Mediamatic Magazine Vol. 6#4 1 Jan 1992

In Memoriam the Ear

With regard to the ear, we humans were still living in a transitory phase: that of the whale which could already swim, but would still heave itself ashore out of nostalgia.


In Memoriam het Oor -

Out of habit, we would still put our hand behind the auricle in an attempt to hear something better, instead of turning up the volume with a simple movement. We would still put our fingers in our ears when we wanted silence, instead of switching to 'off'. We would be irritated by disturbances and noise pollution, by gurgling drains and gnawing mice behind the skirting boards, by drunks in the night, and we were still afraid of the roaring silence of a still summer night in the open fields.

The ear was a relic of bygone times, in the same way as the constituent parts of it were symbols for old, obsolete crafts and for slowness: hammer, anvil, stirrup, cochlea. A beautiful mechanism, which we admired as we would admire an old watch, with endearment over so much useless ingenuity, where now a simple chip will do.

The ear was a rickety crystal receiver, hardly capable of distinguishing desired from undesired information, with a wax tube which not only transported vibrations, but also filtered the pollution out of the air; a channel which was exposed at one end to environmental poison, remains of soap and dirty bath water, and was threatened at the other by germs, accumulated slime and coughing fits. The ear was an empty space which begged to be filled with advanced technology.

The experiences of the ‘hard of hearing’, people who were once treated with pity because they could not pick up every sound that came their way, have eventually led to one of the most logical evolutions of the human body since the disappearance of body hair. In the first place, research proved that an intelligent ‘hearing-impaired’ person can hold his ground in virtually every situation, even if he grasps only 40 percent of the ‘normal’ auditive information. In most conversations, he can make do with 20 percent without giving the impression that he cannot keep track. In the second place, his hearing could be improved drastically with minor technical remedies.

The final blow came from the research into the difference between essential and redundant information, which had such far-reaching effects on digital recording techniques as well. There developed a will to make the sense of hearing as selective and finely tunable as a high-end world receiver, and ever-more perfect sub-microscopic techniques were applied as they became available. These developments heralded the end of the old smithy with its hammer, anvil and stirrup; of the slimy snail’s channel.

Was it not the logical thing to do, to demolish this whole delicate mechanism in our heads altogether, and to replace it by an electronic media centre implanted early in our lives? Through a simple surgical operation, the ear has been able to develop further, as the intersection of all auditive information and communication channels; at the same time discarding, once and for all, the trimmings and fuss with which it was once surrounded: the bizarre black boxes, eyesores in every interior, causing dust traps and fatal crashes with their webs of cable; the radios, cd players, dats, amplifiers, recorders, Walkmans, tottering piles of discs, unlabelled cassettes, crackling telephones with their entangled wires and grimy receivers; the answering machines, always missing the most important messages because the tape was full; the misshapen stereos, spitting out noise in all directions, the three-ways, the electrostats, the subwoofers; the whole rigmarole of audiolatry recycled into two receiver stations, invisibly incorporated into the petrosal bone, in direct connection with the nerves that once surrounded the cochlea. And moreover, in wireless connection with freely expandable audio-data banks and telecommunication centres.

The days are over when a civilised person had to stumble in haste to the telephone from the intimacy of his lavatory, when we had to stamp on the floor to silence the downstairs neighbour. No world citizen, wherever he is, will be deprived any longer of his favourite music, of direct ear contact with his loved ones, of the latest news, of the friendly warnings of his board computer. And at last, at last, a man can turn off his ears!

translation OLIVIER/WYLIE