Are You Listening?

4 min read

Remember the 2004 romantic-dramedy film Garden State? The obligatory meet-cute moment between stars Zach Braff and Natalie Portman? It arrives not by dive-bar jukebox or some farcical mix-up during a nightclub grind—as might have been the case during musical ages past—but rather via a pair of headphones.

“You gotta hear this one song; it’ll change your life, I swear,” says Portman. She hands Braff the headphones; he puts them on. The Shin’s “New Slang” plays, and he listens, absorbed in sound while she watches him.

Headphones are nothing new. The tech goes back to the 1890s. A device called the Electrophone allowed listeners to dial up live theatre performances, though it did saddle the listener with a lot of hardware. Bayerdynamic offered up the first dedicated on-ear headphones for home listening. Koss popularized them in the 1950s and 1960s. To this point, they remained largely tethered to home, school, or office. In the 1980s they went portable. The oblivious hipster with Walkman and headphones became TV and movie shorthand for a self-involved youth culture.

What may be new, at least in the last ten years or so, is personal listening’s increasing impact and growing influence across much of society.

The Beats by Dre ad “Got No Strings” promotes the company’s new wireless headphones and earbuds. As a showcase for the personal listening lifestyle, it displays both trends. A dozen or so celebrities walk, talk, eat, garden, work out, take care of kids, all without the encumbrance of wires (at least wires that are attached to anything except their ears).


The ad also highlights the headphones’ capability as wireless headsets. It hints at yet another cultural archetype, this one barely a decade old—the self-involved, Bluetooth-wearing business type.

“This is a celebration of life without strings,” says the ad’s YouTube copy. “With Beats Wireless, there’s nothing to hold you down, make you fret, or make you frown.”

Over the past decade, there’s been a surge of social research on American loneliness. Much of it concludes that loneliness and social isolation are rising—dramatically. The media—and presumably the public—have mainly wondered whether any of this is due to the rapid rate of technological change. “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” was the Atlantic’s provocation back in 2012. All Facebook was supposed to do in the first place was help us make more friends.

Headphone culture may be part of this rising loneliness as well. “People like to control their environment,” says one expert on personal music devices. “Music is the most powerful medium for thought, mood, and movement control.” But what begins as empowerment may end as isolation. “With the urban space, the more it’s inhabited, the safer you feel…You feel safe if you can feel people there, but you don’t want to interact with them.”

The political scientist Robert Putnam has argued—most famously in his book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community—that civic engagement has decreased over the past American half-century. Reduced participation in face-to-face social organizations such as bowling leagues, PTAs, and service clubs has led to a decline in social capital. This is defined by Putnam as “the collective value of all ‘social networks’ [who people know] and the inclinations that arise from these networks to do things for each other [norms of reciprocity].”

Putnam puts much of the blame on television viewing and the internet, though the latter was a new phenomenon at the time. Recent surveys­ have actually shown some positive links between social engagement and internet usage. Still, researchers have looked more specifically at internet political discussions. They’ve found that people rate internet political discussions as less respectful, less civil, and less likely to come to a resolution. They also find them to be more angry.

And some of the findings described by social neuroscientist and “loneliness expert” John Caccioppo are startling. Loneliness not only affects our brain and lymphatic system, but even our DNA. “When we drew blood from our older adults and analyzed their white cells,” Caccioppo writes, “we found that loneliness somehow penetrated the deepest recesses of the cell to alter the way genes were being expressed.”

Whatever the case, there does seem to be a tonic effect in face-to-face contact. And research shows that true in-person contact matters. A study conducted at the University of Michigan recently found that having low levels of in-person contact nearly doubled subjects’ risk for depression over a two-year period. And that phone calls, and written or email contact—whether more or less frequent—had no effect one way or the other.

So the cure for the anxiety of a divided democracy might be as simple as having a beer now and then—with friends, neighbors, and especially strangers. This may be cause for a toast.

But headphones probably won’t help the vibe, unless you’re sharing.