Bubbles of sound in the public space

how iPods are changing the way we interact

Michael “Dr. iPod” Bull, a professor at the University of Sussex, says wearing headphones in public spaces creates “mobile bubbles of sound,” which affect person-to-person interaction.
Michael “Dr. iPod” Bull, a professor at the University of Sussex, says wearing headphones in public spaces creates “mobile bubbles of sound,” which affect person-to-person interaction.
Credit: 
Illustration by Dave Lee

It’s plain to see how ubiquitous iPods and other personal music players have become. a quick glance
at people walking around campus makes this point abundantly clear.

What isn’t as visible is the impact the growing trend is having on our urban culture.

Yesterday morning, I undertook an unscientific survey of how many students on campus wear earphones when walking alone. Standing at the corner of university and union, I counted 100 students walking alone between 9:45 and 10 a.m. Of those 100 students, 48 were wearing earphones.

So, if almost half the people walking around in our public spaces are essentially blocking out the world around them—even if only aurally—what does that mean for our experience of public space and community, in the traditional sense of those words?

Vincent Mosco is a professor in the sociology department at Queen’s and also the Canada research Chair in Communication and society. His most recent book, The Digital Sublime: Myth, Power and Cyberspace, addresses the myths surrounding new technologies and their impact on
social life and culture.

Mosco said the most significant influence that personal music players have on one’s experience of public space is that they isolate people. “At least a piece of your attentions focused on what you’re hearing,” he said. “And while that can be a very pleasant experience, it tends to detract your attention certainly from other people and from the kind of experience of space that we once had when all of our senses were focusing on the environment that we were moving through.”

Mosco added that he thinks people focus less attention on public spaces when wearing earphones. “For some, it’s not a significant issue because the music they’re listening to … becomes a kind of soundtrack background to the experience of public space,” he said. “But public space includes people, and you can’t communicate with people while you’re listening to music.” He said public space, or the
urban environment, has become a kind of background scenery to the music we listen to rather than the primary focus of our experience.

“So rather than experiencing it in the fuller sense we may have when we focused all of our senses on it, it’s [now], in some respects, like moving through a movie set.” My attempts to talk to someone wearing earphones on the street yesterday morning illustrated Mosco’s point perfectly. It’s difficult enough to interrupt strangers on their way to class or the library—and who are also likely just out of bed—but it’s especiallydifficult to get the attention of people who are wearing earphones.

For this assignment, I had to walk directly towards someone; wait until they became aware of my nearing presence; make eye contact;mouth something like “Hi” in slowmotion; then wait for them to pull out their earphones and either stop walking, or, in some cases, simply slow down their stride. And forget about trying to get someone’s attention if they happen to get ahead of you.

Luckily, after several failed attempts to speak with a pluggedin student, I successfully stopped Pras Kayilasanathan, Law ’08, who was on his way to Stauffer and was game to talk with me for a bit. (Strangely, Kayilasanathan left his earphones in for the duration of the interview, and I didn’t notice him shutting off his player, so it’squite possible that he continued to listen to his music while answering my questions.)

He said he didn’t feel disconnected from his environment when wearing earphones.

“I’m cognizant and aware of my surroundings,” he said, but added that it did make it more difficult when greeting other people. He also admitted that it added a certain level of privacy when heading out in public. “It can provide a sort of escape when you don’t want to be bothered,” he said.

Mosco addressed the potentially awkward situation of greeting someone you know while listening to music. “The experience of encountering someone you know involves a whole set of actions, like taking your headphones off, turning off the iPod, and that sometimes enters the decision you make about how you acknowledge the other person,” he said. “You may just give them a quick ‘Hi’ and then move on because you’re enjoying the song you’re listening to.” So, in addition to the pressure of quickly trying to remember someone’s name, you’re forced to decide whether the friend in question is worth an interruption of your music. As if we don’t already have enough potential social missteps prone to over-analysis. Robert Oliver is a PhD candidate in the geography department. His research has focused primarily on the study of public spaces and how people interact in and with them.

