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past / present / future personal listening practices
and privatization of the public sound space

As far as we share the same space in the visual context, we can't say the same about our acoustic reality. To move through a modern urban public space is to move through a space with dozen sounds playing simultaneously, but to hear none of them.

Headphones, earphones and portable listening devices give us total control of our audio environment, which results in privatizing our public spaces. This issue has its pros and cons as well as its causes and effects. We create the noise we're escaping from. We long for the silence that we ourselves as an urban society are destroying. In a personalised-everything times we choose to control our soundscape with no afford – simply by cutting off our sonic reality. We create separate sonic worlds, post-authentic soundscapes without a chance for sound to be reflected in space. The only space for the sound to reverb is our head.


In 1894, over a century before the invention of e-readers and the rise of audiobook and podcast, French bibliophile Octave Uzanne predicted the decline of printed text with the advent of phonographic technology. He envisioned a future where reading would no longer be done through books, but rather through sound recordings. This prediction was ahead of its time and foreshadowed the current popularity of audiobooks and podcasts.

The images in Uzanne's article were ahead of their time, with one picture depicting a man walking while listening to a book through an iPod-like device and headphones. Today, if we were to come across this person on a walk, we would likely be more taken aback by his clothing than by the technology he's using.


The practice of using listening devices inserted in the ear has a history of over two centuries. The first device of this kind was not created for listening to music, however. Rene Laennec, a physician from France, is credited with the invention of the stethoscope in 1816. He developed the device while working at Necker-Enfants Malades Hospital in Paris. The original stethoscope consisted of a single wooden tube and was designed to avoid direct contact between the physician and the patient. Laennec noticed that sounds could be amplified by placing a rolled piece of paper between the patient's chest and his ear.
Several improvements to the stethoscope were made in the following years. In 1851, Irish physician Arthur Leared created a binaural stethoscope, and in 1852, George Philip Cammann improved the design further, making it possible for the instrument to be commercially produced. This design, which uses both ears, has remained the standard to this day.


Ernest Mercadier, a French engineer, patented the "bi-telephone" in 1891, which turned out to be the earliest recorded type of in-ear headphones. Despite being 130 years old, these lightweight and portable headphones closely resemble today's earbuds. Mercadier even proposed a rubber cover to prevent ear friction during usage.


In pre-radio times, Londoners could enjoy music with friends via the Electrophone. This cutting-edge service offered subscribers the ability to listen to live theater shows through their telephone line using specialized headphones. It was like Spotify for opera. The headphones looked similar to modern ones, but instead of wearing them on top of the head, they were held with a rod attached to the earpads at the bottom. By 1908, 600 subscribers were receiving programs from 30 theaters and churches, and even collective listening events were organized. It's hard to believe, but the wealthier population was listening in this manner for more than 30 years, from 1895 to 1926.


So we come to 1910 when Nathaniel Baldwin creates in his kitchen the first modern headphones. For the first time, a pair of headpchones look like the ones you see today. Baldwin's headphones featured two cushioned ear cups and headbands for comfortable, hands-free wear on the head. He first created them in his kitchen in Utah for better listening to sermons at the local Mormon temple. Soon the US Navy saw the advantage of the headphones' design that didn't require an external power source, resulting in a large order and business opportunity for Baldwin. Unfortunately, poor financial decisions and a jail term for mail fraud brought about the downfall of his company.


Wearable tech's potential to transform our relationship with technology has been discussed for decades. A prime example is the invention by an 18-year-old in 1922 of a radio that could be worn in a top hat. During the early 1920s, the radio industry was exciting and experimental, with some referring to it as "wireless telephone." This inventor foresaw the integration of radio in wearable tech. The only indicator that he was listening to the radio rather than the world around him was the headphones he wore.


Not sure if these could have been somehow inspired by the Mercadier's bi-telephone's in-ear headphones, but Science and Invention magazine issue from May 1926 published an article about the arrival of a new pair of earbud headphones. The magazine praised the benefits of these headphones, which are still relevant today - the earbuds were lighter, took up less space, and provided a more comfortable experience during hot weather compared to traditional, cumbersome headphones.

