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Psychology of Technology: Alone in a Crowd, High-tech Style

The next time you’re walking down the street, at the gym, in an elevator, out for a run, or even at your local coffee shop, look at the people around you and tell me what you see. What I notice is the ubiquity of people with headphones in their ears. Though not quite in the majority yet, these wired people are definitely a growing minority.

If you follow my Psychology of Technology posts, you know that, though I’m pretty tech savvy and connected, I have some real concerns about the impact of new technology and media on basic aspects of the human condition such as thinking, decision making, and relationships. And I find the widespread presence of headphones in situations that ten years ago would have been rare more than a bit troubling.

Let’s be realistic. New technology will always insert itself into our lives (no pun intended), but, unfortunately, technological advancement occurs at such a rapid pace these days that considering its impact on us usually occurs in the rearview mirror. By then, the technology is well entrenched and it’s likely too late to alter its invasive trajectory in our lives. Admittedly, music through headphones is really not new technology with the Sony Walkman dating back to 1979, but the size, capacity, and low cost of music players since the advent of digital storage and multi-use devices, such as smartphones, has made it more available and practical for frequent and widespread use. I wonder whether the increased presence of headphones in the ears is due to these technological developments or a more insidious influence from changes in our social fabric.

The question that I keep coming back to is: Why the need to be constantly tuned in (to whatever people are listening to) and tuned out (of the world around them)?

I can think of a variety of reasons why people might want to tune out the world around them. Unfortunately, few of them are particularly healthy. Anyone who has walked down a sidewalk in New York City or other big city knows the overwhelming cacophony of sounds that assaults them. People may find this sensory overload in their external world aversive and headphones reduce the auditory onslaught. Of course, this doesn’t explain the omnipresence of headphones in the suburbs and rural America, and on quiet college campuses. Conversely, people may use music to block out the maelstrom of thoughts and emotions that comprise their internal world. Using headphones can distract people from unpleasant aspects of their lives and away from the angst that can crowd the mind. Music can act as make-shift anti-depressant or anti-anxiety medication, artificially creating positive emotions, whether excitement (e.g., Def Leppard), contentment (e.g., Mozart), or inspiration (e.g., theme from Rocky), or even “misery loves company” emotions, such as anger (50 Cent) and melancholy (Suzanne Vega).

Headphones can also allow people to avoid engagement with others. Whether due to social discomfort, fear of rejection, or a sense of inadequacy, when people have headphones on, they simply don’t have interact with others and can be confident that others won’t try to connect with them. Headphones are certainly a panacea for the uncomfortable proximity of riding an elevator with other people.

Yet, paradoxically, when people cut themselves off from themselves and those around them, they end up preventing the very thing that we all seek, namely, happiness. The growing body of research that studies happiness has found that the single greatest predictor of happiness is the quality of the relationships we have. Self-awareness and self-understanding are also contributors to happiness, both of which are inhibited by the constant distractions of the noise between the ears. Perhaps the constant listening to music simply achieves the unconsciously negotiated goal of “not unhappiness,” an acceptable way station between the painful depths of misery and the seemingly unreachable pedestal of joy.

But think of all that is missed when people are disconnected from their internal and external worlds by such an important sense as hearing. People miss much of the beauty (e.g., birds chirping) and ugliness (e.g., cries for help) in the world because they are focused on a psychic limbo of nonengagement and simply don’t take notice of all that is occurring around them. There are those truly awe-inspiring connections with the physical world, such as sunsets, hummingbirds, and the smell of lilacs that wouldn’t be noticed. And there are those transcendental moments of inspiration, insight, and creativity that may flash in the mind and then get lost in the crowd of headphone-transmitted sound.

And what about those magically serendipitous opportunities to connect with people that are missed because people don’t notice them and others are unwilling to break through the headphone-imposed barrier. That person sitting next to you or walking by you could be your future friend, spouse, or business partner. Think of all the people you have met over the years because you were tuned into life. And consider all of those opportunities that you may missed because you were zoned out (of course, you wouldn’t know what you missed because you didn’t notice). At a basic level, the web of human connectivity that binds us is largely lost without the ability to communicate spontaneously and directly.

I’m not saying that people should stop listening to headphones. It’s fun to listen to music or news or audiobooks while out walking or gardening or exercising or what-have-you. But when those ear buds become the ever-present sentinels of stimulation and connection with the world around us, I pause and I question.

We live in a free country and people can choose to zone out from the world if they want. I’m just asking the question because I see too often these days that too many people are becoming slaves to their technology rather than its master. And I see too many people who are using technology to escape from rather than engage in life.

Of course, it might be that I’m just being Chicken Little again and making much ado about nothing. Maybe people just like listening to music and it is perfectly harmless. In which case, as Emily Litella used to say on Saturday Night Live, “Never mind.”