The tagline from a recent ad for the ubiquitous Beats by Dre headphones is “Hear What You Want.” This is quietly revolutionary. Today, for the first time in human history, we are not only able to break down the components of what makes a noise noisy; we’re also able to control sonic inputs at the level of the individual human. We’re able to customize our lives with music and podcasts and videos that stream to our ears alone. These playlists are often so intimately calibrated to our desires that even the errant sight of someone else’s soundtrack displayed on a screen—that guy on the bus clicking on to Mumford and Sons’ “I Will Wait”—can seem like a fairly extreme violation of privacy. Earbuds and headphones, though, don’t simply give us access to personalized soundtracks; they also filter out external noises, transforming sound waves from something implicitly communal to something stubbornly personal. As Trevor Pinch, a professor of Science and Technology Studies at Cornell, put it to me: “Sound has become more thing-like—it’s become more mediated by technology.” We may not have earlids; earbuds, however, get us pretty close.
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Exactly a century and a half after Charles Dickens and Charles Babbage waged a war on noise, The Atlantic's Megan Garber explores how digital technology is transforming our relationship with sound in a gorgeous feature article.
(Also: Hurray for the reinvestment in long-form journalism!)