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The Lonely World of Earbuds

Across six time zones, Americans sit in traffic, wait on platforms, and squeeze between strangers. We spend an average of 26.9 minutes each way commuting to work, while 15 million of us take more than an hour. Our commutes are usually the unpleasant bookends to even more unpleasant days. For those who use public transportation, commuting is the most time we spend in physical closeness to strangers, and we put up barriers to get through it.

Newspapers once served this function. Beyond keeping us entertained and informed, the newspaper was a physical shield between ourselves and the other passengers. A person with a newspaper is clearly engaged in something else. He or she has a clear social excuse for not making eye contact. Though digital subscriptions are up, physical weekday newspaper circulation has been declining for the past 28 years.

Thus, we’ve found new ways to avoid our fellow passengers. Smartphones and earbuds have come to replace newspapers as a way to signal, “leave me alone.” They let us access information and insulate ourselves from shared sounds, personalizing what was once a collective experience. In 1980, the Sony Walkman reached America from Japan and exploded in popularity. It didn’t have an external speaker and was optimized for use with headphones. Commuters could choose what they wanted to hear, winning back a modicum of control. Now, the content we listen to follows us everywhere. Walking down a city street or across a campus, we can take back our auditory world and split ourselves off from everybody around us. We’ve lost a collective experience, and the isolation that results might be more dangerous than we think.

For those navigating busy streets, too much distance from the physical world can be hazardous. It is actually illegal in New York State to be wearing “more than one earphone attached to a radio, tape player, or other audio device” while operating a motor vehicle, motorcycle, or bicycle. In urban streets crowded with electric scooters and bicycles, a misstep can be deadly. 30-year-old investment banker Dan Hanegby was wearing over-the-ear headphones when he was killed in a traffic accident in New York City. He couldn’t hear a bus coming up on his left, and he was hit and pinned against a parked van. Traffic accidents involving pedestrians are the most immediate and well-publicized effect of headphones on the urban environment. But this technology has influenced our lives in other, more subtle ways.

The first commercial for the iPod shows a man sitting at home with his laptop dropping music from his iTunes library into an iPod. He unplugs the device, plugs in his headphones, and dances to Take California by the Propellerheads. When the chorus starts, he grabs his jacket and strides out the front door. The message is straightforward: take your music with you and feel good. Commercials for noise-cancelling headphones promise business travelers quiet and comfort, giving them psychological distance from their physical setting.

In The Walkman Effect, Professor Shuhei Hosokawa described how the Walkman changed urban life and contributed to the autonomous culture of 1980s Japan. Before the Walkman, noises in cities bled into each other. Car radios, street musicians, dump trucks, and the sound of moving crowds all contributed to the environment. The Walkman allowed individuals to take ownership of a new part of themselves that was previously overtaken by the city. The Walkman listener was mobile, in control, and independent from the rest of the city. Hosokawa also predicted the rise of the iPhone, anticipating the invention of smaller and lighter hybrid gadgets combining “Walkman + alarm clock + calendar + calculator + video game +biorhythm calculator + exposure meter + small light + horoscope.”

A newspaper can’t be carried in front of your face as you walk, but our “hybrid gadgets” can. Even more freeing than the Walkman are wireless headphones. They can’t be snagged or even pulled out of our ears by another person. Apple’s AirPods are the most well-known symbol of high-tech individualism. Physically disconnected from the phone, the zone of comfort and insulation follows the user wherever they go. From a distance, it’s difficult to tell if someone is inside of their own sensory world, experiencing the 21st-century Walkman Effect. When they approach, we know they are hearing something unshareable, what Hosokawa calls a “secret theater.”

The creators of the Walkman worried about how isolating their product might seem. The first Walkman, released in Japan in 1979, included two headphone jacks and a “hotline” button. Two users could listen to the same music and communicate with each other by pressing the button to override the sound from the cassette. This feature was phased out in subsequent versions as the emphasis was placed on personal enjoyment of music alone. It might be valuable to remember what the Walkman’s inventors were thinking when they made their devices less exclusive: they didn’t want their users to cut other people out.

Headphones give us a level of plausible deniability when we don’t want to greet someone. They’re effective against strangers and old friends, on buses or in coffee shops. In that same vein, being ignored by someone with headphones stings slightly less, because we can give them the benefit of the doubt. The social consequences of antisocial technology can cut us off from the chance interactions that build healthy human relationships or prevent us from having difficult but necessary conversations. In the short term, it’s easier to disengage, but the Walkman Effect has outlasted the Walkman. We think very little about our earbuds, unless we’ve forgotten them in a jacket pocket, but they may have a more profound effect on our lives than we realize.

We are used to our movements being perceived by others. Strangers move to the side as we approach on the sidewalk, or stand back to let us pass in a crowded bus aisle. These interactions might be completely nonverbal, but they are still a small acknowledgment of our presence. Earbuds insulate the individual from noise, but they also isolate the person navigating an environment where fewer and fewer people can hear them. Behaviors we would perceive as rude from strangers, like not holding doors or not making room for us in crowded spaces, have been made more common by the pervasiveness of earbuds. Even if we have an explanation, it’s a lonelier world when no one can hear us.

It isn’t healthy for us to lose our little interactions. Being able to pick and choose what we experience might make life easier in the short term, but keeping our headphones in all the time distances us from the good things as well as the bad.

Photo: “Man Wearing Earphones