we learned that this is no easy task. There are so many different angles at which to approach noise that it’s hard to create a single list. Do you include technical books on sound control? That’s at least a hundred titles. Do you include books about the sanctity of silence? That’s a list of several dozen, and these books start getting into religion and spirituality. Do you include books that approach noise from an environmental justice standpoint? What about books that look at out aural relationship with space? There are some great books on that topic, and indeed, it seems to be a niche that MIT Press is carving out for itself.

    In the end, we decided to select a representative sample from each of the different genres. We hope our list of a dozen titles serves as a good starting point for anyone interested in our relationship with unwanted sounds.

    One Square Inch of Silence: One Man’s Search for Natural Silence in a Noisy World (Free Press: 2009), Gordon Hempton

    Listening Below the Noise: A Meditation on the Practice of Silence (Harper: 2009), Anne Leclaire

    Noise Wars: Compulsory Media and Our Loss of Autonomy (Algora Publishing: 2009), Robert Freedman

    Mechanical Sound: Technology, Culture, and Public Problems of Noise in the Twentieth Century (Inside Technology) (The MIT Press 2008), Karin Bijsterveld

    Manifesto for Silence: Confronting the Politics and Culture of Noise (Edinburgh University Press: 2007), Stuat Sim

    Spaces Speak, Are You Listening?: Experiencing Aural Architecture (The MIT Press: 2006), Barry Blesser

    Too Loud, Too Bright, Too Fast, Too Tight: What to Do If You Are Sensory Defensive in an Overstimulating World (Harper: 2003), Sharon Heller

    The Soundscape (Destiny: 1993), R. Murray Schafer

    Noise Pollution. A Scientific and Psychological Look at a New Hazard (Franklin Watts: 1984), Shan Finney

    The dangers of noise (Crowell: 1978), Lucy Kravalar

    The Tyranny of Noise (Harper Colophon: 1971), Robert Baron

    Noise Pollution, the Unquiet Crisis (University of Pennsylvania: 1971), Clifford Bragdon

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    Out-of-home TV: incivility institutionalized

    After Mayor Bloomberg announced his plan to ban smoking in parks and beaches, a New York Times reporter wondered around Central Park asking people what they would ban if they had the power. His report, called “Parkgoers suggest things New York could ban,” appeared yesterday.

    Not surprisingly, most people wanted to ban noisy activities, but not just any noisy activities; people wanted to ban media noise: people talking on their cell phones, playing their car stereos too loudly, playing musical instruments too loudly.

    We define media noise in this blog as noise that’s related to communication. Thus, drum playing is media noise, because music is communication, but highway traffic isn’t.

    In fact, about three-quarters of all responses to the reporter, as well as the dozens of comments that the story generated online, involved media noise. The next biggest category was litter. Not surprising, and indeed, media noise has been described by noise activists as audio litter—that is, someone casting off their personal noise the way someone casts off the wrapper of a candy bar and leaves it on the ground without regard to the surrounding environment.

    The reaction to the New York Times reporter is consistent with what we learned when we were researching our book, Noise Wars: Compulsory Media and Our Loss of Autonomy. There’s a feeling that we’re losing control over our ability to find refuge from the media noise of others—that even in our own homes we can’t get away from the boom cars, the backyard TVs of our neighbors, the loud cell phone conversations on the sidewalk.

    The Times piece made us think of the rise of digital signage, particularly out-of-home TV networks, because they’re premised on the same grand conceit of the person who disregards others and leaves his audio litter wherever he wants: that our shared environment is mine to pollute as I will and everyone else must either live with it or go somewhere else.

    To be sure, the out-of-home TV network isn’t just some selfish person who’s so self-absorbed that he can’t think why others wouldn’t want to listen to his music. There is a difference between the two. In the latter case, the self-absorbed indifference to others is institutionalized.

    Once every shoe store in the United States is plugged into an out-of-home TV network, we won’t be able to buy shoes without also having to watch TV. That will be great for the advertisers on the TV and the media company that owns the network, but for people who just want to buy shoes, it will be yet one more environment that will have to be endured.

