It’s amazing to think that just a whisker over a century ago, there were no headphones of any kind. Since 1910, this technology has not only advanced it has proliferated. Most people reading this see people with headphones (or ear buds, or something similar) every day – many will use them daily, either for listening to music, or for communication software like Discord, Skype, and Zoom. They have outsold mice to become the most widespread computer accessory in the world, with a $10 billion market.
Noise-cancelling headphones are the most high tech option available at the moment. Sound propagates as waves, and all waves can be manipulated by the addition of other patterns of waveforms. Noise-cancelling tech uses a microphone to detect ambient noise, inverts the waveform, then adds the 180 degree inverse wave to the soundwaves being played. This almost completely neutralises the sound of the outside world, isolating the user in a audio world of their own. Fantastic news... unless you are trying to cross the road, then you have rendered yourself deaf and thus in far greater danger! I won’t dwell too much on this particular risk, but it is still worth bearing it in mind.
Noise-cancelling headphones use almost identical components to the earpieces considered on Tuesday, with a diametrically opposite effect. If earpieces bind us together into co-operative cyborg collectives, noise-cancelling headphones shut out the outside world and isolate us. Setting aside the practical problems of combining these kinds of headphones with motorised vehicles, this is not necessarily a situation provoking any kind of moral debility. Everyone needs their alone time, and being able to focus precisely upon sounds is especially useful for sound engineers and other people who work closely with audio data. But the noise-cancelling headphone is emblematic of a world of consumers invited and tempted to revel in private solipsism. Shutting out the people around us is a natural instinct for humans – as Kant suggested, we are a species who primary collective experience is one of ‘sociable unsociability.’ We paradoxically want and need to be around other humans, even though we can’t always bear to do so, and tend to sabotage our social bonds through petty competitiveness.
It is certainly not a sign of moral debility to want to use noise-cancelling headphones. But the fact that this invention gives rise to this device and not others might give us pause. After all, the same technology could also be used to cancel out the tinny racket made by the person on the bus or train who has turned their volume up to tinnitus-inducing levels. But there is simply no motive in a purely individualist culture to care about the noise pollution we are causing around us, much less pay to stop it. This is a sign of a far bigger problem, one merely papered over by the consumerist hymn to individualism: our disempowerment in the face of technological corporate interests is presented to us as our personal freedom.
A Hundred Cyborgs, #41