Always In

Wireless headphones are augmented reality devices

I still remember the first time I saw someone order at a coffee shop without removing their AirPods. I’d seen people with regular headphones do this many times before, of course, but they had just seemed obviously rude. Strangely, this person didn’t. He carried himself with a nonchalant ease, his body language reflecting the calm knowledge that his behavior was not only acceptable but somehow prescient. Once the rest of us had AirPods too, we would understand. I sensed that I was witnessing a new norm taking shape.

Years before AirPods started appearing, mobile phones had already accomplished a similar reshaping of etiquette, evolving from novelty to necessity in a relatively short time. We carry phones for the majority of our waking lives, touching them more than 2,600 times a day and treating them with a fondness rarely afforded to other objects. Once a discrete tool, the phone has become an appendage; we feel its absence, sometimes painfully, when separated from it. This can be partly attributed to Apple’s iPhone design, which made the smartphone into an elegant and smooth object, something to covet and obsessively handle.

AirPods efficiently communicate your refusal to pretend to be “fully present”

With AirPods, Apple hopes to replicate that effect, producing another minimalist device so intimately responsive that it feels like a part of us. Though many have criticized AirPods for making people look ridiculous, many have already embraced the $159 earbuds as conspicuous status symbols. Even the pieces written to mock them acknowledge the likelihood that people making fun of AirPods now will eventually get used to them. “Their sleek design and lack of wires make it easy to forget they’re resting in your head,” Buzzfeed’s Alex Kantrowitz writes. They prioritize convenience over high-quality sound, and they don’t cancel external noise so completely that they cut off their wearers from the outside world.

But it’s not just merely efficient design that has driven AirPod adoption. By removing the headphone input jack from iPhones, Apple has nudged users toward adopting wireless headphones whether they are ready or not, hoping to capitalize on the kind of lock-in that the company’s investors love and its customers have been trained to tolerate. That strategy seems to be working: The sight of people wearing AirPods grows increasingly familiar. Ideally, from Apple’s point of view, we will all reach a point where we all don’t just own AirPods, we rarely even think to remove them from our ears.

Headphones have traditionally indicated their wearers’ detachment from their physical surroundings. Since the Walkman era, people have used them to override the sounds of their immediate environment and withdraw into a private sonic universe free of unwanted disturbances. They have also served to shield wearers from unwanted advances in public or from distracting conversations at work. In such cases, the more noise the headphones can cancel, the better.

AirPods foster a different approach to detachment: Rather than mute the surrounding world altogether, they visually signal the wearer’s choice to perpetually relegate the immediate environment to the background. The white earbuds create what Kantrowitz calls the AirPod Barrier, a soft but recognizable obstacle to interpersonal interaction not unlike that of phone usage. While staring at a phone suggests that attitude indirectly, AirPods formalize it, expressing potential distractedness in a more sustained and effortless manner. You don’t have to look down at a screen to convey that your mind might be elsewhere — that you are dividing your attention between your physical surroundings and other kinds of interactions, hearing other voices. AirPods efficiently communicate your refusal to pretend to be “fully present.” AirPods, then, express a more complete embrace of our simultaneous existence in physical and digital space, taking for granted that we’re frequently splitting our mental energy between the two.

Though the AirPod experience appears strictly solitary and a matter of personal choice, the headphones in fact reshape social behavior for everyone around them, whether those others have their own pair or not. In other words, AirPods have externalities — penalizing non-wearers while confining the value they generate to their individual users. They reinforce the idea that networked products and not particular shared spaces provide common ground, positing a world where people don’t really interact with strangers in public. This may be why the gym was an ideal site for early adoption. If that rationalized aloofness intensifies outsiders’ desire to get AirPods of their own, that’s probably just what Apple wants. (AirPods have other environmental externalities too: They won’t biodegrade for at least a millennium, and Apple’s program for recycling them is uneconomical and little-used.) Once everyone has earbuds that are always in, physical proximity will no longer confer a social expectation of shared experience. With no one trying to overcome the AirPod Barrier anymore, it might become pervasive and invisible. Living with AirPods always in would become established as a new way of being.

In Apple’s ambitions, AirPods are more than just convenient headphones; they are a component of a new interface that can saturate or fracture our aural attention just as screens have with visual attention. AirPods’ emergent use pattern thus far has been disengagement from one’s environment — listening to music while interacting with service staff or maintaining a phone call while working out — rather than data-enhanced immersion in it. But as more people perpetually wear wireless earbuds, they could become the basis for a platform for a multitude of audio apps, as venture capitalist Jordan Cooper describes here. Always-available two-way voice communication channels not only make existing iPhone features like Siri and Voice Control much easier to use frequently but also create the possibility of vocal social media networks, ongoing group conversations among distant friends, interactive music and podcast listening, and sound-based augmented reality games. Spotify, for example, recently announced that it will test voice-enabled ads, a proposition that becomes more viable in an AirPod-filled world where listeners are always already on mic and able to react quickly. Once wireless earbuds attain critical mass, it would become a common expectation to always be listening, just as one is now more or less expected to never go anywhere without their phone.

