Personal space and privacy are important elements of peoples’ life. Especially in case of a new reality, like the global Covid-19 pandemic, that forces everyone to stay home and cope with responsibilities and duties that still go on, it is crucial to find ways to keep up with them by reconstructing daily life, the new reality. One way is by putting the headphones on. Headphones provide this magic feeling of creating a personal reality or extending the one someone lives in, where personal space and privacy find a “home”.  

When the global pandemic hit us last year, I found myself, shut in my small apartment having to cope with a new reality. I was doing my pre-master programme, and I had just got used to a whole new education system for me, a more intense one compared to my bachelor studies. But suddenly everything was online. All lectures and tutorials. As a rather talkative person, I needed to find a way to ensure that I will continue to participate actively in the university’s activities, continue to organise my priorities, continue to separate personal from “working” space although being home all the time. In general, continue my reality, like the one I used to experience before. The only way to achieve this is with my earphones. 

Wearing my earphones automatically meant either studying or participating in the tutorials. They “transport” me to the library, to the university, to the classroom. To any place, I would be otherwise. As I spend almost all day inside, the need to separate my personal space from the place I do my readings or courses was, and still is, very important. Both in terms of ensuring the maximum possible efficiency and dedication to my studies, and for my mental health. During the first month of the lockdown, I bought these earphones and I can assure that rather than a purchase, was more like an investment for surviving.

My library, university and classroom in times of Covid-19. Photo by me.

My earphones are Honor Sport AM61 Bluetooth Headphones in black colour, and are made mostly from lightweight plastic. When having them on, unconsciously, I move up and down the plastic that regulates the opening of the cable under the chin. It relieves me from the stress during meetings and helps me focus on the person talking. Additionally, due to the Noise-cancellation function, wearing them immediately means no noise or voices from my surroundings. I cannot hear anything else apart from my “readings”, or my fellow students and tutors in our virtual classroom on Zoom. I cannot even hear my keyboard when I am typing down notes. And when I finish, I take them off. Almost after any meeting, I can feel my ears burn and be a little bit itchy. I take my eyes away from the screen.

“Yes, I am still in my house.”

And continue my day as I have just returned from outside. 

Now I have totally connected them with the university’s responsibilities. I can feel the anxiety any time I randomly see my earphones “waiting” for me somewhere in the house.

“Do I have more readings to do?”, “What time is my Zoom meeting tomorrow?” “I need to set a date with my fellow students for the case study.”

These are just a few thoughts that directly come to my mind. My earphones became the most crucial tool for my studies during the Covid-19 pandemic. And probably to most people that were forced to study or work remotely from home, which is not only home anymore, it is the office, the library, the classroom. Additionally, according to Inchausti et al. (2020) and Matheson et al. (2020), headphones are suggested also in treatments during Covid-19, as a way to ensure privacy in the limited space of a household. Needless to say, as the separation of physical locations does not exist anymore due to our screens, there is the need to distinguish them ourselves, with the help of something, with the help of earphones.

From Telephone Operators’ Tool to “Reality Builders”

From communication to music, from cables to longer cables, and then, to a wireless connection. From headphones to wireless earphones, these objects have been in human lives for a long time now. However, headphones were not always used as they are today. Headphones were firstly used by telephone operators in 1881, but as they were heavy, French engineer Ernest Mercadier created the first ear-fitting, hands-free headphones for telephone operators in 1891 (Stamo, 2013, para. 3). But it was only after 1958 that John Koss created the first stereo headphones designed for music and home listening (Cobb, n.d.; Newman, n.d.). Then the story is more or less known, from John Koss first stereo headphones to the first portable headphones first launched in 1979, aka Walkman, to 2004 when the first stereo headphones using Bluetooth technology was invented (Cobb, n.d.). Today it only needs to take a walk outside, to see people on the bus, on their bicycle, or simply walking next to you wearing a set of wireless earphones on them.

