I hate AirPods. No, actually, I loathe them, with a rabid, visceral, illogical fervor. Imagine my despair, then, in observing the way AirPods have proliferated, seemingly overnight, in the expensive coastal city in which I reside, sitting snugly like bleached pupae in the ears of everyone from finance bros to bus drivers. (Even some of my coworkers, whom I generally like and respect, wear them!)
It’s bad enough that AirPods are aesthetically hideous, turning their wearers into unwitting extras in some low-budget dystopian movie, and that they transform everyday public interactions into a dadaist act, wherein service workers and colleagues alike have to figure out if said AirPods-wearer is talking to you or some person literally in their head. (As one service worker recently told BuzzFeed News regarding AirPods use: “I think there’s a good percentage of people who don’t see me as a full person.”) But worst of all, AirPods have become, at least to me, the ultimate symbol of 21st-century conspicuous consumption. They represent the growing global sameness of the upper classes; you’ll find wearers among people of means in every country. That they are expensive, but not backbreakingly so, only makes them more appealing. (To other people, to be clear. Not to me.)
They are also harbingers of gentrification. When I read this story of new residents in Washington, DC’s Shaw neighborhood walking their dogs across Howard University’s historic Yard, I imagined they were wearing AirPods as they did it, because they just had to be. In this recent New York Times story about gentrification in Raleigh, North Carolina, a local pastor tries to get newer white residents to consider using the gym built by his church, but “the joggers tend to have earphones in and to look away.”
In the 2015 book The Edge Becomes the Center: An Oral History of Gentrification, author D.W. Gibson chats with one native of Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood, who talks about what the latest wave of gentrification feels like:
“[T]hey come here like we have a little more money, we’re driving rents up, we’re not going to be involved, we’re going to walk down the street with our headphones … I’ve started going on this campaign where if I’m walking and I notice that you have your headphones on, I’ll step in front of you and say, ‘Look up!’”
For that woman, headphones represent the transient nature of so many of these folks moving into these cities (people like me — though as I love to tell everyone, I’m trying to live in New York forever). Put your headphones on, and it’s easier to pretend you didn’t hear that person in front of the subway station asking you for money. (It’s also much easier to drown out street harassers, admittedly, but we shouldn’t have to rely on headphones as a solution for a larger societal problem.)
AirPods, with their conspicuous wirelessness and direct connection to Big Tech, are the symbolic culmination of that displacement. That they are small enough to rest in the ears of their wearers all day, easily undetectable, only highlights their insidiousness. AirPods are akin to cashless restaurants in that both innovations seem indicative of innocuous forward momentum, but actually gesture toward a future in which class barriers are represented in extremely visible ways. AirPods say, “I can afford not to hear the same sounds you do.”
This is where I implicate myself. I love (wired) earbuds; I’m wearing them right now as I type this essay in a noisy open-plan office. I used to sleep with earbuds beaming Tmsoft’s Box Fan Sound straight into my earholes on nights when my downstairs neighbor decided to update his playlist at 3 in the morning. I like to walk down the street with them in, listening to Coupé-Décalé and choreographing elaborate dance routines that I can never hope to actually execute.
But lately, as I’ve noticed the changing dynamics of the neighborhood I live in — the influx of Uniqlo-clad twenty- and thirtysomethings, clutching New Yorker tote bags, AirPods jammed in their ears, walking hurriedly past the mom trying to haul a stroller up the subway steps by herself — I’ve started to feel guilty about my own prolific earphone use. There’s something about being present. As I’m sure someone said one time, we hate the things that remind us most of our own shortcomings.
And so in many ways, my hatred of AirPods is actually just misdirected anger toward myself at being complicit in the rapid displacement of the working class in the city I live in, even as I try to persuade myself that as a black woman, I am somehow different — not as obtuse, not as likely to call the police on imaginary infractions. But wearing wired earbuds as opposed to AirPods is mainly a pointless, arbitrary display of superiority. There are so many ways in which we try to convince ourselves that our tastes Mean Something. That railing about gentrification can somehow bypass doing the hard work of trying to stop it, or just trying to engage in a meaningful way with the places where we live. At least my headphones are cheap, I reason. At least they don’t represent the growing, crippling hegemony of Big Tech.
When my phone from the Big Fruit Tech Company finally petered out about a year ago, a friendly Sprint employee persuaded me to upgrade to a newer model that doesn’t have a headphone jack. I didn’t realize this fact until it was too late. I almost screamed, until I realized there was a connector dongle included so I could continue to tote around my nondescript $30 headphones.
Lately, though, I’ve taken to wearing my earbuds around my neck like a chain, rather than in my ears — they’re easily accessible just in case, while permitting me to listen to other people’s conversations or even (scarily) to my own thoughts. I’m trying to be more present, more friendly, more aware of the world around me. It’s a slow-going process, and I’m not always in the mood to be fully in the world. But I’m trying. ●