    That grand conceit of the polluter might be tolerable in a world where there are other places to go. But in world where there’s a boom car around every corner, an out-of-home TV in every restaurant, and a cell phone conversation on every seat next to you in the subway, that conceit is a luxury that will eventually be a target of resentment.

    Take our survey

    Is TV in public places good or bad? Let us know your thoughts in this Media by Choice survey on the good and the bad of TV in public places such as elevators, taxi cabs, subways, trains, buses, airport gates, doctor’s offices, office and hotel lobbies, and so on. Click here to take survey.

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    Research resource: 42 anti-TV books

    In an ongoing effort, we’re identifying anti-TV books and putting them together in one place. Now that were up to 42 titles, the time seems right to put them in a blog post.

    Many of these you’re likely familiar with, or at least know about. Jerry Mander’s Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, for example, seems to be one that everyone knows about. But there are some lesser-known gems here. We especially like No Sense of Place by Joshua Myrowitz. This book talks about how TV and other digital media changes our perception of space. What’s especially notable is its prescience. The book was written in 1985, when TV still typically meant only one or two TVs in the home. Yet, its relevance in today’s world of ubiquitous out-of-home digital TV is even greater. In our view it’s one of the must-reads if you’re interested in the social impact of TV.

    For each of the books we link to its page on Amazon. We like the way Amazon includes brief descriptions of its books and encourages reader comments. We also like the way the site, when it has permission from the publisher, makes the book contents available for sampling.

    We include our book, Noise Wars, here too. We list it first. We certainly want to showcase it, but it’s also the most recently published title, and our list is chronological.

    Noise Wars: Compulsory Media and Our Loss of Autonomy (Algora Publishing: 2009), Robert Freedman

    The Age of American Unreason (Vintage)(Vintage: 2009), Susan Jacoby

    Living Without the Screen (Lea’s Communication)(Routledge: 2008), Marina Krcmar

    The Assault on Reason(Penguin: 2008), Al Gore

    Media Unlimited, Revised Edition: How the Torrent of Images and Sounds Overwhelms Our Lives(Holt: 2007), Todd Gitlin

    Television(Dalkey Archive Press: 2007), Jean-Philippe Toussaint and Jordan Stump: FICTION

    Noise: How Our Media-saturated Culture Dominates Lives and Dismantles Families(Ascension Press: 2007), Teresa Tomeo

    Living Outside the Box: TV-Free Families Share Their Secrets(Eastern Washington University Press: 2007), Barbara Brock

    Remote Controlled: How TV Affects You and Your Family(Ebury Press: 2007), Aric Sigman

    The Big Turnoff: Confessions of a TV-Addicted Mom Trying to Raise a TV-Free Kid(Algonquon Books: 2007), Ellen Currey-Wilson

    Mediated: How the Media Shapes Our World and the Way We Live in It(Bloomsbury USA: 2006), Thomas de Zengotita

    Noise(Viking: 2006), Bart Kosko

    Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing(New Riders Publishing: 2006), Adam Greenfield

    iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind(Collins Living: 2008), Gary Small and Gigi Vorgan

    Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business(Penguin: 2005), Neil Postman

    The Business of Media: Corporate Media and the Public Interest(Pine Forge Press: 2005), David Croteau and William Hoynes

    The Medium is the Massage(Ginko Press: 2005) Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore

    Television after TV: Essays on a Medium in Transition (Console-ing Passions)(Duke Univ. Press: 2004), Lynn Spigel and Jan Olsson

    Feed(Candlewick: 2004), M.T. Anderson: FICTION

    Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media(Pantheon: 2002), Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky

    The Plug-In Drug: Television, Computers, and Family Life(Penguin: 2002), Marie Winn

    T.V.: The Great Escape! : Life-Changing Stories from Those Who Dared to Take Control(Crossway Books: 2001), Bob DeMoss

