20 September 2008

Silent Raves: iPod vs Walkman Revolution

Imagine hundreds of people dancing in a public park but in silence; or more precisely by each one’s own iPod chosen track. In fact, this has been happening in cities like London, New York and Boston. Very simply, teens schedule a "silent rave" in social websites (Facebook, My Space), and the crowd then shows up at the designated place and time. Then, by the organizer's shout, everyone turns on their iPods simultaneously, dancing to the song of their choice. In relative silence (other than eventual shrieks from mouths and rubber-soled shoes), hundreds of bodies widely gesture at different rates, styles and rhythms. A silent rave lasts no longer than one hour. (Watch video at the end).

It is not simple to "sociologize" about this type of "dancing together but individually." Actually, the element of silence is not totally new in rave culture. In the early 1990s, silent raves were reported in northern California, but with a very significant difference. The dancing crowd had Walkmans which were set on the same radio frequency, with music being broadcast by a DJ with a pirate radio transmitter by the dancefloor. They danced in silence, but in synchrony - a very important difference in terms of ritual connection and experience.

Left-leaning NPR was ready to criticize the new iPod dance phenomenon as an example of autistic alienation, of a hyper-individualism that fragments society, and which teenagers sadly exemplify. Not too differently, from a radical countercultural viewpoint, these silent dance gatherings could be dismissed as pacified pseudo-raves, events that do not transgress the logic of state control of urban spaces and moving bodies. In fact, a passerby thought that the silent rave in London was a "city-sponsored program to combat stress"!

However, iPod raves could be rather seen as an emerging and sophisticated way to reclaim public spaces by indirectly circumventing laws on noise and public space. These are teen crowds celebrating togetherness through body expression, yet within the strange realm of "non-illegality". According to videos and anecdotal reports, these are daylight, apparently drug-free crowds. Nevertheless, if such events were to become popular, perhaps it would not take long for state authorities to take some repressive action. Does the state have the right to intervene in the private space of one's own subjective interiority?...

More deeply, I'd argue that the lack of a single rhythm unifying the crowd would prevent the liberating experience of self-transcendence which is very typical in religious gatherings - whether shamanic, evangelical or clubbing. As a collective catalyst, music binds all individuals together. It engenders an organic entity, triggering states of collective effervescence that overtake the individual, and may last for many hours. Perhaps, the fact that iPod raves last no more than one hour is indicative of such a lack.

Therefore, I am inclined to believe that the ancient Walkman syncronic silent rave (California 1990s) provides a much more socially connective experience than the emerging iPod variant (London 2000s). What is the point of choosing your own music to dance, if you can't share it with the person next to you, at any deeper level?... As such, it is ironical to observe that the iPod is an involution from the Walkman!

Well, we don't need to be deep all the time. All and all, iPod silent raves should be welcomed as a soft form of daylight socialization, why not?... At least, they will probably pave the way for real, all night long syncronized silent raves, yeah...

Video: London, Victoria Station, April 2007. Author: twittervlog


  1. I've been thinking about this too - its fun as one game among many, but so much is missed out, not just the collective soundtrack but actually feeling the music (bass bins shaking the body) rather than just hearing it through the ears.

  2. Really amazing piece Tony. Another example of how e-space augments the possibilities in meat-space.

    It is obvious to me that future versions of wearable, mobile technology will be able to intercommunicate with other devices in the same area; no doubt these silent raves will morph into synchronized events. Read Vernor Vinge's sf novel "Rainbows End" for the future of embedded ubiquitous tech and how it will change our world.


  3. Thanks for the book suggestion, Jef. Yes, good technology is to increase connection, togetherness, which is what modern people miss and what rave culture was primarily about. Let's hope that SYNCHRONIZED SILENT RAVES do not take too long to come about.

  4. inspiring article, Tony! I'm trying to imagine how silent raves might transform the way clubbers/ravers experience nights out. I agree with 'history' that it is very much about the beat in your spine and guts and everywhere around you. however, silent raves nicely combine chill-out zones with the dance-floor + it's environmentally more friendly!:)
    looking forward to read more!

  5. when you try one of these events its actually possible to discover a way to connect in a stronger way with other people. we've tried this at little house parties etc, and the reality is that the loss of audio connectivity with your peers results in a different form of engagement - people look at each other and communicate without words or without the crutch of shared music.

    This can then result in a deeper connection with those around you - everyone grooving to their own beat but strangely more aware and appreciative of others individual enjoyment of their own music.

    its actually a really cool way to connect, and may help foster stronger aural level connections among revelers.

  6. Synchronised Silent Raves have been going on in South Goa for 2 years now...

    www.silentnoise.in :-)

    All the best!

  7. Hey Dan - Thanks for checking. Nice website you got! (You Brits know to capitalize on good stuff....). Syncronized silent raves is another story, I agree. I LOVE Palolem, and wish you the best. Keep in touch. TT