The evolution of headphones. Iddings C. Medium. https://medium.com/@codyandchelsea/

As society evolves, technologies, such as headphones evolve too, and vice versa. Human needs and technologies are co-shaped and co-evolved, or as Bijker (1994) and Pinch & Bijker (1984) have argued, technological products and services are socially constructed based on users’ needs. In other words, although some technologies were first launched to serve a specific purpose, like to release telephone operators from heavy equipment, human needs and expectations led their development to something different but able to satisfy user’s needs.

But, as mentioned above, user’s needs are undeniably not the same through time and are also shaped by technologies. And, of course, not all people share the same experiences with the shame objects. Agreeing with Bijker (1994) and Pinch & Bijker (1984), Harding (2016) also suggest that people and objects co-shape each other but, but not only in terms of their long-term development but also in terms of their short-term life with “their” human (p. 5).  In particular, he argues that to describe the life of an object, it is necessary to also describe the life of a human. As “the life of objects is no more nor less than the life of humans, of ourselves” (p. 8), it is only through understanding the use and need of an object for a human, to understand the essential purpose of the object for them. And that is what Dannehl (2018) calls “object biography” (p. 123). Each object biography, like my pair of headphones, goes beyond its material existence and original purpose, expressing its specific story (Dannehl, 2018, p. 133). Therefore, headphones may have different uses, contexts and meanings throughout their lifecycle, which depends on the person that is using them and their needs. Dannehl (2018) describes object biography based on the following features “a tightly defined, finite time frame, the focus on the subject against a context, and the express purpose of highlighting exceptional or unusual feature” (p. 124). And this exceptional or unusual feature is what made the earphones a crucial part of my “surviving” of the new reality through Covid-19.

It was not (and still is not) merely the communication or the music that I enjoy most. But this sense of separating my personal and working space, escaping from the constant “home” reality, and satisfying the need to transfer myself to something beyond to keep up with my responsibilities. And I succeed in this not only by using my earphones but simply by looking at them. This is because objects are something more than their use and biography. Objects can stimulate our senses, can cause feelings such as happiness, anxiety, or sadness. Put it differently, objects have agency, they can act upon the people using them and stimulate emotional reactions. This view is supported by Hoskins (2006) who claims that “things have agency because they produce effects, they cause us to feel happy, angry, fearful or lustful” (p. 76), and as a result, they cannot be understood without their story, their narrative of life, their biography in relation with “their” human being and what they cause to them.

“It is only in the world of objects that we have time and space and selves.”

T. S. Eliot

The fact that objects play a crucial role in times of crisis has also been acknowledged. As noted by Endt-Jones (2020), in times of crisis and uncertainty, like the pandemic we are currently facing that has totally changed our lives, objects can fundamentally help the reconstruction of one’s self and identity. When everything changes suddenly and unexpectedly, our survival instinct activates to re-find us and adjust to the new realities. Referring to the Covid-19 pandemic, Endt-Jones (2020) argues that “while our lives, livelihoods and identities are threatened by an invisible, intangible particle, we can derive comfort, stability and pleasure from touching, seeing, making, smelling and tasting concrete things” (para. 8). Previously ordinary objects now became a way to reconstruct and survive. For me, a way to privacy, to somewhere where I can organise my routine and place my priorities.

From communication, to music, to individual privacy, each of us has a unique relationship with our headphones. But in all cases, when using headphones or earphones people can create and experience a personal sonic (and not only) space. Space where they can hear a piece of music, a podcast of their choice, or communicate with a relative or a colleague without bothering the people around them, but also without getting distracted by them. Stankievech (2007) notes that headphones through providing isolation to the user, contribute to the extension of their reality. In particular, as he supports listening through headphones can confuse the sense of reality, which he refers to as disorientation, but “this disorientation is not due to a loss of reality but is a supplement to reality” (p. 58). When wearing a set of headphones or earphones, those little ear tips extend our reality by making us experience what we are listening to (p. 58). Immediately it feels like:

“Now it’s me and myself, and my own reality”

And this is exactly what happened and is still happening to me.

The Author

My name is Katerina Alexopoulou, I come from Greece. Currently, I’m doing my MA at Maastricht University.


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