    Bowling Alone : The Collapse and Revival of American Community(Simon & Schuster, 2001), Robert Putnam

    Ambient Television: Visual Culture and Public Space (Console-ing Passions)(Duke University Press: 2001), Anna McCarthy

    Coercion: Why We Listen to What They Say(Riverhead Trade: 2000), Douglas Rushkoff

    Endangered Minds: Why Children Don’t Think And What We Can Do About It(Simon & Schuster: 1999), Jane Healy

    Culture Jam: How to Reverse America’s Suicidal Consumer Binge–And Why We Must(William Morrow: 1999), Kalle Lasn

    Get a Life!(Bloomsbury Publishing: 1998), David Burke and Jean Lotus

    Seducing America: How Television Charms the Modern Voter(Sage Publications: 1998), Roderick Hart

    The Commercialization of American Culture: New Advertising, Control and Democracy(Sage Publications: 1995), Matt McAllister

    …And There Was Television(Routledge: 1994), Ellis Cashmore

    Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man(The MIT Press: 1994), Marshall McLuhan, with an introduction by Lewis Lapham

    The Disappearance of Childhood(Vintage: 1994), Neil Postman

    The Unreality Industry: The Deliberate Manufacturing of Falsehood and What It Is Doing to Our Lives(Oxford Univ. Press: 1993), Ian Mitroff and Warren Bennis

    Conscientious Objections: Stirring Up Trouble About Language, Technology and Education (Vintage: 1992), Neil Postman

    The Age of Missing Information(Plume: 1993), Bill McKibben

    Television and the Quality of Life: How Viewing Shapes Everyday Experience (Communication Series)
    (Lawrence Eribaum: 1990), Robert William Kubey and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

    Fahrenheit 451(Ballantine Books: 1987), Ray Bradbury: FICTION

    No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior(Oxford Univ. Press: 1985), Joshua Meyrowitz

    What to Do After You Turn Off the TV(Ballantine Books: 1985), Frances Moore Lappe

    Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television(Harper Perennial: 1978), Jerry Mander

    The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man(Univ. of Toronto Press: 1962), Marshall McLuhan

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    The alternate reality of captive-audience media

    When you read material provided by media companies that specialize in captive audiences it’s impressive the lengths they go to to reassure us that we like being made captive to their media.

    We learn from their press releases and Web sites that we like to have our lives improved upon by having infotainment and commercials to watch while we wait in line at a store or ride a bus or pump our gas. Captive-audience media companies have lots of surveys, too, that show us how much we love having audio-visual media pushed out at us. We certainly benefit from knowing that large percentages of us love to have a TV in front of us at all times to protect us from having to confront our world without the virtuous content of targeted and engaging programming.

    It’s because we so clearly love having our lives improved upon by having media pushed out to us unasked for that it’s hard to understand why so many people dislike—and even get angry at or feel insulted by—being made captive to TV. It’s almost like the two sides are living in parallel universes or that one side operates in an alternate reality.

    But there you have it. Despite the virtuousness of the content, there seems to be this large and vocal minority that just doesn’t get it and insists on taking issue with being made captive to intrusive and invasive media.

    When captive-audience TV started showing up in gas stations, there was the inconvenient fact that quite a number of people made comments like this one:

    “I will not go to stations that have [TVs on gas pumps]. So, as a result, I have not been to a Shell station in months. (I live in the Chicago area and they are the only stations with them so far.) I can only hope other people are doing the same thing. If not, this sort of irritating constant sales bombardment will start going on everywhere.”

    And when TVs started becoming more common in grocery store checkout lines, there were off-message comments like this one:

    “The minute I see my first TV at a checkout, I’ll tell the manager, ‘Watch me. I’m about to walk out of your store because I can’t stand TV. You won’t see me again until all the other stores in the area have the same damn thing and I must put up with it or starve.’ No, no, don’t try to tell me how Most People seem to like it. I’m not Most People, I hate it, and I’m leaving now, empty-handed.”

