January 19, 2004 | Peter

The Unquiet Suburbs

For years now the pundits have been predicting the end of office work and a migration of work to the suburbs. The advent of high-capacity computers and the Internet has supposedly made it possible for information workers to work at home now, so-called teleworkers.
Well, this trend has been slow to develop for various reasons. One reason is that workers do not want to turn their home into a workplace. Often work is stressful, and they want to be able to physically leave it behind at night. Another is the constant distraction of children or partners, or chores that they could be doing instead. And another is the loss of status that comes with working in an office.
Anyway, for some years I’ve been grappling with the pluses and minuses of working at home, first as a PhD student, then as a part time academic, and now as a full time writer.
The main comment I have to make is the noise levels in suburbs these days. I have often lived in high rise units, which now have very high noise levels, thanks mainly to the wonderful technology of new stereo and TV sound systems. This is especially true the base notes, which are transmitted largely unattenuated though the very structure of the building. They now have this thing called a ‘subbie’ which will literally vibrate your teeth.
Another problem has been building sites. There is a building boom going on in my suburb. In my street a four-story house was built that took a whole year to build. The size of the new houses and the length of time to build them means that it is quite common for there to be at least one nearby building site at any time.
The problem is not so much the noise of work, although that can be distracting to say the least. On one site the demolition began at 6 AM on a Sunday and went on all morning; contractors regularly work on Saturdays and Sundays now. So, unlike the workers, you can at times get no break for weeks on end. Mostly workers keep to the rules, like not starting work before 7 AM. But if they don’t, there is stuff all you can do about it.
Nope, the worst problem is radios. These days site workers mostly have their radios on to work to. Sometimes they have big ones, in boom boxes or in their cars, so they can entertain the whole site.
Th point about radios is that they go on all day, and the whole content is designed to keep you listening. So you get one different song after another (or if you are unlucky, some rabid shock-jock), and frenetic talk in between, not to mention the ads. All this has been carefully designed over decades of practice by radio programmers and advertisers to make sure the listener does not switch the noise into ignore mode in their head. Which raises interesting questions about worker productivity while listening to radios (not to mention TVs), but that’s another issue.
So, there I was a few years ago, just about finished my doctoral thesis when building sites sprang up all around me. I tried asking the workers to turn their radios down (so only they could hear them, not the whole street). Some complied, most didn’t, and on occasion they turned them up to show me who was boss. Building workers, especially tradesmen, are on the whole very macho types and don’t like changing their ways for anyone. These guys are the last of the rugged individualists. I know, I’ve worked as a brickie’s labourer.
Even if you get on to the builder, which I did, they do not discipline the many contractors who turn up on site.
Anyway, thinking there must be some relevant noise pollution laws, I tried the state government, who told me it was a council issue. They in turn tut-tutted, but basically they could do stuff all, the laws on sound pollution are so weak. The most sympathetic council officer I spoke to regaled me with truly horrifying tales of building workers taking massive speakers to work so they could hear the radio over the noise of the cement mixer or tile cutter, and how there was nothing the council could do about it. I became disillusioned.
So, eventually, I moved, and completed by PhD.
And so now I sit in my unit listening to the lawn mowing contractors with their roller mowers, rotary mowers, edgers, whipper-snippers and blowers, and the profusion of mobile carpet cleaners, pool cleaners and mechanics with their power generators who now prowl the suburbs, and the automatic sprinkler systems, pool pumps, and air conditioners, and of course the house and car burglar alarms (they mostly seem to cut off after about twenty minutes, but not always) and in between I get some work done.

Posted by Peter at 4:44 pm | Comments Off on The Unquiet Suburbs |
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