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[Weekender] Plugging in

Listeners freed, isolated by culture of earphones

Beats, melodies, or words flow into your ears uninterrupted, and no one can touch what you picture with the sounds.

Earphones and headphones divide a solitude space among multitudes on a busy street, mass transit or in a room full of people.

With the ability to escape unwanted noise, earphones have long become a natural necessity in modern everyday life.

Portable devices like the Walkman began to nurture the culture of earphones in South Korea in the 1980s. For decades, the compact devices have been miniaturized and transformed into MP3 players and smartphones, carrying digital music instead of cassettes or CDs, increasing convenience.

The use of earphones have become even more necessary with the advent of multifunctional devices which let people watch YouTube clips and live broadcasts, listen to music and audiobooks, and play games free from space constraints.

The sound from earphones -- as big as headphones or as small as earbuds -- rarely interrupts others in an open space and at the same time keeps listeners away from external noise.

The wider use has also evolved in terms of technology and design, such as wireless earbuds designed to perfectly fit into one’s ear or headsets connected to other smart devices that cost millions of won.

Earphones, however, have also allowed people to binge-watch or binge-listen.

It is a normal sight in South Korea, as in most other urban cities, to see passengers in any sort of public transportation or pedestrians in a walkway staying connected online, their eyes and ears fixed on a smartphone screen.

This plugged-in culture deprives family members and colleagues of conversations at home and at work, which Ko Gang-seob, a sociology professor at Kyung Hee University, called the “isolation in one’s own cell,” spurring a new degree of individualism.

“Back in the era of televisions, a whole community watched and enjoyed the shows together, while smartphones provide content tailored to individuals,” he told The Korea Herald, while saying earphones are tools for “apparent acceleration of individualism.”

“An individual’s social isolation in their own cell is growing deeper, to the degree of a near collapse in conventional interpersonal relationships,” Ko added.

By Son Ji-hyoung