Giles Slade A\J Graphics by Anežka Gočová

PHONOGRAPHS AND GRAMOPHONES brought with them remarkable changes. As fidelity increased, music recorded on discs changed from a single performance that was overheard and “captured,” becoming a document that could be edited, redrafted and refined many times before its release. But, in addition to changes in the production of most music, there was a radical transformation in its reception by an audience. Just as radio later encouraged solitary listening, the gramophone, too, encouraged the habit of savouring music alone. 

In 1877, Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, a device that could minimize human loneliness and separation by delivering personal reassurance across great distances. One year later, Edison announced his working phonograph, a device that could minimize human loneliness and separation by delivering personal reassurance across time. 

Improved “gramophone” technology emerged gradually, but once Leon Glass combined the device with a nickel slot machine in 1889, factory, office and sweatshop workers could all summon music on demand. They no longer needed to painstakingly learn to play an instrument or seek out someone who had. Just as business letters came to the ears of female typists, Edison’s ear tubes delivered popular songs. Droves of paying customers hunched over playback machines in public parlours near ferry, trolley and rail terminals. After the Chicago World’s Fair (1893), listening to music on gramophone slot machines became a national pastime, and music changed from do-it-yourself, shared entertainment into a consumer product created by technical specialists as well as
by musicians. 

A new kind of listening – acousmatic listening, or listening to music with no visible source – became the strangest feature of music in the burgeoning machine age. Oxford musicologist Eric Clarke claims it is less peculiar to watch a silent film than to listen to disembodied music because “vision is the socially dominant sense in our culture. … To leave that sense ‘dangling,’ as acousmatic listening does ... is perceptually incongruous.” 

In phonograph parlours and nickelodeons, people with ear tubes clustered around the new devices while avoiding the awkwardness of eye contact. Relief for this minor social discomfort came soon after, when gramophones became available on easy credit terms. By 1901, spring-driven models could be purchased for one dollar per week. The uncomfortable sensation of listening to disembodied music in public or in company was suddenly ameliorated by the relative portability of gramophones. Even models with large amplifying horns could be wheeled into separate rooms where listeners could enjoy music all by themselves. 

Though it now seems odd to say so, those who listened to short popular songs alone on their gramophones were cultural revolutionaries. They initiated a psychological change as far-reaching as the one Walter J. Ong described in Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue (1958) as the shift between oral and scribal culture. Indeed, solitary listening had an impact as profound as that of widespread literacy after Gutenberg. Like a reader, the solitary listener is part of an abstract, far-flung audience that reaches far beyond the here and now of a live performance. “Solitary listening,” writes Mark Katz, historian of recording technology, “is now the dominant type of musical experience in most cultures.” 

I feel the meaning of this development has been long overlooked. Where Gutenberg freed middle-class Europeans from the mediation of the educated classes (aristocrats and clergy), recorded music freed lonely Americans from the silent tyranny of their own company. “Silence,” as George Prochnik recently observed, “is for bumping into yourself. … People seek to avoid that confrontation.” Where reading made people more capable of purposeful and extended linear thought, solitary listening reduced their span of concentration and made them less tolerant of boredom. Where reading deepened character, solitary listening ignored character altogether. 

The texture of live music yielded to the low-fidelity, three-minute span of the gramophone. At the same time, popular ideas about music changed. Long and complex structures were abandoned for the livelier form of disposable pop songs. Still, people could play whatever music they wanted, whenever they wanted it, enabling them to use music as a diversion from the harsh, persistent internal voices that nag those struggling in a difficult new environment. Music lifts one’s spirits, offering diversion, escape and comfort. Industrialization needed music for these purposes, if not others, and the gramophone served it up, hot and ready, encouraging people to get up and dance to ragtime’s new sounds. Lonely and bored teenagers fell into dancehalls where they spooned and rubbed themselves against likeminded strangers in the American night. The star system that film studios had invented to deepen audience loyalty soon came to promote pop music, first on the gramophone, then on radio. A large number of the Hit Parade high-fliers of the 1930s and 1940s originated in film, “Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz being only the most famous of many hundreds. From film and radio, music moved eventually to television. Like solitary listening, the stars ameliorated America’s loneliness without offering reciprocity. We became one-way intimates with the talking heads we saw on movie screens or with the voices we heard over the airwaves, and sadly, we never interacted with them. 

At first, the deeply antisocial character of such solitary listening prevented its widespread acceptance. It implied, as Eric Clarke writes, “a visible withdrawal from the social context and immersion in an intensely private world that people may find unsettling or offensive.”