In an e-mail interview with the Journal, Oliver touched on the potential for voyeurism and the sense of etachment facilitated by personal music players. “One might suggest that wearing headphones allows one to gaze [at] others, to watch them with a greater degree of security that we ill not be interrupted by them,” he said. “It is possible to interpret the wearing of headphones as allowing a degree of permissive voyeurism.” What Oliver is describing has been called “the non-reciprocal
gaze” by Michael Bull, a professor in the media and film department at the University of Sussex, who is often referred to as “Dr. iPod” for his leading research and extensive writing on mobile communication technologies and their influence on urban culture.

“Listening to music lets you look at someone but don’t look at them when they look back,” he said in a February 2004 interview with culture and technology magazine, Wired. “The earplugs tell them you’re otherwise engaged. It’s a great urban strategy for controlling interaction.”

In one of his academic papers on the subject, Bull describes personal music players as treating “mobile bubbles of sound or ‘sonorous envelopes’” around people. Similarly, Oliver added that
personal music players allow people to avoid or block certain aspects of the urban environment. “We have to consider how listening to music distances the listener from the messiness of urban experience, permitting them to participate in verbal communications only of their choosing,” he said. “The city’s
soundscape becomes eliminated, whether it is the honking of vehicles, the sirens of emergency services, the babel of competing conversations or the occasional shout in the street.

“In short, we might accuse MP3 players of being a device of ‘walking privatism’ or ‘privatism on the move.’” But Oliver also suggested how using a personal music player could provide a more positive influence on the urban experience. “We might say that familiar music might make the experience of a seemingly unfriendly neighbourhood or unwelcoming urban space more friendly,” he said. “Here an acoustic familiarity may indeed help to create a degree of urban comfort.”

Wendy Richmond, a columnist with Communication Arts magazine, wrote an article last month entitled “The Internal Retreat From Shared Public Space” referring to the widespread use of personal music players.

I particularly enjoyed her comparison to the boom box stereo: “The boom box was intrusive; it was rude, loud, in-your-face and antagonistic,” she wrote. “But it was also inclusive; its sound was meant to be shared by anyone who wanted to listen. It could turn a city street into a neighborhood dance party.
“The Walkman was the opposite. It was, in a sense, a polite gesture. It was small and unobtrusive. But
it was also exclusionary. It spoke for its wearer, saying, ‘This is my personal space: Keep out.’”

Mosco said the long-term implications of this may be that community becomes “a more difficult enterprise to build.” “Many urban sociologist planners—people like Jane Jacobs—pointed out that building community is done in the incidental encounters that we experience in a city, in public space,” he said, adding that it is often the random encounters with other citizens that lead to thickening ties between people and contribute to building networks in cities.

“Some of this happens randomly, informally, casually, some of it more formally, but if there’s something that mediates that experience, i.e. earphones plugged into your ears and music streaming through, it’s more difficult to do that.
“So I think it makes building community more difficult.” But Mosco added that the widespread use of personal music players could open up the possibility for new forms of communities, such as virtual music communities centred on a shared appreciation for the same music. “My best sense is, at least for the short term, isolation will continue,” he said. “It’s going to be increasingly more difficult for people to make the kinds of connections they made in the past. They may make new ones, as they do online and through instant messaging, etc., but the kinds of face-to-face encounters that enriched public spaces and communities are going to be much more difficult down the road.
“So this is a real challenge for people who care a lot about community and public space.”

As communication technologies continue to facilitate less and less communication with the people physically closest to us, champions of vibrant communities and engaging public spaces may want to begin mourning the death of what makes living in cities so great: a shared, public culture.

But if you’re feeling isolated in public spaces and are lamenting the hollowing out of our communities,
don’t fret about it too much; you could always join another Facebook group to satisfy your communal needs.

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