Friday, March 28, 2014


It's a familiar scene: crowded onto public transportation, headphone-wearing young people are jostled aside by others who simply want to get on or off the bus/tram/morning circus. Young people also crowd the entrances, they do not move back, they are not the problem, however, why they do what they do and what it means, that is the problem.

my claim is this: Young people seek validation of their existence, as do we all? What is often lacking is a good outlet, a responsible channel,a functional means of self-validation, I believe and argue that what young people cannot have appropriately, they will appropriate inappropriately or dysfunctionally. They are, if nothing else, us, only without our means, they remain us. Do they? headphones allow youth to close off command channels to themselves they could never close off before the portable stereo Walkman. Monophonic portable radios did not spark the revolution in personal audio consumption, that had to wait for the Sony Walkman.

How liberating it must have been at first, music was free for the first time to follow us through our daily lives, it was unleashed from the basements of our personal sound dungeons and let loose on the city streets, the soundtrack of our lives. Movies set the pace and the tone, everyone had to have their theme music and backup band. If you wanted to feel a feeling, you only had to pop in a cassette.

I want to enumerate the phenomenology of headphones:

When you wear a headphone, by sight, your signals is that: 1. you will not be disturbed. 2. You may be disturbed. 3. You are closed to interaction with those people in your immediate environment. 4. Those in your inner circle and far removed from you physically can break through thanks to the marriage of portable mobile telephony and personal digital audio technology. Ah-hah says the young person, I listen to music perhaps because it's really important to me. while that is almost certainly true. We form our characters by a variety of processes, not least of which is our choice of audio consumption, it that the only reason? Does it fully explain why you listen on the tram while reading something else? Only 1 in 40 people is a true multi-tasker, What researchers call 'super-taskers' whose performance in several tasks at once, through rapid cycling is no worse than in any one singular task. Notice, the act of asking whether your beloved audio consumption isn't just wallpaper at least of the time, produces cognitive dissonance, where your words emanating from your left hemisphere language centre, say one thing but your body language emanating from many parts of your brain and spatially informed by (citation needed) your right hemisphere say something else.
It is useful to presuppose or notice or imagine that when you are interacting with another, there are two of you, at least, interacting with at least two of them. Back to headphones.
the benefits of being able to close off, by choice, your hearing means you need not attend to what others say on the tram.
  1. inevitably, your existence will be dysfunctionally validated because someone will have to acknowledge your existence by bumping you or tapping or shoulder or speaking rather loudly. In other words, the normal command channels having been mitigated or even eliminated, the physical command channels remain and in this touch averse society, Where young people not young enough to be cute or old enough to be useful workers sense on some intuitive level that the general regard for them is somewhere approaching useless for the majority of those who are not immediate family.

  2. So who's crazy now? Used to be that if someone was talking to themselves, you crossed the street because they were crazy, now, with bluetooth, hands free mobile telephony, many people exhibit lunatic behaviour that is now considered normal. how strange to hear someone on a tram wearing headphones and talking to someone who is not there via integrated microphones. How much stranger still that no one comments on the strangeness, sometimes there are dirty looks.
In summary, headphones offer control in a physically and visually crowded landscape. It is almost impossible to escape advertising without shutting our eyes. But we can shut off our ears by turning them on to audio we control. An ironic reversal, the one sensory modality we can't control well enough by conscious means, we control by technology, we can't push back our visual field, only shut our eyes, we cannot retreat inside our bodies but we can push the borders of our country of sound very far indeed.

Finally, status is conferred in public by who we ignore. Headphones confer maximum localised status that is at once instantaneous, totally personal and totally valueless in the wider scheme of society.


Anonymous said...

pretty nice blog, following :)

Naveen Khandelwal said...


Bulent Akman said...


Janek Ciechowski said...

I just dug this up, ~4 years after you stopped teaching me! I'm really enjoying the blog too; reminds me of some very fun times.

- Janek from IES

Janek Ciechowski said...

Really enjoying the blog; reminds me of some very fun times back when you used to teach me ~4 years ago!

- A certain Janek from IES