In today’s world, new innovations come along so often that we hardly have time to keep track of them, much less integrate them thoughtfully into our lives. New devices, and our changing perceptions of them, are part and parcel to modern life. I remember feeling a little bit silly as a college student walking around wearing headphones. I still did it sometimes, because listening to music while I walked to class was nice, and because even then it was a perfectly acceptable thing to do.
Since then, though, headphones have become more than acceptable. They’ve become a necessary accessory to modern life, and a new normal is now in full effect. Oddly enough, I still feel a little guilty when I wear headphones in public, though I’m aware I’m part of a shrinking minority. A recent NPR article suggests that I’m not the only one who still hasn’t gotten their head around the headphones thing, and if that writer’s response is a little simple and easy, then at least they’re thinking about it.
Thinking through the ramifications of the fluctuating new normal isn’t easy, but as believers it’s one of our modern crosses to bear. In the interest of cross-bearing, then, I’d like to offer the following theses for your consideration.
1. Using headphones inevitably turns our focus inward. When we’re listening to music, a podcast, or even a sermon, we’re focused on the inner life: our own thoughts, pleasures, and edification. To be sure, the inner life is important and worthy of attention and cultivation. But it’s also worth reminding ourselves that when we’re wearing headphones, we aren’t focused on anything else. Nature and other people alike go unnoticed, sometimes to our own (and their) detriment.2. Using headphones makes us the arbiters of our own experiences. Instead of the outside world working on us in its usual unexpected, often frustrating, but funnily transformative ways, headphones enable us to control what we experience in ways not dissimilar to the way the Internet allows us autocratic control over what we perceive.
3. Using headphones is another way to pipe in noise. We often complain about the modern world’s incessant clamor, and use headphones as a way to block it out. Ironically though, we’re just focusing on another noise, a noise of our own choosing. Silence — the silence the Church has always held out as a worthwhile discipline — is much harder than putting on some ambient music. It’s much more rewarding, too.
Wendell Berry, writer, farmer, and gadfly, urges us to ask of each new innovation the same question the Amish have asked: “What will this do to our community?” It’s unfair, of course, to dismiss new innovations out of hand simply because they’re new. But there are needs and values that rightly take precedence over technological innovation, and in a world overrun by industrialization’s determinism, we need to be reminded of it often.
Photo via José Manuel Ríos Valiente.