#112: White Noise

Last year, I wrote an essay for Real Life about AirPods despite not owning a pair myself at the time. That was intentional and fairly essential to the piece, as I was examining the earbuds’ externalities: how it feels to inhabit public space without an increasingly ubiquitous pair of headphones when everyone else is wearing them. If AirPods offer a near-perfect user experience to the users themselves, what kind of user experience do they impose upon the non-users? (That’s a good question to ask about many things, by the way). Anyway, I finally stopped resisting and have my own AirPods now. They’re mostly good and bad in all the ways I expected. The feeling of activating noise cancellation by squeezing the bud’s stalk for the first time was one of those technology moments that I’ll never forget—feeling the hum of the external world dim as smoothly as a laptop screen's brightness. The feature seems like black magic, transforming physical reality into another device setting; I immediately cautioned myself to use it sparingly. Interestingly, the noise-cancellation toggle, by highlighting that contrast between silence and the textured ambient noise that always surrounds us, has actually increased my awareness of the latter, along with my desire to hear it rather than block it.

David Graeber’s thesis about technological progress—that we were promised flying cars but got apps instead—seems like another way of saying that it’s easier to modify our subjective experience of the environment than to modify the environment itself. The urban planner in me hates to acknowledge the possibility that we might be giving up on building or maintaining any sort of commons, and are instead channeling our ingenuity into tools that let us shape our personalized realties in increasingly sophisticated ways. AirPods are yet another reminder that today’s seemingly fixed and unchangeable conditions might become tomorrow’s customizable preferences. But I’d already noticed all of that before I got my own AirPods. There’s another aspect of the earbuds, however, that has actually surprised me: The way they untether me from my phone and allow me to physically step away from it without interrupting my listening (I realize this is also true of other bluetooth headphones but it’s new to me). The amount of time I spend mindlessly clutching my phone has meaningfully decreased, and this change illuminates how much time I used to spend carrying it on my person just so I could keep the audio feed rolling. I expect this development to inscribe itself on the physical environment eventually: We’ll need safe places to leave our phones while we roam around various enclaves, listening and talking.

It seems like we’re always trying to run away from the places where computers are located, breaking them out of their confining infrastructure to maintain access as we stray further afield. The desktop PC first freed us from the limitations of centralized mainframes, allowing us to use computers at home instead of relying on the institutions that had them. Then mobile devices and cloud computing enabled a second escape, this time from the confines of the home and office themselves. Once we’d taken to the streets with our iPhones—once computers were everywhere—was there any place left we could run away to? If this is another kind of last mile problem, then, like its logistical counterpart, it’s increasingly measured in feet and inches, and AirPods are the mechanism that let us get away from our phones for small intervals of time without disconnecting entirely. The problem now, of course, is that both the cloud and the devices that access it are pretty much everywhere, so the spaces for momentary escape are squeezed accordingly. Depending upon what comes next, though, the distance between our AirPods and our phones might actually feel large in comparison.