|By A.D. Freudenheim||
17 December 2001
After several years away, I have returned to being a user of one of the most revolutionary innovations of the last century: a personal audio system. Music has always been important to me, something I do not merely enjoy but actively crave, and as I entered my teen years the invention of the truly-portable cassette tape player only further assisted in my musical development. I no longer needed to be without music simply because I wasn't home, so I took music with me everywhere; in one version or another, I used a Walkman from the early-1980s through 1995 or 1996. Then, about five years ago, I stopped using my Walkman because it broke, and at the time I could not afford to fix or replace it. Although I thought about switching to a portable CD player, at the time the portable-CD technology was still questionable - plagued by low battery life and jumpy playback when used while moving around.
Instead, I adapted to the world around me, reestablishing a different kind of connection to people and places, made possible by my lack of headphones. Although I was never one for piping loud music directly into my ears - I always enjoyed having some connection to time and space by hearing the noises of life around me - inevitably, my relationship to the world just became different without headphones on. Free from the music, I focused more intently on other peoples' public conversations instead of my own internal monologue, and I looked at details of the world with the world itself as the soundtrack. I missed music, but I didn't miss it as much as I expected.
In the meantime, a number of things happened to the world. Initially, I witnessed the explosion in cell phone use; I acquired a cell phone of my own, which would have been more complicated to use with headphones on. Then I noticed that cell phones grew (quickly, it seemed) from being a valuable tool for communication to an addictive technology of its own - and the world around me grew significantly noisier, as more people chatted on their phones in all public spaces (and often at high volume).
I also noticed something quite specific I had missed before: an entire culture of people whose addiction to headphones seemingly surpassed my own. Back when I wore headphones, I removed them frequently when people attempted to engage me in conversation or otherwise convey information; whether it was providing directions to someone on the street or listening for a boarding announcement at a train station, I did not let my desire for music impede my ability to communicate. Now I noticed an entire culture of people who wore their headphones constantly (at least, in public), and who chose to communicate with their headphones on. Not simply teenagers but adults, mother and fathers who conducted conversations with their young children while wearing their headphones, or couples walking together, each wearing headphones of their own, talking to (or at) each other - or not talking at all. I was appalled; if the state of our nation can be measured by the quality of our communication, then the situation is dire and desperate - because so many people's attentions are constantly divided, and because it is difficult to determine how much importance a person attaches to the conversations they are holding when they are also listening to music. This is probably more important for developing children (who should be made to feel that they have their parents' attention) than in any other circumstance.
There was one last relevant change in the world since I stopped using my Walkman: the development and increased popularity of MP3s, a compression format that allows standard music files to be easily converted, stored, played, and shared as digital files. It did not take long for MP3 technology to catch on, although the commercial marketplace has been slower to improve and develop new products in this area than one might have expected. It is true that from an audiophile's perspective, MP3s have drawbacks, mostly in the sometimes-questionable quality of the recording; the sound is not 100% as rich, deep, or pure as digital audio direct from a CD. But to a music junkie, MP3s held out the promise of the great high, the possibility of quadrupling easy access to music and a significant reduction in cost and complexity.
That promise has been fulfilled. The early MP3 products were compact and efficient, but almost brutally so; their good battery life and portability were outweighed by the fact that they could hold at best an hour's worth of music. Then came the "jukebox" style MP3 players, little more than walking hard drives: many gigabytes worth of storage space in a battery-powered unit, relatively portable and relative efficient; but as with the early MP3 players, a computer was required to add or remove music. I watched and I waited, but I did nothing; periodically, I thought about getting an MP3 player, but having broken the addiction to constant music, I resisted falling prey to a new technology with such specific complications.
Then the technological convergence finally happened, as I knew it always would: portable-CD players designed for use with regular CDs, but also with the capability to read MP3 files that had been burned onto a custom-made CD. I could listen to music but no longer have to choose between one format or the other, and with the merging of the CD and MP3 technologies, the anti-skip protection for CD playback had only improved. I thought about the decision for several months, considering the unit I wanted as much as the philosophical issue of returning to the world of the headphoned.
In the end, I decided to buy one - the Rio Volt SP250, to be precise - and I am quite happy with it. What brought me around was thinking about the issues of communication and of observation, and deciding that whatever kind of music junkie I may have been before, my world has changed just as the world of music technology has changed. I missed the calm provided by headphones, muting out a certain level of external noise, and I was tired of the constant intrusion of cell phones around me. I also wanted to reclaim some part of my internal monologue, to regain a tiny sliver of peace of mind, that would let me focus on my own thoughts at moments when I might be too distracted to do so otherwise. But the most important reason was also the simplest: I still love music, and I missed it, no matter how much I might have said I didn't.
Copyright 2001, by A.D. Freudenheim.
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This page is part of: The Truth As I See It.