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The headphone effect

By Michael Richardson

For the Deseret News

Published: Monday, May 30 2011 3:00 p.m. MDT

A letter to the federal Radio Division from a Mormon in Salt Lake City, written in violet ink on blue and pink paper, changed media’s influence forever.

The literally colorful letter introduced the birth of headphones. Did the heavens look down and smile or did Hades look up and do the same? Or was the invention just another technological advancement, whose influence is dependent on how humans use it?

In the first years of the 20th century Nathaniel Baldwin, tired of not being able to hear general conference, invented a sound amplification system in the form of a headset. The Radio Division of the federal Bureau of Steam Engineering was made aware via colorful correspondence. The headset from Salt Lake City came for testing soon after in a baking powder tin, according the book, “The Early Radio Industry and the United States Navy.”

A Navy researcher laughed upon seeing the strange contraption of clock springs and hemp twine, but the laughs turned to shock as the headphones proved to be better than any headphone on the market at the time. The Navy wanted more so badly they accepted a contract of only 10 headsets from Baldwin, who they discovered was working out of his kitchen.

Eventually a series of these violet ink/blue and pink paper letters between Baldwin and the Navy resulted in Baldwin’s booming radio business employing 150 people. Despite encouragement from the Navy, Baldwin never patented his headphones, considering them a “trivial” invention.

Not so trivial to the billions of users and millions of uses headphones have today. How do headphones impact the world? How have they changed society?The answer depends on who one talks to.

Theorists of the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory might have concluded headphones can be detrimental to society. They believed the “culture industry,” or the businesses controlling fashion, media and entertainment all work together to make money, by getting people to stop thinking for themselves, and to care only about having fun. Todd Goodsell, assistant professor of sociology at BYU, explained that to Frankfurt thinkers, escaping into headphones would not be insignificant.

“If the music doesn’t require thinking, and you’re only being entertained, then you are perpetuating your own subordination,” said Goodsell, speaking in terms of the Frankfurt School.

Members of the Frankfurt School worried that as entertainment draws us in, it also separates us from issues that really matter, essentially lowering our moral standards and leaving important social problems unsolved.

Spencer Quilter, a pre-media arts major from Lehi, Utah, said sometimes behavior changes as people enter another world via headphones.

“People forget where they’re at,” Quilter said.

Stephanie Lee, an economics major from Calgary, Canada, said that everyone should have some chance to escape reality.

“Entertainment in general is escapism, but it is healthy for everyone to have a form of escapism,” Lee said, adding a disclaimer that, “It's good to be OK with silence, to be in the world you are in, instead of an alternate one.”

Alluding to a question raised by the movie Inception, can the habit of leaving reality for illusion grow until people find themselves escaping illusion for reality? Do people have a firm awareness of what is real?

A different perspective on the influence of headphones comes from post-modern thinkers, according to Goodsell. These thinkers make the point that early in the last century, there was essentially one type of car, one color of car and neighborhoods with one type of house. Everything was mass-produced at the lowest cost possible, eliminating variety.

But in this post-modern age, our wealth has led the business industry to provide innumerable options for specific markets. Goodsell said that to post-modern thinkers, we can purchase our identity through our choice of what technology, music, or other items we consume.

Therefore, by choosing certain headphones, people are placing themselves in a group, giving themselves an identity. Earbuds, full size, Skullcandy, Coby and Bose say something about who we are.

“What appears to be shutting yourself off from the world may actually connect you to certain groups,” Goodsell said.

Thomas Hildebrand, a sophomore from Buffalo, N.Y., said for him, headphones characterize the person wearing them, and can often be distinguishing enough that he won’t even look at the person wearing them.

“It’s a defining trait,” Hildebrand said.

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