Where I currently live, the TV goes on before 7 a.m. each day and stays on until 10 p.m. every night. The awkward staccatos of morning news cascade into an endless cacophony of cable: the dour melodies of World War II documentaries, the tinny early Western gunfights, the crunch and wail of cop dramas audible in every room. This aural overload persists into the evening whether or not someone is watching, as if the TV were a scented candle or a clock rather than the roaring content waterfall that it is. Wherever I go, I hear it all, I receive everything and I enjoy almost nothing.
Months of Zoom conferences punctuated by flushes and farts have shown that knowing how and when to press mute — on yourself, on others — has become a necessary social skill.
This isn’t my house, and shutting down the all-day noise buffet is not an option. Due to a bout of ill health before the coronavirus hit, I moved back in with my parents a year ago at the age of 32, and I have navigated a loud, foggy funhouse of outdated family dynamics ever since; I choose my battles carefully. Occasionally, when someone leaves to take a walk or run an errand — inevitably leaving the TV on — I sprint on frayed nerves to the TV room and give myself a gift, the highlight of the day, the joy of all sad pandemic joys: I press mute.
On the big remote, it nestles between “volume” and “channel.” On the small, it relaxes a few centimeters above “play.” On both remotes it works perfectly and without hesitation. Its warm, sensuous thermoplastic elastomer offers only a hint of playful resistance, rubbery flirt that it is, before yielding under the thumb as directed. And then I hear so much: the layered hum of appliances, the bustle of the street and the wind, some days soft and others rough. Never possessive, only inviting, patient, kind, the mute button beckons my surrounding world closer and nudges me, in all my cabin fever, a little closer to the world.
Yes, I know. I hear myself. It’s possible I’ve begun to have feelings for a button. But while my crush may be especially bad, I don’t think I’m alone. Muting is having a moment, as it should. Months of Zoom conferences punctuated by flushes and farts have shown that knowing how and when to press mute — on yourself, on others — has become a necessary social skill. A button, of course, cannot solve any of our current crises, but for those confined to their homes and devices, it’s a vital escape hatch — not away from our lives, but back into them.
The boundaries between public and private life were fragile before the pandemic, frayed in particular by the intrusions of a must-watch reality TV presidency and the tech industry’s appification of every corner of daily life. Covid-19 has intensified this already oversaturated, overstimulating media diet, migrating so many of our work and school days online and restricting most of our recreation, entertainment and social encounters to our screens.
Though further research is warranted, experts caution that the habit of diving repetitively into a howling sea of content, helpless against its engineered rip tides, can leave both mind and body wrecked. But fully quitting all devices and accounts is not realistic for most, for now. While we wait and fight for responsible regulation or better design, it’s important to seek out moments of respite and simple three-dimensional pleasures. For that, I again suggest the mute button. And I suggest falling in love.
While many of our digital tools keep us deeply in their grip by design, the mute button is the timely opposite of today’s pervasive FOMO. It allows the button-presser to say, “I am here, and not there, and I’m OK with missing what’s there, because here is where my focus belongs.” This vintage ability is exactly what makes me swoon.
Perhaps the new appreciation for muting is what made it especially hard to watch the first presidential debate, during which moderator Chris Wallace didn’t have a mute button, but, thank God, I did. That night, it alone kept me from leaving the house and throwing myself into the nearest fictional ballot-filled creek. Looking ahead to Thursday’s debate with a reflexive dread, I know the mute button can’t change the course of what may be another grisly political spectacle. I’ll count on it instead to help me hear what’s going on most immediately around and within me, as hard as that can be to confront. To hear myself, not in an echo chamber, but in context.
O, mute button. Humble yet powerful, muffler of tyrants and Geico commercials. Faithful sentry, keeping trolls and ex-lovers’ selfies from entering my precious streams. Blessed cloak of inaudibility, sweet cape of mum, protect my home and the homes of the co-workers I don’t actively hate. We pull you close during our dullest meetings, knowing our boss cannot hear our grumbles or the screams of our children.
Launchpad of calm, teach me to use your powers with best intentions, not to shut down or avoid my life, but to relish it with all my senses. Fasten me to stillness, to the good listener, to the better self I know lies deep within. Impress upon me your Sphinx-like wisdoms. Please, dear mute button, push me — upward, outward or at least off the couch.
I have to admit that sometimes I hit mute only to have my momentary clarity scurry immediately back into the intellectual junkyard of my phone, where I scrounge for other people’s takes on anything and everything, numbing out again. Loving something as perfect as the mute button does not make me a perfect lover. I hope practice might.