How about Thursdays? Do Thursdays work for you? From now on let’s say Thursdays are officially “No Headphones” Day. Thursdays will be the day where you have to go through the world and actually hear stuff NOT coming from the well-crafted playlists you’re otherwise always plugged into.
A lot of people don’t leave their apartments without an iPod or iPhone plus earbuds shoved into their ears. We like to listen to our music. Our music is preferable to the car horns, sirens, and screaming. Our music is superior to the rantings of egomaniacal bluetooth users, bird chirps, and having to overhear some douche with an obnoxiously loud voice tell his friend a story that ends with the line, “And so I’m like whatever, don’t suck my dick,” as though we’re really supposed to believe the other person in this story wanted to suck this douche’s dick. All that and so much more: The non-stop bombardment of auditory inputs you encounter walking from your front door to the subway station or bus stop is overwhelming. Not to mention what goes down on the bus.
On the bus, there’s always some awful parent yelling at some annoying kid: “BILLY, no! Stop. I said STOP. You’re not gonna get any Xbox tonight. STOP IT! You gonna cry now? Fine. Cry. Big boys don’t cry.”
Well yeh. Sure. The Beatles, grunge, Kanye West, Minor Threat, The Spice Girls, Glenn Gould, John Cale, John Cage, whatever it is people who like country listen to — our music is much better than the often loud, distracting, and disconcerting voices and noises we’re forced to pay attention to every day. So we wear our headphones all the time.
Gotta have the music. It protects us. When the hustler in his “Save the Children” T-shirt comes up to you with his clipboard and asks do you have a sec to chat, tap your headphones and keep moving. The headphone tap means: “Can’t hear you, sorry! I’m in my own music world.” The headphone tap means you don’t have to interact with this human being.
While this is enjoyable in the short-term — who wouldn’t rather listen to the best of Madonna or Mission of Burma over the vaguely psychotic mutterings of that kook sitting next to you on the bus? — in the long-term, it means we’re no longer a part of the actual, chaotic world around us. We’re cut off, self-exiled into a realm of good tunes, totally ignorant of what’s going on. This is bad for aesthetic, psychological, and social reasons.
Think of Herzog, Ulysses, W.G. Sebald’s stuff, or even Cheryl Strand’s recently published memoir Wild — if the protagonists of the these books were plugged into their ipods all the time, then these books wouldn’t exist. The stream of the characters’ consciousnesses would be drowned out by the music they listened to, just as our thoughts are displaced by our chosen tunes.
Constant engagement with music diminishes our experiences. Wearing headphones all the time means you’re in no longer involved with this lively world, where anything can happen. Instead you’re in a controlled environment of playlists and albums. There’s no chance of estrangement, excitement, or surprise.
In a contemporary novel, perhaps one written by Tao Lin or Barbara Browning, the protagonist would think: And then I was going to have some interesting thoughts but instead I put on my headphones so I could listen to my favorite songs and ignore the bothersome, beautiful discord of my brain and not have to deal with these wackjobs around me.
By listening to music all the time, we close ourselves off from our rambunctious thoughts and from the world, reducing the possibility of a jarring sound or idea intruding into our experience. Headphones become our earmuffs. Our ability to notice is diminished. We no longer have to participate or think. It’s rather drab and dulling in the long run. Plus, it means that the novels that our lives become much more boring. And it’s a bad show. You think a real flâneur would wear headphones?
In Alone Together, a recent study about the effects of technology on our lives, Sherry Turkle writes, “We fill our days with ongoing connection, denying ourselves time to think and dream.” Turkle goes on to write that by being so plugged in we limit ourselves. We no longer have the ability to simply think. We focus on the next text message or tweet. Instead of being filled with mental wanderlust, our minds are hobbled by connectivity. Technology hampers our thoughts and dreams.
Once we put on our headphones, we turn off our brains. This can be nice. We no longer have to focus on stressful thoughts about work or home. We can listen to Morrissey’s crooning or Lady Day’s rasping, and not worry about it.
However, it means less time for mental rambling. You know, actual brain storming no longer happens. Music has a profound impact on our thoughts and by always listening to it we don’t give these thoughts free reign. There’s less chance for flights of fancy or for brain light bulbs to turn on. The music keeps our minds occupied.
We haven’t yet developed an etiquette that helps us manage all this new technology, which means that it’s socially acceptable to wear headphones wherever you are, even at work or in other places where you end up looking like an obtuse dick, because by wearing headphones all the time you send the message that you can’t be bothered with social niceties or small talk. You can’t stop to say “hi.” If you engage in conversation, it’s with one earbud left in.
This analysis is a bit harsh, but we must admit that by always engaging with technology, like our ipods, we cut off the opportunity for normal, human social interactions. The headphones become barriers that make conversation impossible. This is useful if you’re on an airplane and the lady adjacent decides you need to get SAVED, but otherwise it means you miss on all opportunities to talk and be a part of real life.
Wearing headphones isolates. It’s as if the people around you don’t exist. By wearing headphones, especially in the work-place or in your neighborhood where someone you know might want to chitchat, you send the message you can’t be bothered.
Implicitly we’re telling the people we meet in real life, “You’re not that important to me,” as though hearing that same Antlers song again is somehow going to change your life. All this isolation and implicit dismissal adds up.
This isn’t a Luddite screed against ipods. It’s an attempt to reckon with the fact that technology has a pervasive influence in our lives, shaping how we encounter and understand the world, and we rarely, if ever, think about what the consequences of our constant engagement with technology might be. While listening to music is a blast, wearing headphones all the time means we no longer participate in the world around us. We close ourselves off from aesthetic intrusions, no longer allow ourselves to think freely, and reduce our chances for social pleasantries or small talk with strangers. We trade the short-term pleasures provided by our favorite songs for diminished aesthetic, psychological, and social experiences.
This is a throw-down to you. Consider if it would be beneficial to have one day a week where you leave the headphones at home and have to deal the distracting, startling, strange, and annoying voices, noises, and thoughts all around you.
That’s the challenge — to find wonder and beauty in this disaster, instead of just escaping into your own little world of technological satisfaction.
So next Thursday maybe?