You know when there’s a teenager on the bus listening to music on his mobile – without headphones – and all the other passengers are stealing glances, unsure whether he’s oblivious or sociopathic? Well things like that give the impression that cities are getting noisier, and that we need to retreat ever deeper into ourselves. I’m not convinced it’s true. But one man who would have taken this incident as cast-iron proof was the social critic Ivan Illich.
“Silence is a commons,” wrote Illich. He argued that just as the communal pastures were privatised in the 18th century, so now the collective sense of calm is being invaded by technology. He was thinking of loudspeakers, computers and electronic gadgets, which he lumped together in a single category: “the machines”. This was in the 1980s, before email, mobile phones, texting and the infinite stream of social media. One can only imagine what he would have made of this daily communication firebombing. But the battered and shrivelled human attention span, if not quite a commons, would certainly have appeared to Illich as a victim of noise.
What struck me about Illich’s argument is that my own response to the erosion of silence was the exact opposite of what he would have advocated. Faced with a dwindling commons, I was forced to privatise my own patch. I did this with a pair of Bose QuietComfort ® 15 headphones. Not only do they sequester the ears behind a wall of black leather, they feature “Acoustic Noise Cancelling ® technology”. The way noise-cancelling works, in brief, is by measuring enemy sound waves and retaliating with their mirror image, the sonic equivalent of anti-matter. It’s an invisible battle in which competing sound waves cancel each other out. Victory is the sound of orbital noise flatlining – silence is a sonic massacre. In other words, the QC 15s are the product of an arcane branch of physics that the rest of us know simply as “magic”.
Man invented noise-cancelling to improve the signal-to-noise ratio for helicopter and airplane pilots, but later found a much more lucrative market in music lovers. I confess that I am no high-fidelity obsessive. I do not (although I think I’m in the minority here) manoeuvre the city in my own private sound bubble, listening to Eye of the Tiger as I power-cycle down the Clerkenwell Road. I shelled out for this exorbitantly pricey piece of equipment at a time when I was sharing an office and found that I simply couldn’t concentrate. It’s not the roiling drone of the city that is distracting – white noise is just fine. It’s specific noise that is invasive, that conversation that earworms its way into your consciousness and, like a bad guest, won’t leave.
Ideally, I was aiming for a portable isolation ward. Donning the QC 15s, you are met with the gentle roar of a conch shell. But flick the switch on the right ear-cup and you are suddenly hooded in silence. It’s not the hollow sound-freeze of outer space, but at the very least a techy tea cosy that takes the edge off. (Tip: for persistent earworms, add a layer of ambient insulation, something Brian Eno-ish or Arvo Pärt-ish.) Easily distracted people such as myself attune all too readily to the peripheral, and there are times – pace Illich – when what is central must be walled off and gated. This is beginning to sound an awful lot like the neoliberalisation of sound, isn’t it?
Anyway, suffice to say that I got quite used to working this way, and to tuning out with my QC 15s on planes, and generally felt quite protective of my own fenced-off pasture of silence. Given time, I might have devolved into one of those Second Amendment nutjobs guarding the picket fence with their own private firepower. But no. For the beloved headphones broke.
One day I was trying to watch a film clip when all I could pick up was the background music. The dialogue was missing. Mouths moved but no sound issued forth.
Not to worry, I thought. This is an expensive piece of kit, it’s bound to come with an iron-clad five-year warranty. I checked. One year. Naturally, I had owned mine for two.
I wasted no time in emailing Bose customer service. I was polite. I complimented them on their excellent equipment. But I was also a disgruntled consumer with rights. “What do you mean by charging £250 for a pair of headphones that only lasts two years?” I was indignant. I was in charge. I may even have mentioned that I was a journalist. A design critic. The memory’s hazy but it’s possible I threatened to bring this outrage to public attention.
While I awaited the customer service team’s grovelling response, I googled “broken Bose headphones”. Sifting through the forums, I encountered the usual welter of repetitive outrage and fanboy infatuation. The options seemed to be a choice between getting a discount replacement (and prolonging the Bose bromance) or cursing the company’s very existence. There were few options for repairing them oneself (because, I suppose, the majority of consumers are not magicians). Which is a pity, because I had started to see self-help forums as the natural successors to the electrical repair shops that once existed on smaller high streets. Weren’t the DIY and Maker movements supposed to deliver us from the cycle of dispose-and-consume?
Whenever the subject of fixing things comes up, I’m always reminded of two devices in my life that endured against the odds. One was a television set that my American grandparents bought long before I was born, a small wooden wardrobe with a curved screen that still clunked through the channels dependably well into my early adulthood. The other is a Volkswagen Golf from the 1980s belonging to my in-laws that is so famously reliable and economical that strangers in petrol stations still routinely offer to buy it. Despite being mechanically inept, I tend to romanticise a world of mechanical objects – of motorcycles and replacement valves. The obvious problem with today’s hyper-performing, magical products is that they are black boxes. We are so in love with their metaphysics, with their gestalt, that we forgive their ephemerality. No one will ever write a book called Zen and the Art of iPhone Maintenance.
It seems to me that the logic of today’s products is heading ineluctably one way. Our devices will be able to do more and more, while lasting less and less long, until eventually they can do everything for no time at all. In the future, we will bestride the Earth like gods, wielding awesome, omnipotent gadgets that break after two minutes. Calling up customer services at [insert evil tech company] we will be told that the warranty was only one minute, and didn’t we read the terms and conditions?
Here we are fretting about the Internet of Things, and the fact that our toasters will be spying on us, when in fact by the advent of this paradigm shift our household gadgets will be giving up the ghost long before they’ve siphoned off enough data to be of any use to our overlords. The IoBT – the Internet of Broken Things – is not quite such a world-changing proposition. Or perhaps, just perhaps, the allure of accessing all our data will finally persuade manufacturers to make things that last. Maybe consumer brands will give up on built-in obsolescence in return for endless surveillance. Hurray.
After four days there was still no reply from Bose. I tweeted @BoseService, girding myself for an all-out public spat. They were very apologetic. They pointed out that my headphones came with a spare cable. Had I tried swapping the cables?
I hadn’t. And swapping the cables seems – embarrassingly – to have done the trick. My QC 15s are back at peak noise reduction capacity. They’re firing off negative waves like the fury. The silence that Illich said is “taken from us by machines” has been restored to me by my machine. As you were.