Over the last thirty-five years, headphones have been linked to a range of worrisome listening trends: from ostensibly encouraging antisocial behaviour, to putting listeners at risk of permanent hearing loss, to increasing otherwise avoidable pedestrian injuries and deaths. Efforts to address these issues have typically fallen into one of two categories. One approach has been to lobby for the strict regulation or banning of headphones in environments where they might pose a heightened risk. A second approach has been to advocate better public education on the potential dangers involved. Yet
neither approach — blaming technology or blaming behaviour — has been particularly effective in developing long-term solutions to these problems. According to recent studies, instances of headphone-relating hearing loss and pedestrian accidents continue to be on the rise, and the cultural stereotype of headphone listening as a quintessentially “antisocial” listening practice remains as strong as ever.
Drawing on Peter-Paul Verbeek’s (2005; 2006; 2011) post-humanist moral philosophy of technology, this dissertation develops a different framework: namely, a design-oriented approach to what
I call “the moral problem of headphones.” My premise is that in order to address the problem of headphones in a meaningful way we must begin, not by isolating technology or behaviour and treating them as underlying “causes,” but by forging a deeper understanding of how headphone-related devices, listening strategies, and moral values are mutually shaped. By examining three historical moments in which headphones took on clear moral significance — (1) the introduction of broadcast radio in the 1920s, (2) the proliferation of television and hi-fi in the 1950s and 1960s, and (3) the rise of the
“personal stereo” in the early 1980s — this thesis demonstrates that headphone-related technologies, listening practices, and moralities are not immutable but have changed over time. It does so in service of a greater argument that our ability to make headphone listening safer and more responsible depends not on our ability to commit more strongly to, or oscillate more freely between, “bad technology” and “bad behaviour” perspectives, but to better engineer good headphone–listener “relations” through smarter moral design.