First Click: What happens when we never take out our earphones?


Apple’s decision to remove the headphone jack from the iPhone 7 still stinks to me of both corporate hubris (that asinine “courage” remark) and plain mercantilism (who owns the number one wireless headphone company in the world? Apple). But I have no doubt the choice is the right one. I only started using a pair of Bluetooth earphones fairly recently, but my first reaction has been surprise at just how addictive they are. Pairing is pretty painless, battery life isn’t half the issue I thought it would be, and going “truly wireless” (the marketing motto du jour) feels genuinely freeing. On the way out the door I scoop up my phone and keys and drop my earphones over my ears. I tap a button and the music starts — just like in the adverts. My only worry is: what happens when I never want to take them off?

This isn’t an outlandish idea. The growing mainstream appeal of Bluetooth headphones is really just a stepping-stone to a future of "ear computers" — devices that deliver more than just music to users. We’re seeing the early flowerings of this at the moment, with products like the Bragi Dash (which includes internal storage for music and in-ear workouts), and Doppler Labs’ Here One (which filter the noise around you, tuning out specific frequencies and sounds). These are niche products with plenty of compromises, but there’s only going to be more functionality over time, especially when digital assistants get involved.

Like Google Glass, in-ear computers offer passive, always-on computing

Apple has showed it’s already thinking about this future with the introduction of the wireless AirPods. These are lightweight earbuds that charge in a little caddy, and use the company’s proprietary W1 chips (ordinary Bluetooth with "special sauce" poured on top) to pair quickly with your Apple devices. They’ve also got a hidden weapon: Siri. Tap twice on the EarPods and it wakes the digital assistant, allowing you to complete a number of tasks just by speaking. You can send texts, place calls, check the weather, add reminders, etc, etc; everything you do on your phone. Slate’s Will Oremus describes this as "a sort of auditory augmented reality," comparing it to Google’s vision for Google Glass. It provides users with passive, always-on computing that can be accessed at any time, but AirPods don’t have the privacy concerns of glass (no camera of course) and only look half as goofy.

My objection to this vision of the future is simple: it breeds isolation. I already feel that my regular earphones are a mixed blessing, with the option to sink into music coming at the expense of awareness. It's not just that I ignore the world around me, but I often find that listening replaces thinking for me. Walking from my house to the shops, or sitting on the tube going to work are times when I should be switching off a little; letting my brain unwind, and mulling over things that are troubling me. But often even this seems like too much effort, and instead of embracing low-level rumination I choose the stimulus of music or the distraction of a podcast. It’s escapism at best and avoidance at worst. I sometimes feel that the more regularly I use earphones, the more I become wrapped up in myself, stamping from one task to the next, ticking off my to-do list, and never thinking about anything beyond the immediate. And if AirPods and the ear-computers to come become essential wear, surely it will whither our ability to spend time with ourselves — and just ourselves.

her (official still)

Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore Twombly in 2013's Her.

Director Spike Jonze addresses a similar vision of the future in 2013’s Her. Jonze is primarily concerned with questions of human intimacy in the film, including whether or not it’s cool to have phone sex with a computer. (The answer: sort of, yeah.) But the emotional challenges facing protagonist Theodore Twombly all seem to be corollaries of a much larger problem — the distance he places between himself and people around him. Part of this is due to Twombly’s character and a recent, painful breakup, but Jonze makes it clear that technology exacerbates the problem — especially the gadget in his ear and its siren song of AI companionship. There are plenty of reasons this future is still a way off (two big ones: wireless battery life sucks and voice assistants are still limited in functionality), but it’s definitely coming, and ear computers like Apple's AirPods are significant step.

With wired earphones you at least have a physical reminder of your connection to technology, but Apple’s vision is to make its technology seamless and invisible. Easy to forget about. Other companies will follow, and there are plenty of digital assistants just waiting in the stands. Once we have ear computers that pipe in calming music, guide us around cities, prompt us about meetings, field messages from people we know; that remind us to breathe, to stand up, to sit down; that shout encouragement during our workouts and whisper to us as we fall sleep, will we ever want to get rid of them?

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