A noise gap has developed in American public life, and it’s a problem. The bars—at least those frequented by people under 40, who historically drive bottom-up political movements—have gotten louder. How loud? In 2012, the New York Times found that bars in that city regularly reached decibel levels so dangerously high that they violated federal workplace safety standards.
All that noise makes it hard to conduct a meaningful conversation, which is actually the idea. Bars have gotten louder at least in part in response to research showing that louder music encourages patrons to talk less and drink more. By rendering conversation obsolete, the loud atmosphere also nudges people towards imbibing past the point where intelligent conversation is possible. It’s not easy to find a large, crowded bar in an American city where conversation isn’t drowned out by music or a sports telecast. In fact, the Saloon, On U St. in Washington, D.C., has made its name by refusing to play loud music and forcing patrons to stay in their seats, making conversation possible.
The cafés, meanwhile, have gotten quieter. For centuries, coffee was used as a conversation stimulant. But in the present-day U.S., it functions primarily as productivity booster. Coffee long ago penetrated the workplace, and now cafés themselves have become workplaces—not just for eccentric writers and artists, but for knowledge workers of all stripes, who are often plugged into headphones that are plugged into laptops.
In 2011, a Gizmodo writer found it rude that people were talking near him at a café and tweeted, “Etiquette question: Now that coffee shops are basically office spaces, do you have to be quiet when you’re in them?” At the Bean in Manhattan’s East Village, as in several other other New York coffee houses, management has instituted a laptop-free zone. A few tables tucked in a corner of the shop, the Bean’s computer-free zone may as well be a memorial to the late, great café atmosphere.
This sounds like the sociological argument for better third places where average citizens can gather and converse. The primary argument there has been that there are not enough of these spaces. This new argument suggests having these third places isn’t enough; just their existence doesn’t guarantee public conversation but they need to meet certain conditions.
I suppose that could also fit a Marxist perspective: people use these spaces in such a way to follow their own interests (whether the customer wants to be left alone or the proprietor is pushing more product) and are blinded by the lack of civil discourse in which they are participating. In other words, the drinks, alcoholic, caffeinated, or sugary, and their intended uses, whether entertainment or work, are distracting people from the true issues at hand.
Does all this mean that we need a movement for better third places or public spaces (like public squares where some recent global revolutions have started or some argument that business owners who provide such private spaces will get more business) first before agitating against larger structures can begin?