    And when captive-audience ads started showing up on our cell phones as text messages, suddenly we started seeing comments like this one:

    “I serve notice to all those who force me to see their ads by interfering with my ELECTIVE reading – NEVER would I purchase your product. At the same time, I will say the same thing to those who think it’s clever to blast my hearing with TV commercials that are 100 times louder than the programming. My solution is simple – I mute ALL commercials. Cha-ching. That’s the sound of the cash drawer slamming on your fingers.”

    The reality is, many people don’t like having content pushed out at them. Audio-visual media is by its nature intrusive media. Unlike print, in which we can choose to consume the content or not, audio-visual media is “push” media that takes away our ability to choose. Rather, we’re given only the option to try to ignore it. And each of us differs in how effectively we can ignore push media.

    To be sure, the U.S. Supreme Court has weighed in on the issue of captive-audience media and found in favor of the captors rather than the captives. But at the time the court looked at the issue, in 1952, push media was as rare as a Japanese car on a street in the United States. It was a non-issue, and the court looked at a single instance of audience captivity. Today, captive-audience media is becoming ubiquitous and stands to fill much of the space in which we conduct the business of our lives: stores, buses, trains, street corners, building lobbies, elevators, restaurants—you name it, it’s coming.

    What’s more, the Court had looked at a different type of captive-audience media a few years before the commuter-train case and ruled against the captors in favor of the captives. That case, Kovacs v. Cooper, confirmed a municipality’s right to outlaw the broadcast of captive audio content on a public street. So the legal right of media companies to force-feed intrusive media to people is not at all clear cut.

    Push media is replacing print and other “pull” media and is poised to become the dominant media of our future. For that reason it’s time to revisit the issue of audience captivity. Too many people simply don’t subscribe to the rosy picture that captive-audience media providers try to paint in their press releases and on their Web sites. The reality is, grave differences separate these two sides. We don’t live in parallel universes. We live in one universe, and these differences need to be reconciled.

    Take our survey

    Is TV in public places good or bad? Let us know your thoughts in this Media by Choice survey on the good and the bad of TV in public places such as elevators, taxi cabs, subways, trains, buses, airport gates, doctor’s offices, office and hotel lobbies, and so on. Click here to take survey.

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    Book shines spotlight on boom cars, other noise

    Quality of life suffers as noise encroaches on shared environments

    In the first systematic look at boom cars, outdoor TV, and other “captive-audience” media, a book released this month from Algora Publishing in New York City says a values conflict similar to the one over secondhand smoke is growing because of audio and video technologies that increasingly take away our ability to choose the media we consume.

    Written by Robert Freedman, a 25-year veteran communications professional, Noise Wars: Compulsory Media and Our Loss of Autonomy looks at noise through the filter of captive-audience media and finds that continued growth of media that doesn’t respect personal boundaries is sparking a values war similar to that over secondhand smoke.

    “Noise has been the Cinderella form of pollution and people haven’t been aware that it has an impact on their health,” an environmental official says in the book.

    “The ‘outdoor entertainment’ equipment pushed by the home electronics industry in the form of outdoor loudspeakers and televisions for the porch and patio makes us wonder, what next?” says Karen Orr of the League of Conservation Voters. “Mega bass boom systems for the riding lawnmower?”

    “You used to reliably move to the suburbs and find peace and quiet,” says Les
    Blomberg of the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse in Montpelier, Vt, in an interview reproduced in the book. “But now “we’ve made our suburbs noisy. We can’t all buy 1,000 acres and hide in the middle of it.”

    The book quotes Ted Rueter, president of Noise Free America, on the efforts of his and other organizations against cars with ultra-loud stereos. “Boom car owners think they’ll beat us down into submission. Their culture is violent, vicious, and hate-filled.”

    The book is the first to look at noise—both visual and audio noise—through the filter of audience captivity: the intentional effort by commercial interests to impose noise on consumers in such a way that they can’t escape it. Among these efforts is the move to introduce TV to settings in which consumers are forced to watch it such as taxis, buses, elevators, gas stations, street corners, school classrooms, and every category of retail setting.