The shift toward social acceptance of the selfish and solitary enjoyment of electronically rendered music seems complete by 1931. That year, an anonymous editorial in Disques celebrated the impersonal experience of guiltlessly listening to music: “Alone with the phonograph, all the unpleasant externals have been removed: the interpreter has been disposed of; the audience has been disposed of; the uncomfortable concert hall has been disposed of. You are alone with the composer and his music.”

So, by the early years of the Depression, solitary listening had become commonplace in America and elsewhere in the Western world. Unemployed millions made their way through a decade of hard times, cheered on by the sponsored entertainments of network radio, exemplified by Yip Harburg’s popular anthem “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” Americans now listened to network radios alone in their cars or over one of several midget sets distributed – to maximize listening privacy – throughout the home. Perhaps as a legacy of the war after 1948, headphones became an increasingly common way to listen to discs, and as a reflection of this change a new word – earphones – became their most common appellation. 

But it was the debut of stereo recording in 1954 that brought a degree of verisimilitude to recorded music that made it nearly invisible. Because “stereo” created the impression of space and depth, recorded music – especially when one was listening through stereophonic earphones – came much more vividly to life. In the late ’50s, a music lover could tune out the world and surround him or herself with the convincing virtual space of a musical performance. At the office or in any public space while appearing attentive, the owners of transistor radios could tune in and drop out for the first time. Surreptitiously, ears containing monaural earphones were simply turned away from company to catch the news, ball games or a favorite song. In the years since 1954, technological advances have increased the fidelity and volume available through earphones, allowing us to tune out the real world completely: a recent study of injury-related traffic deaths related to earphone use reported that of the 116 pedestrian fatalities attributed to earphone use in the US between 2004 and 2011, 55 per cent involved trains. For at least 29 per cent of those deaths, the train sounded a warning signal before striking the pedestrian.

Moreover, around the time earphones became commonplace in the early 1960s, urban dwellers developed a new strategic behaviour for dealing with a constant stream of unwanted micro-interactions with strangers. Metropolitan life constantly and overwhelmingly confronts us with choices about engagement. As we step into the crowded street of any city, we are subjected to the glare of countless strangers. In the late 1920s, beachgoers in New Jersey began emulating movie stars by purchasing and wearing Sam Foster mass-produced sunglasses, but it is said that film actors began wearing custom-made “shades” much earlier, first to protect their eyes from the glare of arc lamps on movie sets, then soon afterward to avoid eye contact with their curious and demanding public, since “dark glasses … allow the wearer to stare at another … without that other being sure he is being stared at.” This was the first behaviour for “dimming the lights” when confronted with the glare of strangers’ attention in public. 

By the 1960s, sociological research began to focus on behaviours surrounding the human gaze as Americans developed specific techniques for minimizing the psychic energy required to move safely through the urban grid. Fresh from the wilds of Winnipeg, sociologist Erving Goffman noticed an unusual phenomenon in 1963, around the time Americans began deploying monophonic earphones in public as a distraction from their immediate surroundings. Where Victorians would greet each other formally as they passed, Goffman describes the accepted and more modern practice of “civil inattention.” This involved looking at strangers briefly to investigate and acknowledge them in a shared public space before turning one’s gaze away to prevent the impression of intrusion or hostility: “One gives another enough visual notice to demonstrate that one appreciates the other, is present (and that one admits openly to having seen him), while at the next moment withdrawing one’s attention from him so as to express that he does not constitute a target of special curiosity or design.”

Of course, this elaborate two-step behaviour is obviated by modern MP3 (or AAC) players. In the 21st century, glaringly white Apple® earbuds inform all those who observe us in public that we are disinterested, musically inclined, nonthreatening people, while Bluetooth® Wi-Fi earpieces convey a slightly different, more aggressive message: far too busy, don’t dare disturb. Once again, interaction with a device prevents and is preferable to risky, energy-consuming interactions with strangers. We have been conditioned for over a hundred years to risk interpersonal contact only through the mediation of machines. We trust machines much more than we trust human beings. Through the faint distance grooming of music listened to through earbuds, our machines provide us with an oxytocin surge that is much more reliable than most interactions with human beings, even if it invites comparisons with babies’ pacifiers. Earbuds are pacifiers for adults. We pay handsomely for them.

Excerpted from The Big Disconnect: The Story of Technology and Loneliness, by Giles Slade, Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2012.

The Big Disconnect is the second installment of what Slade refers to as his “Potlatch Trilogy, a trio of books exploring the emergent consciousness of consumer society,” which began in 2007 with the award-winning Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America. Gather some friends and listen to Slade explain what we lose to the allure of technology in the Art & Media podcast.

Giles Slade is married, has three fine sons and lives on the West coast of Canada. His new book, American Exodus, concerns climate change and human migration in North America.

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