These days human beings come in two types: those with tiny earphones inserted in their ears, like mini tampons, and those with giant headphones over their ears, like earmuffs. The headphone epidemic marks a turning point in human history. Before headphones (BH) people who shared the same physical space also shared the same aural space, just as they breathed the same air. Now, after headphones (AH), they each have tailor-made soundtracks. Take any three people sitting near you on a train and you’ll have three completely different aural worlds: Wagner’s prophecy of the end of the world to your left, Eminem’s psycho-drama with his mother to your right, and a one-sided conversation about corporate restructuring behind you. A bedlam of babble in a handful of headphones.
The headphone revolution began with the Sony Walkman in 1979. “Walking around with a head full of music,” sang Cliff Richard, advertising the wondrous new gadget. Headphone-wearing has gathered furious pace because of smartphones, improvements in the quality of miniature speakers and wireless technology.
Innovations are breeding further innovations to help deal with the downside of previous innovations. Neiman Marcus sells fancy strings so you don’t lose your earbuds. The latest Apple range has a function called “clear” so you can listen to what’s going on around, just as you would be able to if you weren’t wearing earbuds. This is absurd, of course. But some people now wear earbuds all the time so that they’re permanently wired to receive phone calls or blast their minds with music.
Doctors worry that headphones are damaging people’s hearing. I worry about the epidemic of social isolation. Headphones proclaim to the world that you’re more interested in the inside of your head than you are in what’s going on in your immediate vicinity. (“I am a rock, I am an island” as one of the million sound tracks available has it.) How can we even dream of a common purpose when everyone is absorbed in their own soundtrack?
Headphones are licence for deplorable behaviour. Barristas complain that customers grunt orders while listening to deafening music. Commuters who are bashed by people wearing giant backpacks find that the basher is deaf to their complaint. People with buds in their ears suddenly burst out into animated conversations with unseen interlocutors. On a recent train journey a fellow passenger gave a complete rendition of “South Pacific” to a furious carriage.
But as with most technology-driven trends, if you can’t beat them then you’d better join them. The shared world is increasingly intolerable: public announcements are becoming more tedious, conversations are littered with management speak, and those ubiquitous headphones leak tinny sounds.
So, while waiting for a flight, I nervously bought a pair of Sony earmuffs. Now I too can listen to Karajan conducting Beethoven or Gielgud declaiming Lear. Perhaps most important, I can completely cut myself off from an irritating world of jabbering people and ear-splitting announcements. What a pity I keep bumping into so many people with my backpack.•