    “The minute I see TV at a checkout, I tell the manager, ‘Watch me. I’m about to walk out of your store because I can’t stand TV,” one person says in the book. “You won’t see me again until all the other stores in the area have the same damn thing and I must put up with it or starve.’ No, no, don’t try to tell me how most people seem to like it. I’m not most people, I hate it, and I’m leaving now, empty-handed.”

    “I will not go to stations that have TVs on gas pumps,” another person says. “As a result, I have not been to my neighborhood gas station in months. I can only hope other people are doing the same thing. If not, this sort of irritating constant sales bombardment will start going on everywhere.”

    “I serve notice to all those who force me to see their ads by interfering with my elective reading. Never would I purchase your product. Cha-ching. That’s the sound of the cash drawer slamming on your fingers.

    The book talks about the difference between audio and video “push” media and traditional “pull” media such as print. With “pull” media, the audience decides when and where to consume content; with “push” media, the content pushes out to people whether they want to consume it or not, creating a suffocating environment for those who are unwilling to be made a captive.

    The book looks at two landmark captive-audience Supreme Court cases, Public Utilities Commission v. Pollak (1952) and Kovacs v. Cooper (1949). In the first case, a divided Court confirmed a public transit agency’s right to pipe in commercial media to a captive audience of commuters. Although the case didn’t bar audience captivity, William O. Douglas issued a stinging dissent that raised unsettled questions about audience captivity, and Felix Frankfurter abstained, saying he found audience captivity so personally distasteful that he couldn’t trust himself to rule on the case objectively.

    In the second case, the court confirmed a municipality’s right to outlaw the broadcast of captive audio content on a public street, thus siding with critics of audience captivity.

    Noise Wars also looks at the growth of “annoyancetech,” a new category of devices that consumers are using to fight back against audience captivity. Devices such as TV-B-Gone are being used to disable TV in places where people can’t escape it.

    Here’s what readers are saying about the book:

    “This lively and well-researched work talks about how all this noise affects our civil liberties and our peace of mind. . . . Freedman appends William O. Douglas’s wise comments on the matter, “Compulsion which comes from circumstances can be as real as compulsion which comes from command,” and says fellow Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter was so angry about the issue that he didn’t feel he could render a fair opinion at all. . . . Freedman brings his own contemplative voice to the question, quoting philosophers as well as jurists. And adding a dollop of writer Ray Bradbury and composer John Cage for good measure.”—Roy Harris, Jr.

    “Written with a deep understanding of the role of media in our lives by a veteran award-winning print and Web editor, the book is valuable for several reasons. It confounds the skeptics by marshaling the evidence of noise pollution’s physiological and psychological effects (up to and including suicide and murderous acts). It explains First Amendment case law, and it doesn’t simply bash the ‘evil corporations’ but explains the economic pressures that are leading them into captive audience business ventures.” —Chris Wright

    “The book has excellent research behind it. As I read the book I stopped and thought about all the media that intrudes on my life, as well as the media I invite into my life…. And the unintended consequences that result from the bombardment of noise.” —Elisa Robyn

    “While most of us are focusing on the transition away from the days of push media (i.e., being forced to watch programs on a limited number of channels), another–more insidious delivery of media–is taking place right before our eyes. Freedman refers to it as “compulsory media,” music and audio advertisements that are piped in at the grocery store, the television that plays above the gas pump, or the commercial that runs when you enter a cab. Freedman does an effective job of calling attention to the problem and arming us to do something about it.”—Steve Roll

    “Our freedom is at risk as more and more outside media infringes on our personal space, on our shared public spaces. Our right to choose is transgressed, lost. We become a captive audience, against our will, to television advertising, boom cars, muzak, etc. And this is especially the point of the book: the scale of annoyance in the breach isn’t important; It’s the fact that there is a breach in our right to choose is what matters.”—Narshe Colliery

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