Noise: the forgotten pollution

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 June, 2006, 12:00am

Like all media fads, the Bus Uncle internet video - which attracted several million hits worldwide - was short-lived, and is no longer the talk of the town. The intense debate about it, however, does attest to the immense power of the new media. There is much excitement about the rise of interactive and participatory media, and even citizen journalism, where the users are not passive consumers, but creators of media content.

Such enthusiasm, unfortunately, has sidelined the key point in the incident - the fact that Bus Uncle was talking loudly on his mobile phone, with no consideration for other passengers - a phenomenon not uncommon on public transport. The standoff between the middle-aged Bus Uncle and the poor young Elvis he tried to bully verbally, also showed the apathy of city people. They were happy to remain bystanders or, like the youngster who taped the scene with his mobile phone, to play the role of a 'cool' reporter.

As we play to the creativity of the new media, we should also pause and ponder the 'coolness' of such technology. Does it bring us closer to others or push us farther from them? We are bombarded with millions of bits of information when we surf the internet, go blogging or use our mobile phones and Blackberries. But has this made us more caring about our surroundings and its future? Or does the information overload simply preoccupy and fatigue us, so that we hear without listening and watch without seeing?

Information is conventionally considered useful. But when there is too much of it, we risk becoming its prisoner. The Bus Uncle incident reminds us of the growing nuisance caused by the unrestricted use of mobile phones on public transport. In Japan, passengers are not supposed to speak on mobile phones, and use text messaging instead. The Stockholm city council recently created mobile phone zones on public transport, to make rides more pleasant for passengers.

Hong Kong society has become more environmentally aware in recent years, with rising concern for clean air, open space, preserving heritage buildings and the natural habitat. But, oddly, not much attention is paid to noise pollution. There was a recent controversy about elderly people singing and playing musical instruments, with loud-speakers, in Tuen Mun Park. Too many supported their right to entertainment and performance, and too few sympathised with nearby residents, who had to endure the noise.

One commentator described such intrusions - infringing our right to a noise-free environment - as 'noise rape'. That may sound sensational, but he's right. Look at the sources of noise blasting everywhere.

The installation of roadshow videos on buses and trains generates disruptive information - news sandwiched between income-generating advertising. Long-suffering passengers are told there are silent carriages on trains and a quiet zone on the bus. But there are few such carriages, and passengers must leave the enjoyable upper decks of buses to find a quiet zone.

Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen was embarrassed during a recent meeting with the governor of Yunnan province - his mobile phone rang with an incoming junk call. The problem of unsolicited junk mails received - whether by fax, mobile phone or e-mail - has come to the point where it can be stopped only by government regulation. It is also time for the government to tighten the controls on noise pollution in public places, including transport.

Anthony Cheung Bing-leung is an executive councillor and founder of SynergyNet, a policy think-tank