Headphones and Head Space

Often during my subway trips I’ll encounter someone who’s wearing headphones and he — almost always a he — will be air drumming or dancing in his seat or mouthing the words or, in the most extreme cases, singing out loud. When I look up to notice this guy, I’m at first relieved that it’s not another beggar-cum-musician shakedown in progress, wherein the train car is hijacked and passengers are forced to, for example, listen to a soiled, unshaven man with the DTs sing “Danny Boy” a capella.

Then, after a moment of thinking he’s ridiculous, I’ll start to develop a weird admiration for him. After all, here’s someone who just doesn’t care about looking like a fool; that’s how passionate he is about the music he loves — which I generally imagine to be something like Rush or the Scorpions. This guy always seems entirely unembarrassed, comfortable in his skin with the reassurance of his favorite songs. He will generally have the satisfied look of someone who thinks he’s been rather impressive. The onus is on those around him to be embarrassed for him, which is always an enormous waste of emotional energy.

In general, what this guy is doing is taking the prerogatives one normally has in the interior of one’s own car — you can sing along to your radio and pretend you’re the only person in the world inside your little bubble — and bringing it to public transportation. In fact, the gist of a lot of technology for personal use is to eliminate shared space and make every place private, one where you can control the environment. We travel through public space as though we are always in our own private car, even if we’re only walking down the street with our hands-free Bluetooth earpiece in, jabbering away at 20 decibels about how we’re not up to much, you know, just walking down the street.

Compare this guy with another person I sometimes see on the N train, only more often late at night. While the train is underground in Manhattan, she — typically a she, usually the same sort of woman who wears sunglasses even when the train’s below ground — clutches her cell phone, gazing pensively at the screen, sometimes scrolling through information on the screen, who they know, who they’ve called. Perhaps they are contriving text messages to send, e.g., “on the train. bored.” She seems to be using the phone as something to focus on. Maybe it helps with ignoring the creepy guys (like me, I guess) who might make eye contact with her, who will make her feel scrutinized and thus insecure.

A phone works better for this than a book, because a book reveals important information about oneself and almost invites conversation. (“What are you reading? Oh, I’ve read Da Vinci Code too. Can’t wait for the movie. Have you read Digital Fortress?“) A phone reveals next to nothing; a palm conceals it and its screen discloses details to the possessor alone. No one can ask you what you are doing, because the phone effectively sends the message that it’s private, that you are checked out of the space you are in, and dreaming of being somewhere else.

As we come above ground in Queens, she’ll immediately listen to messages or put in a call to someone she will likely be going home to in a matter of minutes, joining the collective murmuring of the inconsequential conversations that seem to take place on cell phones at every possible public moment. “Hey, I’m on the train.” This comes across as an attempt to reject the world, or at least the reality of one’s solitary presence in it, in favor of the illusion of constant companionship.

The phone, which makes it clear that one has people to contact in case of an emergency, people to summon for protection, works as a shield, as a seemingly concrete lifeline to safety, ready to pull you out of the unpleasant and possibly dangerous world of strangers. Extending the aura of privacy the phone generates, the familiar voice piping through the earpiece strengthens the cellular force field that obliterates the present space one actually occupies along with all the unpleasant or inconvenient people in it. Whereas the air drummer, in his flamboyance and his indifference to how he is perceived, sends the message, “You are not here”, the cell-phone brandisher seems to send the message that “I’m not here”.

These two figures typify the process by which public space is dissolved into a million private spaces delineated by headphones and cell phones and PDAs, under the presumption that it’s both more convenient and safer to act as though the reality of shared public space was optional. True, it may be wrong to conflate the purgatorial way stations of public transportation with public space as it’s usually idealized — the N train is not a town square. And perhaps the behavior I’ve just described has an idealistic component to it in its refusal to recognize as public space any place that doesn’t live up to the Platonic notion of it as a zone where people choose to come and linger and discuss contemporary issues: the mythic Habermasian coffeehouse where the bourgeois public sphere was born. But nevertheless, public transportation can still roughly serve as a laboratory where the effects technology is having on the way we conduct ourselves in public can be observed.

