Loneliness is one
of the first things ordinary Americans spend their money achieving.
So wrote Stephen Marche in last month's cover story for The Atlantic. "Loneliness is at the American core, a by-product of a
long-standing national appetite for independence," he said. "The price of self-determination and self-reliance has often been
loneliness. Americans have always been willing to pay that price."
It is easy, and therefore popular, to say that headphones make us anti-social. But Marche is right. Wealth can buy -- and modern technology can deliver -- the independence that people have always sought. People have always had private thoughts. Headphones have the capacity to make our music like our thoughts. Something that nobody else can hear. Something we can choose to share.
Dr. Michael Bull, an expert on personal music devices from the University of Sussex, has repeatedly made the larger point that personal music devices change our relationship to public spaces. "People like to control their environment," he told Wired magazine, and "music is the most powerful medium for
thought, mood and movement control."
Controlling our public environment is more important now that Americans have stopped moving away from density. Sunbelt suburbs today are languishing. Urban centers are thriving. "Today, the most valuable real estate lies in walkable urban locations," Christopher B. Leinberger reported in a new Brookings study last week. In a re-urbanized United States, the earbud is the new car stereo. "With the
urban space, the more it's inhabited, the safer you feel," Bull says. "You feel safe
if you can feel people there, but you don't want to interact with them."
Personal music creates a shield both for listeners and for those walking around us. Headphones make their own rules of etiquette. We assume that people wearing them are busy or oblivious, so now people wear them to appear busy or oblivious -- even without music. Wearing soundless headphones is now a common solution to productivity blocks. Baldwin's invention for the Navy has become a social accessory with a explicit message: I am here, but I am separate. In a wreck of people and activity, two plastic pieces connected by a wire create an aura of privacy.
SOUND AND WORK
We still haven't answered the first question I posed: If headphones are so bad for productivity, why do so many people work with headphones?
It's not just that headphones carve privacy out of public spaces. It is also that music causes us to relax and reflect and pause. The outcome of relaxation, reflection, and pausing won't be captured in minute-to-minute productivity metrics. In moments of extreme focus, our attention beams outward, toward the problem, rather than inward, toward the insights."When our minds are at ease -- when those alpha waves are rippling through the brain -- we're more likely to direct the spotlight of attention inward," Jonah Lehrer wrote in Imagine. "The answers have been there all along. We just weren't listening."
In a crowded world, real estate is the ultimate scarce resource, and a headphone is a small invisible fence around our minds -- making space, creating separation, helping us listen to ourselves.