over 10 years on 2008-04-01


in the last 24 hours i have been in several situations which have heightened my awareness of public/private divide of aural space… and how technology (ipods, cellphones, noise canceling headphones, automatic mass-transit messaging systems, etc) stresses the balance between the two in a war of audio attrition, where the aural space can be both better leveraged (is more valuable to the individual) and more effectively intruded upon and degraded by the world around (carrying with it higher aural opportunity cost)…

i went through a few things in the last 24 hours that focused my attention on the public/private tension of aural space. first, i watched several episodes of dexter while waiting for a very delayed flight in sfo by gate 23. then, i took the redeye back from sfo to erw and attempted to get a few hours of sleep… i then landed and listened to several chapters of atlas shrugged on my ipod while taking the airtrain and nj transit back into manhattan, and then around town on the streets and in the subway running a few errands (to the grocery store, etc.)

what i found interesting through the series of aural interactions was the clash between the audio i actively selected or passively wanted to listen to vs. the audio signals which were being forced upon me by the outside (largely technologically driven world). what was fascinating to me/and what i am going to later abstract away towards, was that unwanted audio is much harder to ‘tune out’ than visual invasions. because all audio travels on a relatively narrow set of bands, you can’t hear what you want and tune out the rest the same way you can visually focus on something specific and not notice everything else going on if you so choose… this makes, in some ways, audio space more precious real-estate in public or semi-public space, and means that when digital technology gives you the option of having audio tracks at your disposal that you actively want to hear, un-chosen interruption is all the more an invasion of privacy.

a few vignettes from the last 24 hours:

first, while watching dexter in sfo there was the constant hum of human activity as people conversed with each other, spoke on cell phones, and played games with bored children… it was easy enough to crank up the volume on my ear buds and loose the general human hum of the room, but the flight attendant’s announcements were far harder to deal with. every minute or so a flight attendant would get on the loudspeaker system and announce another set of very loud messages about flight delays, cancellations, or calls for passengers on standby. this was incredibly annoying when i was trying to immerse myself in my itunes downloaded shows to pass the time on a 2 hour delay. every few minutes i would lose the show’s dialogue while an announcement was going on and be forced to either pause/rewind the program, or simply lose some of the plot. what was most interesting to me about this difficulty was that there was far more around me in the visual space than there was in the aural space, but i had no issue tuning out the visual world and focusing visually on my laptop – it was the interference of the audio waves which i couldn’t avoid or tune out with my ear buds which were truly invasive.

a similar set of events played out on the redeye home. i got to my seat as quickly as possible put down my bags, and attempted to immediately go to sleep while the airplane was still loading at the gate. the hustle and bustle of normal human activities and interactions while loading the flight were no problem, you can tune out the normal drum of human interaction – but the pilots and stewardesses on the loudspeaker system are again another story. they are aware of this on redeye flights, and always say they are going to try to keep the chatter to a minimum, but there is still a lot of chatter that they find/the faa seems to think is ‘necessary’ – it starts with flight time/weather conditions (which really are not my concern once i am stuck on the flight), proceeds through the normal safety notices and notices about electronic devices (which everyone both knows and never pays attention to anyway), and then concludes with the pilot giving the time upon landing (which everyone already has on their cell phone). the point is just this, when trying to sleep (which i put at quite a premium to tv watching), aural interruption is very ‘expensive’ to me in that it deeply intruded into my highly valuable sleep time.

next, the trains home – i decided to listen to a few chapters of atlas shrugged on my ipod (i love books on ‘tape’) – listening to a book on tape i was far more focused on the audio track then i normally am with music or than i would be watching a tv show because catching every word is more important to me. on the way home both automatic and human notices over loudspeakers bothered me at intervals the whole way. first waiting in the station an automatic notice would announce anytime a train approached the station (even though most sped right through without stopping) – why anyone felt the need to announce a train that wasn’t stopping is beyond me – normally i would think it a waste of energy – but when i was trying to listen intently to something else it became a serious intrusion into my private aural space without any sort of compensation. useless messages forced into my perception again took on a serious cost rather than simply seeming useless. i felt the same about the conductors on the train and subway announcing each stop, when they are clearly visually marked in several places…

finally, and briefly (since i am being quite long winded) – walking around town listening to more of my book on ‘tape’ i realized that while using my audio channels to listen to the story i felt far more put out by intrusions into my aural space i would normally take in stride (the musicians pan-handling on the subway, loud buses, un-necessary subway announcements) and i also lost a little bit of speed in interactions with others…answering ‘credit’/’debit’ when buying groceries, asking if they had any campaign, etc.

here is basically what i am getting at – in most interactions walking around on an average day the audio track to life has historically not carried with it a very high price-tag… if no one had anything else to listen to or think about then the interruptions of announcements don’t produce as negative a consequence to those for whom they are not intended/or those who don’t want to hear them, and are probably net-net positive if they help out anyone in a crowd even minorly…however, personalized audio/communications devices changes the balance – cell phones and ipods allow individuals to easily create and more highly leverage their own aural space in a public context… this makes intrusions into the aural space more expensive (on a opportunity cost basis)

so, a few loosely connected take away thoughts:

1. public loudspeaker systems/aural announcements need to be re-evaluated – the emphasis should be on less not more. just because technology enables the mass dissemination of messages in public spaces more cheaply and easily (with more granularity and context) doesn’t mean there should be more messages…because while there may be incremental benefit to those messages, the benefit cannot outpace the increase in value of the aural space to the individual with personalized technology… since the 4,5,6 now has a great led messaging system for what stop is next in each car they should cut the recorded messages and give the aural space back to the individual

2. aural advertising in public spaces seems both inevitable and terribly (and increasingly) intrusive… billboards on subways are one thing, but can you imagine how terrible it would be to have audio ads “the next station is brought to you by…” intruding on your aural space in public – jetblue does a limited version of this on their flights, when stewardesses try to sell jetblue/amex credit cards on all the flights – even redeyes – i am sure they didn’t calculate the negative impact of the annoyance that extra 2 minute forced speech causes vs. the value of the extra card members they attract.

3. i love street performers, i think they are great to have around and usually like listening to them, but the more alternatives i have in my pocket the less i will appreciate the intrusion of some (not all – some are truly fabulous). when they install cell coverage in the subway stops (which is supposed to happen over the next few years) i think my tolerance level will drop, as will new york’s tolerance level in general, for underground street performances… when you have little or nothing else to do it is nice to hear some likely marginal random music waiting for a train – i will always go for live music over my ipod - but when the time waiting for a train can all of a sudden be used to talk to friends or loved ones, and is instead being hogged by unwanted music, tensions will strain a bit more…

in conclusion:

growing up my mother never used to let me have sony walkman (the ipods of their day) – she thought they were anti-social (and was totally right). put into the terms of this post: my mother would have argued (and i would have agreed) that listening to tapes of vanilla ice while leaving school was less valuable than the spontaneous interactions and discussions that occurred in the school pickup line with classmates so long as our audio channels were left free to be engaged by the outside world.

the balance has changed a bit living in manhattan in my 20s – there is still a cost to closing down the audio channel – the value of listening to some good music in the morning on my way to work, having a cell conversation, or even a great book, outweighs the automatic announcements of the subways and strangers crossing in the early am (or, at least, i would make that argument). as tech lets individuals better leverage their private audio channel in public spaces the value of that space needs to be better guarded.

original swl blogposts and letters 2007-2010