The invention and production of the first headphones, such as world's first dynamic headphones Beyerdynamic's DT 48 and first stereo headphones Koss' SP-3, had a significant impact on the future of portable listening. These early headphones introduced the concept of personal, private listening to music and other audio content, freeing people from the limitations of loudspeakers and allowing them to enjoy their favourite sounds everywhere without disturbing others. Furthermore, the development of headphones led to improvements in sound quality and increased portability. As technology progressed, headphones became smaller, lighter, and more comfortable, making them a practical and convenient option for listening on the go. Headphones are an essential part of daily life now, used for everything from music and podcasts to phone calls and gaming. The legacy of the first headphones continues to influence modern headphone design, with advancements in wireless technology and noise-cancellation that further enhance the listening experience.

Headphones are an essential part of daily life now, used for everything from music and podcasts to phone calls and gaming. The legacy of the first headphones continues to influence modern headphone design, with advancements in wireless technology and noise-cancellation that further enhance the listening experience.

Eventually headphones themselves needed to be complemented by listening devices and the first popular portable listening device was the transistor radio, which was introduced in the mid-1950s. The invention of the transistor, a tiny but powerful semiconductor device, not only revolutionized the electronics industry and paved the way for many modern technologies, but in a broader perspective changed our natural soundscape and had a huge impact on the future of our relationship with the sound environment. Before the transistor radio, portable listening devices were limited in their capabilities and quality. Transistor radio had a significant impact on popular culture because of its accessibility. For the first time people were able to listen to their favorite music, programs and news wherever they went, from the beach to the park to the bus or train.

Since 80s a significant change in listening practices can be observed. Since then listening devices and listening practices have evolved from portable to personal. The combination of the portable music player and headphones or (later) earphones gave us even more freedom in creating our own, personal soundscape. From the Walkman and Discman of the 80s and 90s to the MP3 players, iPods of 00s and smartphones we use today, personal listening devices have become an essential part of our daily lives. A part that is shaping our listening culture everyday.

The Walkman, introduced by Sony in 1979, was a game-changer in the personal listening market. It was the first truly portable cassette player that allowed people to listen to their music on the go.The Discman, which followed in the 1990s, was the first portable CD player that provided high-quality sound and longer listening times.

With the advent of digital music, MP3 players became popular in the early 00s. The iPod, introduced by Apple in 2001 quickly became the dominant player in the market and revolutionized the way people consumed and organized their music. Today, most people use their smartphones as their primary portable listening device.

The evolution of headphones and earphones has been just as significant as the devices themselves. In-ear headphones or earphones, became popular in the 1990s and allowed people to listen to their music without disturbing those around them. The introduction of wireless earbuds in the 2010s marked a significant shift in the industry, providing users with even more freedom and convenience. Later technologies like noise cancelling have also had a significant impact on our listening experience, allowing us to block out unwanted background noise and immerse ourselves in the sound we want to hear and reinforce the walls of our private sound bubbles.

The self-care and focus-improving opportunities we get by the use of personal sonic devices is invaluable in today's hectic, stressful and stimulus-filled times. The ways in which portable listening technologies are being used are numerous. But like any other social behavior these new listening practices need a critical look. We should think more about the way they're shaping our reality and analize these tehnologies concidering health and ethics of use.

How will new technologies change our sound environment and the way we listen? Directional speakers for example seem as revolutionary now as any kind of portable listening seemed over a century ago to people reading the text about the advent of phonographic technology by the French bibliophile Octave Uzanne (which i summarise at the top of this page).

Sound played from a traditional loudspeaker bounces around in all directions making all people in one space hear it. Unlike the traditional ones, the directional speakers broadcast a straight beam of sound, so the listener can only hear it when being in a specific place. The technology of directional sound is revolutionary and scary at the same time - just imagine the possible ways of using this kind of technology in public spaces (and, unfortunately, the possibilities for manipulation, discrimination and violence offered by it).

But sticking to the technologies that are already popular, it's pretty clear that using personal sonic devices and noise cancelling technologies we cut ourselves off, we build distance, detach from our sonic reality finding comfort in our private sonic bubbles. In the times of the ultimate way of personalising everything, we live in post-authentic soundscapes that we curate ourselves.

Whether talking about current or future technologies, there is no new question arising here, since the one from the famous walkman commercial from 90s seems pretty accurate:

The progress in sound continues,
but what about mankind?

This is a research part of the POST-AUTHENTIC SOUNDSCAPES project created by Zofia Pasnik at the Academy of Fine Arts in Katowice, 2023.
All of above visual content was found on the web, the author do not own the copyrights for it.