The artificial environment created by headphones – The Bowdoin Orient

February 25, 2022

This piece represents the opinion of the author.

Kyra Tan

When Bose released its QuietComfort 2 headphones, it successfully introduced a noise-free world to the masses. These headphones were among the first to silence the outside world without producing their own white noise. By isolating the auditory, Bose has enabled a world where we can all be in close proximity, listening to completely different things, experiencing the same scene with very different states of mind.

Headphones have a powerful ability to create artificial environments in everyday situations. Now that we have this tool that gives us the ability to focus (or get out), we don’t really think about their influence on our day anymore – they just become part of our routine. I think headphones have had subtle, but widespread success in distorting what it means to live in reality. We use them in all sorts of situations – on the subway, while studying, in the car, when we’re trying to sleep – but we pay them little attention beyond functionality, cleanliness and how long they last. their battery life.

Media and communication philosopher Marshall McLuhan once said that “the media is the message”. The famous phrase is meant to express the idea that the media through which information is communicated become more important than the actual content that the medium conveys. In the case of modern headphones, the medium has taken a decisive part in the way we experience the world. Headphones have become mediums that can change our mood, our way of thinking and the filter through which we see the world.

Headphones influence our mental systems by serving as sort of sound generators. If we listen to upbeat music, we are more likely to be upbeat. If we put out a comedy podcast, we could look at the world with more humor. Much of this mood altering influences our perspective at least as long as we wear the headphones. Think about your walk to class. If you don’t have headphones, your thoughts are probably following a more “normal” flow. When you have headphones on, you’re immersed in another auditory realm, especially if the headphones are noise-canceling.

Noise canceling headphones have a great ability to create isolation in crowded situations. This artificial isolation is particularly interesting because it can either be an effective tool or produce a dystopian story of disconnection. The dystopian part of headphones can be seen on the subway. On the way to or from work, hundreds of people are surrounded by each other but all tuned into their personal auditory reality. Even during a ride on the quad, someone can be completely immersed in the world of audio he has developed. It’s as if the medium creates a situation where all the users are in close proximity, but in completely different and disconnected mental realities.

I find it interesting to look at headphones, especially noise canceling headphones, from a VR perspective. While they don’t fit into a virtual or augmented reality niche, since they tend to focus on the three-dimensional aspects of reality, they do promote a certain type of supplemental reality. I recently found myself listening to a Spotify playlist called “90s Skate Shop”. Although I never lived for a second in the 90s, or started skating, I create a reality of what this skate shop is, what it looks like, who is there.

Beyond this playlist, I’m sure most of us create our own playlists meant to capture a feeling or situation. We create these seemingly tiny examples of what a feeling or a situation should be like. But they probably have higher power than that. By creating these playlists, we capture a reality that then affects how we operate. A fast and energetic playlist makes us move faster. A slow and melancholic playlist makes us move faster. Clarity about whether technologies are positive or negative is almost always hazy. I think the headphones particularly blurred the line. Knowing when and how these technologies are used is key to ensuring that the realities we consume do not consume us.

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