The Boat vs Fish Dilemma
SimonSays #16 - Have headphones blurred the line between immersion and disconnection?
Last month, I signed up to run a half marathon. Having never run a proper race before, I started to imagine what the atmosphere on race day would be like. One of the things that puzzled me was whether I should wear my headphones or not while running. I’m used to running with headphones and listening to audiobooks or sometimes music as a way to distract myself and prevent me from overthinking my run. Yet, I imagined that a race was an amazing experience to be a part of and wanted to enjoy it fully. Though I wasn’t expecting it to be as festive as the New York marathon, I imagined that there would be music, animations, people cheering etc.
Like many people, if you ever catch me walking in the street, jogging or in the subway, chances are I’ll have my headphones on. It’s pretty common nowadays, isn’t it? When I started writing this article in the subway (with my headphones on 😉) I counted that 7 of the 11 people in front of me were using earphones or headphones.
While the main criticism regarding phones has been that people “stare at them”, I would argue that just “as bad” is the fact that people listen to them. Why? Simply because it brings a whole new immersive experience. Sometimes in the subway, or while running, I catch myself pausing whatever I’m listening to or removing my headphones entirely to eavesdrop on two strangers debating about random topics or to listen to a drunk man’s diatribe. For a moment there, I manage to convince myself that I’m not completely trapped in my own little bubble nor disconnected from the world that surrounds me.
It seems that prior to the emergence of walkmans, earphones, headphones, airpods etc, one could only be isolated from others when they were in their car or their house. Today, these technologies have allowed people to isolate themselves literally everywhere. When you think about it, those 7 people I was with in the subway could be immersed in completely different realities: some could be listening to a podcast, others to heavy metal, or to the sound effects of a game, etc. That doesn’t mean that the 4 that weren’t listening to anything were all experiencing the same thing or interacting with one another. Some could have been daydreaming others thinking about their grocery list or how bad their day was, etc. The idea is simply that they were probably less ‘immersed’ in their reality and thus more likely to make impromptu conversations with strangers or appreciate interactions around them. As written in the New York Times article Now Playing in Your Headphones: Nothing, “When we wear headphones, it is a signal to everyone that we’re shut off, unavailable and, much like napping adults, absolutely not to be bothered”. While that isn’t an issue in itself, it isolates individuals and seems to limit social interactions to specific moments and/or places.
To come back to my marathon dilemma, I eventually had to make a decision. So on race day I showed up with headphones. I felt like I was really lacking energy in my previous runs and had to take any extra motivation I could get! When I arrived to the starting point, I looked around and failed to identify a single person with headphones. Don’t get me wrong, a decent amount had earphones, but of course, no one had headphones.
An hour before, I had designed a relaxing playlist that would get a bit more energetic towards the end of my race where I felt like I would need it most. We listened to the national anthem and started running. Thanks to my headphones, I was in my bubble. It’s easy to be destabilized and feel out of place in such an environment. You go from running alone on whichever path you choose for however long you want, to running surrounded by hundreds of people on a pre-designed course for a set distance. Thus, listening to “my music” was very helpful in providing me with some familiarity and thus “reassuring” me in a sense.
However, having my headphones on did not mean I was completely disengaged and disconnected from the environment around me. I was still able to appreciate the numerous bands, DJs and the Scottish piper that showed up on the side of the track to motivate the runners.
More importantly, I was able to fully appreciate the environment and the atmosphere created by the supporters and interact with them. That included fist-bumping some kids on the side, thanking volunteers, police officers, etc or smiling throughout the race and raising my fist and giving a thumbs up to everyone who encouraged and clapped as we ran past. Yet, I can imagine that they viewed this interaction in a different light because I had voluntarily chosen to set a barrier between us by having my headphones on.
I like to think of this as the boat or fish dilemma. Both want to go in the same direction and will eventually get there, but their experience is completely different. One interacts with other fish and other species, and immediately senses variations in water temperature, colors, lights, while the other navigates alone, unperturbed unless the sea becomes rough until it reaches its destination.
If I were to decide where I lie on that spectrum I’d say that on any given day I’m a boat, but I’m always looking, and occasionally seizing, opportunities to become a fish.
How about you? Are you a boat or a fish?