TThe mute button was invented in 1956 by Robert Adler, an Austrian-born engineer working for the Zenith Radio Corporation in Chicago. It was one of four buttons on the Space Command 400, the first commercially viable TV remote control. The other three buttons—on/off, channel up, and channel down—may have seemed more vital, but Adler's boss, Eugene F McDonald, a former naval intelligence officer nicknamed "The Commander," had insisted that they put it on mute.
"I hated commercials," Adler recalled in 1987. McDonald feared that these constant intrusions would kill the new television medium. Zenith then boasted that the mute button would allow viewers to "turn off the sound of long, annoying ads".
However, McDonald's couldn't have predicted pop-up advertising, gas pumps trying to sell you nachos, or the ravages of the distraction economy. It's only now, in an age of unrelenting vacations, that we're beginning to fully understand the potential of mute, not only in terms of our devices, but in real life as well.
Last month, the taxi companyUberhas begun testing a set of new features for users of its Exec service, including a button you can enable if you want to mute the driver. "Preferably calm" is the euphemism Uber uses (you can also change it to "chat happy" - lucky driver). But it seems to bring the dream of being able to choose who and what we listen to one step closer.
"From the driver's point of view, it's very rude," one Uber driver in East London tells me. “And offensive, to be honest. It's like saying "Shut up." It says a lot about Uber." Uber claims it is responding to customers' concerns that drivers will give them low star ratings if they don't want to chat. Meanwhile, drivers are often afraid to engage in conversations with passengers for the same reason.
But let's be honest: who among us hasn't imagined being able to silence an annoying colleague, a screaming child or an overly friendly waiter? Mute promises a snake-free garden, a world where you can heal your content and silence dissent. And it's proving irresistible online.
Twitter introduced a mute feature in 2014, and it's proven to be the social network's most popular feature, a kind of automated chat on the hand. Instead of 'blocking' someone objectionable (which they'll know about), you can now discreetly 'delete' them (which they won't know about). Part of the appeal is the idea of trolls yelling and @-in and wondering why you're not responding. Twitter followed suit with a topic-based mute feature in 2017: so if you don't want to hear about Love Island, the Terfs, the Champions League final or Dominic Raab, forever, if you have to, don't. No need If you want to take a look at Twitter happy, type "mute button" in the search box: "I just want to thank the mute button for never giving up on me <3"? "The mute button is among the 10 most powerful things in the universe." "Thank you @instagram for creating mute posts and story buttons" etc.
Instagram added its own mute feature last year, inspired by what it called "complex social dynamics." Now you can avoid your friends' embarrassing Ibizan selfies and try menu stories without fear of offence. “I'm happy for my friends who are achieving great things, butInstagramit makes it very easy to start getting bitter because it's not me,” explained a muffler. "I really want to live in a self-imposed creative bubble for a while."
Clinical psychologist Paul Gilbert, author ofliving like crazy, see such responses in Jungian terms. "We are becoming more and more dominated by personality," he says. “We all act according to how people want to see and hear us. We do it all the time on social media." For him, Uber's mute feature is a good opportunity to give these people a break for a few minutes. "Humans evolved into small hunter-gatherer groups where everyone knew each other," he says. “We're not necessarily wired to interact with strangers all the time. People find it incredibly exhausting. At least in a taxi, you have the opportunity to sit down and be calm."
So yes, that's true. But what I find troubling about Uber's mute feature is precisely that it cuts off any possibility of human connection. It's a way to automate a function that once could have been negotiated in human language. The Uber driver points out that it's not difficult for him to gauge who might be ready for a conversation and who might not. "You say, 'What's your name?' Where are you going;" And the way they respond is a pretty clear indication of whether or not they want to talk. Most people have their headphones on anyway. I usually have my Bluetooth headphones with me.'
It is often connectedTelegram, the Russian-designed messaging app that works a bit like a WhatsApp handset. “There are groups of about 200 drivers on Telegram – they will report what is happening in real time. If you see an accident, you can report it to the team." Otherwise, it's "audio books, lectures, radio, podcasts, educational material. If I want to learn something about something, I'll download it when I'm home and listen to it."
But you could see that this withdrawal into our own distinct sound worlds is its own form of silencing. Looking around the desk where I write these words, at least half of my colleagues are wearing headphones or earphones, and the younger they are, the more likely they are to be plugged in or unplugged.
The broader trend is known as the "privatization of the listening space," he saysDoctor Tom Rice, Professor of Sonic Anthropology at the University of Exeter. "It's often said on soundstages that we don't have eyelids. We have no control over what drips into our ears and accumulates in them. Headphones are the closest thing we have to that."
It's generally accepted that our audio environment is becoming increasingly cluttered, even at home, as our microwaves and washing machines are now more likely to sound (and, in some cases, talk) to us. But most people don't shut out the world because they find it overwhelming or confusing. "It's also that they find it boring," Rice says. "People often think the sounds they're exposed to aren't worth listening to." The dawn chorus, after all, isn't what it used to be, and the general human chatter is drowned out by jackhammers, trucks and Ed Sheeran's Galway Girl blaring through the supermarket PA system.
"When we conduct surveys about modern life and ask people what are the biggest irritants in modern life, 'unwanted music or sound' is often in the top five," he says.By Dr. Daniel Levitin, a neuroscientist at McGill University in Montreal and author ofThe organized mind. This has a lot to do with the way our auditory system works. “Compare it to the vision. When you look at an object, it appears to be in the world. But the sounds, for most of us, feel like they're coming out of our heads. It makes them more intimate and more intrusive.
"At best, you can say that headphones are a way to control your environment," he adds. It was surprising, when Spotify users shared their most-streamed songs in late 2019, how many of the titles contained "waves" or "rain noise," suggesting that many listeners simply wanted to block out the distractions. “But the worst case scenario,” says Levitin, “is that young people listen to music and think they can increase their concentration and performance that way. There are thousands of studies that show that listening to music is incredibly bad for concentration. It's just nicer."
Meanwhile, our ability to disconnect from what we want is getting closer and closer to our desire to do just that. Hearables are now being touted as the new wearables in Silicon Valley. Amazon, Apple and Google are working on in-ear technology. get startedDoppler Laboratorieshas developed products that promise to cancel background noise, amplify the voices of individual speakers, and even provide live, real-timepez babel-as a translation. We often imagine that a VR future will involve some sort of interface to our eyes, but it could just as easily work through our ears. Soon we will be able to literally silence people we don't want to hear.
But who knows what else will be silenced? "The argument is that this damages the quality of public space and the social fabric: we all become individualized individuals," Rice says. If we are constantly listening to podcasts, music or white noise, we cut ourselves off from society and the opportunity to interact, help and have fun.
"Personally, I don't have much to say about headphones, and I think they can be incredibly useful and enriching to one's life," says Rice. "But I think it's possible to get value out of your sonic environment by paying attention to it." One way is to focus on your healthy diet. “Can you isolate five sounds in your everyday environment that you appreciate and enjoy and that enrich your life? The gurgling of the construction sink when turning off the tap, a piece of birdsong, the wind in the trees, the echo of footsteps under a bridge... In addition to drawing our attention to specific sounds, an exercise such as she invites us to think about our sound environment in general and which sounds we want more and less in our lives".