Sunday June 17, 2018
Louis Menand has a piece in The New Yorker on the legal and technological history of privacy in America that's worth reading. The following is one of its least important parts but it hit home.
In the late 1940s, the District of Columbia began allowing the Muzak company to pipe radio broadcasts (90% music, 5% news, 5% ads) into its buses and trollies at low volume. Two men objected, took their case to the U.S. Supreme Court, but lost, 7-1. The lone dissenter was William O. Douglas, who felt it was a privacy issue. “The beginning of all freedom,” he wrote, is “the right to be let alone.” Not many have agreed with him. Or: People agree but on a case-by-case basis.
As for why it was 7-1 when there are nine justices? Menand writes:
One Justice, Felix Frankfurter, recused himself. Frankfurter explained that his own aversion to Muzak was so visceral—“my feelings are so strongly engaged as a victim,” he wrote—that he was incapable of attaining the degree of disinterestedness necessary to render a judgment.
Many years ago, I wrote a piece on just this: my endless search for quiet:
In Taiwan in the late ‘80s I was forever asking restaurant managers to turn down their overly sentimental, usually western rock n’ roll so I could study during lunch. Tai da shung, I would tell them, pointing at the ceiling. Too loud. Ching... I would pantomime turning a dial. Back at my table, was it my imagination, or had the music actually gotten louder?
At a hotel restaurant in Portland, the waitress appeared both surprised and grateful by my request. You mean we can actually turn the music...down? Thank God! A teriyaki place I frequent in Seattle, on the other hand, has adamantly refused my entreaties. Because the kitchen help is listening to the same music and it's all they have to help through another day of drudgery? No, they play their own tunes. The music is for our benefit. Background noise, perhaps, so we won't hear one another chew, or so single diners might feel less lonely (listening to songs of love and loss). The real reason probably lies closer to my own reaction. As soon as I finish my food, I'm gone. There's no reading the rest of the chapter. There's no lingering there.
Over the years, I think I‘ve gotten better at blocking it all out. I guess you have to. There are no quiet places. At the Mariners game on Wednesday, my friend Jim complained about the overly loud music between innings, making conversation difficult, and I nodded, but I’m like the traffic cop now. “Oh right. That.” But back when I wrote the piece? The Mariners game was exactly one of the complaints:
At a baseball game my friends and I have to shout at one another to be heard over the PA system and its warmed-up rock classics. Ditto the bar after the game. Are we all such lousy conversationalists that we need to create so many impediments to conversation? Or does the loud, raucous background give the appearance that we are leading loud, raucous lives?
Anyway, now I know who to blame: Public Utilities Comm'n v. Pollak (1952).