None of the futurists, as far as I know, ever imagined white strings suspended from our ears. Not Orwell, nor Bradbury or Huxley. The idea of paper-thin pads that displayed reams of electronic information was popular throughout most twentieth century science-fiction. It seems commonplace. So much so that we’ve ceased to be even slightly amazed at the wonder of it anymore. Orwell and company could clearly imagine our sight being taken from us by such machines, but didn’t dare to imagine ear buds. Bradbury’s vision of a home cinema: with blaring sound and light from every walled surface covering your lounge room, is sinister, but not nearly as troubling as the subtle mundanity of two harmless white wires, tucked securely and humbly into your ear.
In recent years I’ve listened to my iPhone every chance I have. Any task that is mundane, any trip that is longer than thirty seconds, any time, any where, I stick my headphones in my ears. My argument was productivity. I don’t listen to that much music. I mostly listen to podcasts and audiobooks, rich with information and ‘helpful’ knowledge. A chance to keep learning on my ‘down time’. What else is there for me to listen to while I’m grocery shopping/walking to my meeting/washing up/driving?
Turns out a lot. By pure accident my wife took our entire collection of headphones with her on a recent trip and I’ve been left without customised artificial sound for the first time in years. I’ve had ample opportunity to buy some more but haven’t, because I’ve actually enjoyed the thinking time. My brain has stretched. I’ve listened in on conversations on public transport, a past time I had long forgotten the value of. I’ve ended up reading more, but only by a tad. Mostly I’ve just been thinking, getting used to my brain again. In recent times it feels as though we’ve become strangers.
I don’t feel like I’ve ever put myself in danger by adorning headphones, but it’s hard to argue that it doesn’t shut you off from the rest of the world. It not only takes your ears but your brain as well. Even I, headphone addict that I was, couldn’t manage to go through a transaction while still having headphones in my ears. The idea seemed too rude. It’s another way of not interacting with the world, or with yourself.
So let this obnoxious reminder of the superiority of the ‘unplugged’ life drive you to a few days off the buds. Before, ultimately, I find myself attached to them once more, arguing that I need to listen to this podcast on neuroscience and/or video games. Because, of course, they have us, the future is here, we gave it to ourselves, and our children will be born wrapped in white wire.