Voice-driven apps and platforms have already gained popularity outside of headphones. Virtual assistants like Amazon Alexa, along with apps that dictate spoken language to text for various purposes, already demonstrate the feasibility of voice-based interfaces and users’ growing comfort with speaking to devices. A growing population of constant AirPod users, with microphones inches from their faces and speakers in their ears, would enable more new forms of interaction that require always being ready to speak and be spoken to. Visual social media already encourage and depend upon such readiness, as an ever-growing flood of notifications attests. But on an aural platform, there may be less friction in embracing a more notification-driven life: With earbuds already in, users would get the message automatically.

As audio-based platforms take off, network effects would kick in, strengthening the incentives to leave earbuds in for longer and longer. It wouldn’t seem rude to wear them in conversation; it would be as acceptable as glancing at one’s phone or even sending a quick text message seems today. Just as people began to set their phones on the dinner table and direct a small percentage of visual attention toward them, so we might learn to split off a small, continuous share of auditory attention for the headphones we leave in — a rebalancing of sensory inputs to expand our sonic world beyond the merely local.

With everyone attending to their own auditory environment, the public soundscape will increasingly consist of fewer voices and more ambient filler

Much as phones have enabled and concretized the always-on nature of everyday life, introducing the constant interpenetration of physical and digital space to individual experience, wireless earbuds facilitate a deeper integration, an “always in” existence that we need never interrupt by looking down at a screen. Their aural interface means we don’t have to awkwardly switch attention back and forth between IRL and a screen as though the two are starkly separated. Instead, we can seem to occupy both seamlessly, an experience that other augmented-reality devices, like Google Glass, have promised with varying degrees of success.

The ostensible goal of augmented-reality wearables in general is to enhance the immediate physical reality around us with digital information, immersing us more deeply in the blended whole — AR glasses unobtrusively annotate one’s immediate surroundings; always-in earbuds narrate details for our ears only. But these devices can just as easily allow wearers to pursue a different, less integrated path: not augmented the surrounding physical reality or taking the people inhabiting it into account, but constructing an altogether parallel reality. Either way, they reinforce the idea that gains are available to us if we situate ourselves as isolated yet networked individuals rather than as potentially collective subjects in shared space. If we can further subordinate our in-person sociality to the privatized infrastructure of networked communication, we will reap the full benefits of the AirPod user experience.

The visual internet’s transformation of physical environments has been widely acknowledged: The rise of brand-friendly, photogenic Airspace and Instagrammable iconography in restaurants, hotels, and public art are prominent examples. But phones and the always-on disposition that encourages their constant usage has also depleted those environments, which no longer require the same degree of sensory richness because phones themselves furnish so many of the stimuli that physical space once did. Now, the kind of space that suffices instead is a pleasant backdrop for solitary device usage, a relatively blank slate that doesn’t compete with the phone’s foreground — conditions that places like Sweetgreen and Equinox supply.

A dominant aural information platform could have a similar effect, fostering a world where we might as well leave our headphones on because there’s nothing around us worth hearing. With everyone silently attending to their own auditory environment, the public soundscape will increasingly consist of fewer voices and more ambient filler and sonic exhaust from the devices themselves — phone conversations, buzzing devices, unmuted YouTube videos.

In his 1966 book Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, Robert Venturi questioned the traditional public square’s suitability for modern American culture, writing, “Americans feel uncomfortable sitting in a square: they should be working at the office or home with the family looking at television.” Now we can bring the private space of both the office and the television with us back to the square, via our devices, and feel comfortable again, as long as the square doesn’t compete too aggressively with the platform we’re trying to stay within.

Whether that platform is mediated by wireless earbuds or something else, we might ask what purpose the public square serves, and whether the technology we’re using estranges us from it or further immerses us in it. Public space in the physical world can be a source of a sense of freedom and serendipity, a place where self-interest can be subordinated to other social interests. Digital tools can improve our ability to use that space and connect with one another more effectively within it. But if those same tools instead re-create platforms oriented toward atomizing individuals within those spaces, we risk impoverishing something vital, producing a public square full of people ignoring one another, doing their best to be nowhere.

Drew Austin writes about technology and urbanism on the blog Kneeling Bus.