When Bose released its QuietComfort 2 headphones, it successfully introduced a world without noise for the masses. These headphones were one of the first to silence the outside world while not producing their own white noise. By insulating the auditory, Bose enabled a world where we can all be in proximity, listening to completely different things, experiencing the same scene with wildly different states of mind.
Headphones have a powerful ability to create artificial environments in everyday situations. Now that we have this tool that successfully grants us the ability to zone in (or zone out) we don’t really think about their influence on our day—they’re just part of our routine. I think headphones have enjoyed subtle, yet prevalent, success in distorting what it means to be experiencing reality. We use them in all kinds of situations—on the subway, while studying, in car rides, when we are trying to sleep—yet they receive little thought from us beyond their functionality, cleanliness and battery life.
The philosopher of media and communication, Marshall McLuhan, once declared that “medium is the message.” The famous phrase is meant to express the idea that the mediums through which information is communicated become more important than the actual content that the medium is transmitting. In the case of modern-day headphones, the medium has taken a deciding stake in how we experience the world. Headphones have become mediums that can change our mood, our thinking and the filter we see the world through.
Headphones influence our mental systems by serving as tone setters of sorts. If we listen to upbeat music, we are more likely to be upbeat. If we put on a comedy podcast, we may look at the world more humorously. A lot of this mood alteration influences our perspective for at least as long as we have the headphones on. Think about your walk to class. If you don’t have headphones in, then your thoughts likely follow a more ‘normal’ flow. When you do have headphones in, you are immersed in another auditory realm—especially if the headphones are noise-canceling.
Noise-canceling headphones have a great capability to create isolation in populated situations. This artificial isolation is particularly interesting because it can be either an effective tool or produce a dystopian story of disconnect. The dystopian part of headphones can be seen in the subway. On the ride to or from work, hundreds of people are surrounded by each other but all plugged into their personal auditory reality. Even on a walk on the quad someone may be completely immersed in the world of audio they have fostered. It is like the medium creates a situation where all users are in close proximity, but in completely different and disconnected mental realities.
I find it interesting to consider headphones, particularly noise-canceling headphones, from a perspective of virtual reality. Although they don’t fit into a niche of virtual or augmented reality, since they tend to focus on the three-dimensional aspects of reality, they do foster a certain kind of additional reality. I’ve recently found myself listening to a Spotify playlist called “90s Skate Shop.” Although I never lived a second through the 90s, nor have I taken up skating, I create a reality of what that skate shop is, how it looks, who’s there.
Beyond this playlist, I am sure most of us create our own playlists that are meant to capture a feeling or situation. We create these seemingly minute instances of what a feeling or situation should be. But they likely have a higher power than that. By creating these playlists we capture a reality that then affects how we operate. A fast-paced, energetic playlist makes us move faster. A slow, melancholy playlist makes us move quicker. The clarity on whether technologies are positive or negative is almost always blurry. I think headphones have especially blurred the line. Being cognizant of when and how these technologies are being used is the key to ensuring the realities we consume aren’t consuming us.