Rob Walker, the author of the just-released "Buying in," is a marketing connoisseur, an expert in reading the cultural underpinnings of commerce. In his Consumed column for the New York Times Magazine, he examines how technology shapes consumer culture and vice versa. In tomorrow's piece he elaborates on the history of headphones, and how their role evolved in modern society, from the first Bose set to the Sony Walkman to the iPod earbuds.
With the miniaturization of devices, the public exposure of personal space increased. I remember that when I was 14, I came home from school, had lunch, and didn't wait a second to lie down on my bed, put my clunky Sennheiser headphones on, and listen to an album I had just bought. Thomas Dolby's "Aliens Ate My Buick" or Prince's "Sign of the Times." I closed my eyes and forgot the world around me. It was a moment of total immersion and uncompromising intimacy, both with the artist and myself. I wasn't ready to share the music with anyone else until I had fully experienced and vetted every single note through the immediacy of the headphone connection.
Looking back, headphones seem to have anticipated the era of performance-enhancing body extensions that we may be entering soon, but at the same time they now appear like a nostalgic relict of a time when the supply of attention among young consumers was still excessive. Having their social function shifted from providing excessive to expressive intimacy, headphones have become a status symbol for consumers who want to consume in between or parallel to other activities, and who want do that on their own terms -- in public, alone; in a perfect manifestation of what psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan coined "extimacy." The album has dissolved into 99-cent units on iTunes, and the headphone experience has been succeeded by portable soundtracks for permanent distraction.