Sunday, February 15, 2009

Earbuds, Listening, and Riding

Just to be clear: I have yet to defend the dissertation. I have, however, written all of my chapters. (Thank you, my dear readers, for your patience through that weird sprint to the finish.) The crazy and intense period of writing is, for all intents and purposes, over and has been for a few weeks now. My diss advisor tells me to let the document sit and work on other things. I consider my forays into sound studies and urban policy issues to be a PERFECT opportunity. So yes, I am back.


Today was the first official meeting of the Sound Studies Special Interest Group for the Society of Ethnomusicology. My participation in that meeting (via Skype) prompted me to think about one of the most prevalent activities I witness from my bicycle saddle as I ride around town. Earbuds. Many people drive with earbuds. An even higher percentage of bicycle riders train or commute with their headphones on. In case you didn't know, this activity is completely illegal. According to the California Vehicle Code, you can't operate a vehicle with anything in your ears unless it is for hearing protection (say, if you are operating a very noisy vehicle at a construction site). Many motorcyclists, for example, ride with ear plugs because they are literally damaging their ears when they travel at high speeds. I think the point of the prohibition is a safety concern. Can you hear a car overtaking you from behind as you ride along to your favorite tunes? Can you respond to an emergency if you can't hear it?

I have a problem with the way this law is set out. I personally never ride while wearing earbuds because I would never feel safe. After years of loud rehearsals and long club nights, my hearing isn't as good as it used to be. But I am sure that some people can properly distinguish mediated sound from the sounds of their environment and do it with panache. Many pedestrians walk in unsafe areas while wearing headphones, and earbuds are extremely common in public transit. (And many dangerous things happen to pedestrians and passengers on buses, subways, and trains.) Why the prohibition on riding or driving? What's more: many people who are hard of hearing operate vehicles and there is no prohibition against them. So why such an arbitrary prohibition?

Let me push a little bit more. Many policy makers do not pay attention to other factors that may inhibit hearing, such as construction and landscaping machines. Imagine trying to safely pass a bicycle when you can't even hear yourself saying "on your left." Earbuds don't help that situation, but they are far from the villain. There are so many acoustic factors that make certain traffic situations completely unsafe; yet, they rarely catch the sustained attention of policy makers (in the los angeles area at least).

My (completely unfounded) suspicion is that the prohibition is not against loud noises, but rather that sounds in earbuds are distracting. I could provide an extensive bibliography of theorists who lament the rise in distracted listening practice as a fundamental negative component of late modernity. But many drivers and cyclists long to be distracted. If they pay too much attention to the road or vehicle in front of them, they run the risk of being jittery and overreacting. One's awareness of moving so quickly can quickly heighten reflexes along with anxieties. It can also have the opposite effect: the constant rhythm of lights and lane dividers on the road (or the spandex of the cyclist in front of you) can be mesmerizing and make someone zone out, thereby decreasing reflexes. And in heavy traffic situations, being all-too-aware that you aren't moving can actually heighten road-rage. In these cases, distraction is an important part of process of moderating rather extreme reactions to the commuting experience. It is the most popular coping mechanism for stress and fatigue.

Maybe policy makers need to think of better ways to try to make the commuting experience better instead of encroaching on possible individual solutions to the problem. Maybe?