Though we typically use technology to blot out our surroundings, paradoxically enough, we often conduct this blotting out rather ostentatiously. For example, the air drummer, though he seems as if he has to have forgotten he is in public, is more likely actually searching for attention. What he explicitly refuses is not attention but interaction. (In this, he’s like the cell-phone talker.) Generally, the entertainment we consume has habituated us to a division of the world into watchers and performers, a dichotomy that sheds notions of interaction, shared activity, communal action, all of which have been reconceived culturally as disruptive hassles. Both performing and watching have their perks: performers can be showered with attention and validation, no matter how banal their performance (c.f. the celebrity of reality-show participants); whereas spectators can hover godlike above the fray, lazily enjoying whatever spectacle they deign to notice among the many begging for their attention.

As a result, we find ourselves perpetually split between watching and doing; as a result we improvise ways to try to bridge the rift. The air drummer seeks spectators but presumably knows he has no real skill to warrant that attention, at least not on the subway. So he tries to garner our attention by taking his own spectatorship to the level of performance. He acts as though he’s so convinced the music he’s listening to is cool that it gives him a free pass to do whatever he wants, or what’s more, the music he likes and the device he by which he listens to it are so cool that he must gesticulate wildly enough to call everyone’s attention to how much he’s able to enjoy it. That he looks like some kind of crazy mime to the rest of us who can’t hear what he does is apparently immaterial. With so few ways to earn validation from peers or contribute to society, it’s no surprise we have to resort to stunts like this.

Since we often regard our jobs as compulsory, something we’d love to shirk if we could (and an annoyance much like sharing public space), we can’t seek social validation directly for what we spend much of our time doing. In the absence of any other socially validated work, taste and our ritual display of it must be considered as the only real meaningful social work we all perform. Because so much status resides in the signaling function of the consumer products we display, the most significant contribution we can make to the world around us is to build the prestige of brands. This is what it means to live in a consumer society. We can aspire to little more than being showroom dummies.

As Jürgen Habermas explains in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society (Studies in Contemporary German Social Thought) (MIT Press, 1991) public space went from being a realm of “rational-critical debate” to an arena of commercialized leisure. This destroys the possibility of a public identity independent of our private one: “Leisure behavior supplies the key to the floodlit privacy of the new sphere, to the externalization of what is declared to be the inner life.” Our inner life is now the opposite of private; it consists of the collection of consumer and leisure choices we make in order to appear as something, as anything, in the devolved and oversaturated public sphere. Any expectations we have about being noticed outside the home are always in terms of our consumption choices, and typically these fleeting moments of notoriety are not on our own terms. We never know when someone will notice us, judge our clothes, our face, who we’re with, how we’re acting. The air drummer, at least, taking matters into his own hands, sought out his moment.

The rest of us instead tend to be defensive, like the cell-phone brandisher, trying to deflect attention, or meet some minimal standard so as to pass anonymously, while wondering at the same time how come no one notices us. The problem is the anonymity we aspire to for safety makes us in a larger sense disposable, interchangeable — which is itself dangerous in a capitalist economy that’s most profitable when it can treat individuals the same way, and give them no security or stability. (This is sometimes called “creative destruction”.)

Thus, one of the cell phone’s security-blanket functions, above and beyond giving us access to emergency services and friends is the psychological reminder that though we might seem lost in the crowd, we could at any moment be selected for attention in the form of our ringtone (which ideally we will have carefully selected to be au courant). The cell phone seems to provide a means by which we can control how and when we will be singled out and noticed, a comfort that conceals the fact that it is essentially a tracking device that allows our movements to be constantly surveilled. But rather than suspect the phone has undermined our privacy, we feel as though it has secured it, giving us a chance to carry our private worlds with us.

