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Headphones remind me I’m in a public space






When I was in Paris last week (yes, my body has returned to the Bay Area, but my heart and mind have not, so please indulge a few more posts about France) I was struck by all the headphones. Headphone ads all over the walls of the metro, on those rotating billboards on sidewalks, and on TV. There were headphones on everyone’s heads. Big honkin headphones, brightly colored, pimped out headphones. How come I didn’t notice this at home?

Then a sad, strange thing occurred to me. I no longer take the train to work, and therefore, am never really in public space with a lot of other lone individuals. Ever since I (reluctantly) moved from San Francisco down to the Peninsula to be closer to work I’m either on my bike or in the car. Neither really gives me the opportunity to observe people who are by themselves in public spaces, and especially not while they are commuting (because commuting activity is its own beast). When I would take the train down from SF I had 35 minutes to see what people were reading, wearing, what mobile devices they were using, and how they were listening to music!

Remember when people complained that headphones isolated individuals in public? Well, all these headphones helped me realize that I was indeed participating in a public space, or rather in a “transitional space.” They made me appreciate taking advantage of this communal service, really participating in a communal goal – we all want to get where we are going without incident. SLIGHT TANGENT: Actually, there’s a ton of literature that looks at mobility and transitional spaces, sometimes referred to as third spaces, way stations, non-places where “in-between” moments happen. In the US, we often try to make these moments as productive as possible. Two researchers from Intel, Ken Anderson and Rogerio De Paula, wrote a delightful paper about the collective experience that can unfold in transitional spaces. They use an account of their own experiences on public transit in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil to show that mobility can manifest as a social rather than an individual phenomenon. There is a huge opportunity here to move away from traditional forms of technological products that focus on isolation or escapism for the individual in public spaces (headphones) toward products that support a collective, social experience in these public spaces.

BACK TO HEADPHONES: Thank you headphones for reminding me what it’s like to be alone on public transit. Thank you Urban Ears, Beats, WeSC, Skullcandy, and others for boldly and brightly isolating individuals on the metro.

Reference: Anderson, Ken and De Paula, Rogerio. 2006 We We We All the Way Home: The “We” Effect in Transitional Spaces. EPIC Volume 2006 Issue 1, Pages 60-75

One thought on “Headphones remind me I’m in a public space

  1. Lovin your posts, friend. Let’s also thank Lady Gaga for her earring-like headphones. Don’t I always find an excuse to include Lady Gaga?

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