Headphones are a small pair of loudspeakers meant for individual use.  They are designed to be used close to one’s ears and to connect to a single source of audio.  They are also known as stereophones, headsets, cans, or earphones, which is a special type that is designed for in-ear use.  Headphones arose from the design and use of the telephone earpiece, which was a common device used at the beginning of the twentieth century.  It precedes amplifiers, as it was then the only way to listen to audio signals.  Today, headphones are widespread in their use, and their penetration into many aspects of modern day life could be considered unprecedented.  Our project proposes exploring headphones, specifically in-ear headphones, in both historic and technological contexts in order to better understand the social consequences that arise from their personal/individual use and presence in society.

Studying in-ear headphones as a technology would be rich in both content and context, unpacking how it is or is not linear, efficient, apolitical and grand.  This project will start with research focused on the historical and technical aspects of in-ear headphones.  Some of the questions we are asking include: Did headphones simply arise from the telephone earpiece?  Was the U.S. Navy’s adoption of headphones blatantly political?  Is there a better way to personally listen to/consume audio?  Were headphones once grand, and now banal?  When and why was in-ear headphones introduced, and have they become the new standard?  These are some of the immediate and certainly facile questions that present themselves when taking a cursory examination of the technology.  Additionally, we will explore advances in the technology, such as noise cancellation, augmented reality and the preventative measures designed to prevent hearing loss. Answering many of these contextual questions will aid in better understanding the technology’s place in society, both historically and temporally, as it allows for a proper unpacking of the “black box.”

Due to the fact that in-ear headphones are such a standard part of everyday life, investing time and research into its function as a technology is relevant.  Headphones, after all, are highly personal technological objects, which we constantly pair and un-pair with our digital devices on a daily basis.  They have become a standard accessory that accompanies the purchase of many personal digital technologies, such as digital music players, mobile phones and tablet computers.  As of late, they have even become a fashion statement, personalizing and accessorizing yet another part of one’s design aesthetic.  Headphones have the ability to transport one into another place and time, or can simply block out the current place and time altogether.  There is ritual in their use, and appeal in their aesthetic.  Most importantly, headphones are consequential as a technology whose penetration into modern day life is impressive, robust.  As such, the focus of the second half of our project—that is, the social consequences of in-ear headphones—will focus on the effects of both their individual use and their role in society.

Some of the initial social questions we are asking include: How do in-ear headphones affect inter-personal relationships?  What are their effects on industry as it pertains to consuming content, especially regarding television/film/media?  Has their design been locked in, with more efficient alternatives perhaps available?  One of the reasons we are studying in-ear headphones is because their design is a seeming evolution based on efficiency and minimalism.  Is their value related to actual audio quality, or the freedom and individual liberty associated with its use?  Are in-ear headphones branded by aesthetic, akin to Apple’s iconic white ear buds?  Studying in-ear headphones as a technology will enable the exploration of these and many more questions while simultaneously humanizing their purpose and use in society.

Cursory research into both popular and academic literature shows that in-ear headphones represent a robust sector of the personal technology market, with wide and varying foci.  While many sources have demonstrated the economic implications of in-ear headphones, this project will not focus on markets and economics unless as employed as quantitative evidence for our research assertions.   Rather, robust analysis of the technological foundations of in-ear headphones, characterized as a temporal and historical assessment, will provide proper context into the social consequences that will later be explored throughout this project.  In-ear headphones: liberating personal technology and social provocateur.

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