The most technologically saturated method of solving the conundrums of public and private space is to remove oneself from space altogether and conduct social life in a virtual world via a massively multiplayer online game. According to eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, “This generation that grew up on video games is blurring the lines between games and real life” (BusinessWeek). In other words, we are becoming more accustomed to thinking of our existence in public space in terms of a game, as a competition where the stakes are our personalities, the identities we craft with consumer goods. Eventually it may make more sense to root what we consider our real selves in these online worlds permanently.

These MMORPGs promise to unite the million little private worlds facilitated by cell phones and personal portable media into one boundless imaginary realm. Once the province of teenagers, programmers and RPG campaigners of yore, these fantasy worlds have begun to crack through the wall of geekery and garner mainstream recognition. Within a week both The Economist (22-28 April 2006) and BusinessWeek (1 May 2006) ran stories about metaverses (the less unwieldy name, derived from a Neal Stephenson novel, for MMORPGs). Though the most popular of these — Everquest, World of Warcraft, Ultima Online — still emphasize Ren Fest fantasia like getting cool halberds and increasing your halfling druid’s hit points, the business magazines focus primarily on Second Life, a game which gives participants no explicit goals but whose primary innovation, that players have property rights to the things they create in the virtual space, makes it function in practice as a petri dish for conducting economics experiments and a limitless new arena for commercial growth.

Coca-Cola is already experimenting with virtual setting to permit its customers deeper brand immersion, which means not a bath in their soda pop but an opportunity to experience the idea of Coke as a universe unto itself. According to BusinessWeek, “MyCoke.com envelops fans in everything Coke with games, music, and chat in a virtual setting.” So finally, you can at last create an alter ego and have those scintillating “chats” you’ve always dreamed about with perfect strangers regarding the nuances and intricacies of Coke. You’ve collected the nostalgic Coca-Cola paraphernalia and you wore the Coca-Cola branded clothes in the 80s, now create your special Coca-Cola avatar, the person you’ve always wanted to be in that utopian world where everything is Coke.

Second Life‘s platform appears flexible enough to subsume such mini-realms as the Coke world, which all can take advantage of the user’s heightened engagement with the virtual world to better integrate advertising with what users experience as leisure. As these worlds become more sophisticated, they may replace web browsers themselves and become a more lifelike and intuitive form of the Internet: rather than surf Web pages one would send one’s avatar — the virtual representation of oneself — traveling to the commercial zones various entrepreneurs and corporations have erected. It takes the commercial aspects of surfing the web and makes them more like interactive, immersive experiences, complementing the other sorts of experiences Second Life provides.

Within its universe Second Life has seen the development of games and dance clubs and theaters and fashion, in short, all the aspects that make up our real-life public sphere of leisure and “floodlit privacy”. The more leisure time we spend in such a space, the less it may matter to us how we come across on the subway. The place where we would be constructing ourselves would be elsewhere, and we could pass through the “meatspace” of warm, strange bodies in real life unaffected by whatever pressures they might have once applied. Our investments in ourselves would be elsewhere than where we actually stood and breathed.

If web browsing and metaverses continue to converge, being online could begin to much more comprehensively simulate our actual experience in public space, only with the added protection and benefits of managed presence; that is, the ability to dictate who and what you are online, control your reputation more directly, and opt out instantaneously of any situation that unsettles you. Metaverses may ultimately aspire to become highly commercialized leisure zones, tempering the high-powered creative destruction of capitalism with the safety of a game with unambiguous rules. And off-shoring our identities to a virtual world allows us to manage it from a safe distance, monitoring ourselves the way we are in real life monitored by the social body (and perhaps the state).

Online, it’s much easier for us to accept surveillance as flattering attention when it suits us, and we can log off when it doesn’t. Of course, once all our identity-construction and self-discovery has taken root in internet virtual-reality portals, we will have made sure that every step in our path to richer public selfhood is permanently recorded and available for constant surveillance. In seeking the freedom that the Internet promises from the dilemmas of surveillance and performance that afflicted my subway riders, will we be merely caging ourselves in a more seamless jail?

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For more Rob Horning, visit the Marginal Utility blog.