School is a thing, so I guess that’s why it’s been a while. Busy being a student or something… (whatever that’s about)
Anyway, I’ll probably post some of the shit I’ve been working on. Mainly so that years from now I can look back on all the things I thought I was being edgy and thoughtful on back in my naïve college years.
The following was written for my Honors College colloquia course about US Consumer Culture. The assignment was to choose an everyday object, study it closely, describe it in detail, and discuss its relation to consumer culture.
I have chosen to examine an object that most of us are acutely familiar with, yet likely pay little attention to whatsoever. It would be a safe bet that most people carry this with them everywhere they go, and often without thinking of it—the item is shoved into a pocket or backpack, where its carried until needed. This simple item that I am considering is the pair of headphones that goes with us nearly everywhere that we go.
Specifically, I am looking at my set of white Apple brand wired headphones that were included in the box when I bought my iPhone. Technically, the official product name is Apple EarPods® but they are frequently referred to as simply “headphones.” Their actual design is very simple and contains few separate components. The headphones are a small cable that is wrapped in a small rubber coating. There is a standard 3.5mm jack on one end, and the other end is split to two separate earpieces. These plastic earpieces are advertised as being designed to fit every ear shape, though there is only one standardized design for the headphones. There is also a small control piece along one earpiece’s wire, which contains control buttons and a microphone. The entire product is a uniform white color. The design of a set of headphones is something that most of us know already and are acutely aware of. Therefore, it is initially strange to write out the specific design features, and pay close attention to minute details. However, for someone unfamiliar with the idea of headphones, these things would not be as intuitive.
For someone who these headphones are a foreign thing, even explaining their purpose might prove to be a difficult task. In a general sense, their function is to transmit an audio signal from some source and play it back directly into a listener’s ears. Because the 3.5mm jack is an industry standard, these headphones can be used with a wide variety of devices, such as computers, MP3 players, cassette players, and more in order to listen to different forms of media. However, the real purpose of this item is a little more specific than that—not only does it provide a person with the ability to listen to radio, TV shows, music, and more, but it also makes it so that only one person is able to listen to those things. The purpose of headphones is one of exclusion, and preventing others from hearing and listening to the same things as someone else. Only one person per device is allowed to take part in the media experience.
Culturally, this has many implications. One possible takeaway from this pair of headphones is the incredible degree of sameness that they represent. Everything about the product is incredibly standardized. From the length of the wire, to the shade of white used—everything about my pair of EarPods will be exactly the same as someone else’s pair. This is a product that can be found globally, and every individual set of headphones will be exactly the same. According to critical theorists Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, this sense of sameness is a product of modern-day mass media. Industries mass produce the same products over and over again, leading to the creation of a hegemony, or normalized culture that is accepted as a status quo. Specifically, society has come to accept that individuals listen to their own music, and do so using headphones. In that sense, this product is indicative of a hegemony that we live in and have grown to accept. It has become so ordinary to us, that we no longer question it; in fact, it is such an ingrained part of society that we become uncomfortable when anything challenges the hegemony and threatens to destabilize what we have accepted as the norm. The recent outrage over Apple’s iPhone 7, which contained no headphone jack, and release of new EarPods that use a proprietary Lightning connector instead is just one example of the uneasiness and anxiety that arises from a destabilized hegemony. In this manner, even though the product itself is quite simple—a set of headphones—it can still carry great cultural significance.