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What do you think of when I say the word 'soundscapes'?

This is the first thing GIS thinks of, so you probably didn't do any worse.

Well, chances are you don't think of much of anything. If you are aware of this rather recent foray into the people management industry, however, you may well be thinking the same thing I am; soundscapes are going to be the next big thing in social control.

The effect sounds have on us is as subtle as it is powerful, and it's easily replicated by anyone in the privacy of their own home. Just put on a song, something loud and fast, with a heavy drum beat and perhaps a rapid electronic effect in there. As you listen to it, your heart starts to speed up, your blood flows faster, and you find yourself more alert and aware. There's a perfectly good evolutionary cause for this, of course. Loudness suggests a commotion which, back in the day, would've meant there was a pretty good chance something large and angry was about to charge through the undergrowth you're hiding in. It's the same reason we find birdsong particularly relaxing; it suggests that everything's okay, and there aren't any predators in the area. It's a subconscious signal that it's okay to let our guard down and take it easy.

There've been some uses of soundscapes already, the most well-known of course being the infamous efforts by certain 7-11s to shuffle loitering teens away from their front doors by playing classical music. And an airport commissioned its own internal soundscape, overlaying the hubbub of people and the roar of the jet engines with the sound of a quiet summer afternoon in the woods, complete with wind and water sounds and, of course, birdsong. But there's no reason to believe that these incidents are anything but the tip of the iceberg. As scientific human management becomes more and more all-encompassing, soundscapes will likely join uncomfortable public seating, bus shelters that don't reach the ground, impulse purchase racks, food courts in the centre of malls, staples in the centre of grocery stores and all those other elements of social control already practised by both private organizations and civil society, just one more tool in the behavioural modification toolbox.

And it won't just be institutions doing it to us, but increasingly we'll be doing it to ourselves. With the omnipresence of mp3 players, iPods and phones that play music (often at an annoyingly loud volume on public transit, but that's for another day), people are becoming ever more capable of constructing their own, private soundscapes. With even a small amount of time and technical expertise anyone can construct playlists to affect their emotional states, whether it's lifting their mood with some upbeat showtunes or helping them wallow with some ennui-drenched piano-backed soft jazz or getting them in the mood for a run with a bit of thumping electronica. This post was actually inspired by my own experience at work the other day, where a droning tech podcast, filled with people who, ah, who talked like, well, kind of like, ah, hm, well, ah, a bit like this...  And honestly, the lack of energy just dragged me down; my working pace slowed, my concentration fragmented, and it became a much more challenging task to keep doing what I'd been doing before this particular bit of sound changed my mood.  

This guy knows exactly what I'm talking about.

By the way, that sort of thing can make for an especially interesting phenomena in the future, as personal soundscapes vie with institutional soundscapes to determine who gets to shape your mood at the moment.  If the institution wants you to be relaxed and laid-back, but your own personal soundscape is fast and discordant, something will have to give.

I don't want to oversell this idea, of course. Soundscapes can encourage certain emotional states, but it's not as though teenagers will run screaming from Mozart, or the right poppy dance beat will keep sweatshop workers bright-eyed and bushy-tailed sixteen hours a day. They'll mostly just be one tool amongst so many others already deployed, by institutions both public and private, with a vested interest in making people feel a certain way while they're in a certain location.

In particular, I predict a lot of birdsong being ordered by hospital emergency waiting rooms and the DMV.

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