“Cyborg Cool” Versus “Crip Pity”

Observing human society is a never-ending fascination, because people are always doing the weirdest stuff. Social memes are maintained because people accept, use, pass along, and perpetuate attitudes and the behavioural responses that go with those attitudes. Sometimes those behaviourally-expressed attitudes are maintained simply by the very powerful force of social inertia – they exist because no one pauses to say they shouldn’t exist.

Sometimes no one pauses because the collective cognitive dissonance isn’t being noticed.

Here’s one that has been entertaining my whimsy / befuddlement / concern for a while now:

Bluetooth Earphone = Cool VS Hearing Aid = Pitiable Old Fogey

If you’re not familiar with the item by name, a Bluetooth Earphone is one brand of hands-free mobile phone that is clipped to a person’s ear. There are of course, many other brands. They remind me of what Lt Uhura wore on the classic Star Trek show, or what Lando Calrissian’s aide Lobot wore in The Empire Strikes Back. Obviously the techie-geek crowd has no compunction against embracing new hardware. You know that new tech has passed muster for usefulness when it gets past the innovators and early-adopters to the early majority of users. I see young and middle-aged men and women on campus, at grocery stores, at malls and other mundane places walking about with such headsets clipped to their ears, like so many cyborgs.

Having one of these doesn’t just mean that you can talk on the phone while having your hand[s] free to do other things. They are also new and flashy. (Other kinds of hands-free mobile phone equipment have been around a while, but are much less æsthetic and look like electronics shop prototypes.) Wearing one is a means of conspicuous consumption – it shows off how affluent and “important” you are because you need to talk to people and other people need to talk to you, and it shows that you are comfortable with newer kinds of tech compared to the now-mundane pocket mobile phone.

My [ex-]husband bought a hands-free attachment for his mobile phone before they became widespread. His is different though – it consists of a lavalier microphone that he wears around his neck. The mike sends the outgoing signal to his mobile phone, but the incoming signal from his mobile phone is sent directly to his (programmable, digital) behind-the-ear hearing aids.

This means that every time he makes or receives a phone call he has to switch from environmental reception to wireless telephone reception, and also that his incoming auditory signal is stripped of most of the environmental sounds, thus producing a cleaner signal with less real noise and less digital “noise”. (This is an improvement over using land-line phones, few of which have volume-control receivers.)

The unexpected part was that compared to the everyday mobile phone user, most people cannot tell when he is in phone conversation. He’s usually standing with his hands in his pockets or pacing about. Unlike someone’s chunky piece of electronic ear jewelry, his behind-the-ear aids are less noticeable (especially if it’s been a while since his last haircut). Plus, people don’t usually associate hearing aids with wireless communication.

So what we have is hubby standing there, staring at nothing in particular and absent-mindedly fiddling with stuff in his pockets, as he talks in an animated manner to someone who isn’t there, pausing for them to reply periodically. Of course, everyone around him cannot hear the other end of the conversation, and most people don’t notice the lavalier mike. My husband appears to be conversing with the voices in his head.

And then there’s those fiddly moments when he adjusts switches on his hearing aides, microphone, and mobile phone to finish or start a call, and what he is actually doing becomes more apparent. Those around him regularly learn what’s going on, especially as anyone who’s ever phoned him has had to pause a moment while he switches to his microphone.

Like millions of other people, my husband has been wearing hearing aids since he was a small boy. And yet society still associates hearing aids with decrepit old age. Advertisements in various media abound describing how this-or-that brand of aid is “invisible”, and the models are white-haired folk. Although hearing aids now come in a variety of fun, shockingly-bright on-my-head-and-in-your-face colors and jewelry styles, most of the advertisements you see are still for the “flesh-tone” beige sort that don’t match anyone’s flesh tone, especially someone the least bit brown-skinned. In contrast, glasses have become much less of a stigma, and we even have funky sports cords and beaded chains to keep track of those that are intermittently worn.

Given the rising popularity of wearing one’s hardware as a piece of body ornamentation, maybe our auditory & visual devices – hey, even assorted orthotic devices – can become simply part of the ordinary accoutrement.

Then again, maybe not. The dividing line between has always been about prestige versus need. Only the very wealthy have been able to have the luxury of lady’s maids or butlers to do mundane activities for them. Only the most “broken” helpless at the bottom of the social heap have been forced to have personal assistants do mundane activities for them. It’s staff-as-luxury versus staff-as-necessity.

Makes no sense to me. Humans are so irrational.



  1. Lisa said,

    20 April 2007 at 6:05

    Came over from the disability carnival thingy.

    Good point!
    I use (silver!) Phonak BTE hearing aids with an FM reciever. Once, at the gym I got on a treadmill and plugged my wireless mike into the headphone jack of the TV remote dealio that was attached to the treadmill. In essence, giving me wireless access to the TV which is nice on a treadmill. The guy next to me got all excited and asked, “Cool! Is that bluetooth? What brand is that, I haven’t seen one like that before, etc.” When I explained that it wasn’t blue tooth but was an FM transmitter that sent a signal to a reciever in my hearing aids, I was suddenly decidedly less cool. “Oh. you’re hearing impaired? No your not. Really? Oh. Sorry. Um. Oh. I guess its not bluetooth then. etc.

    I guess cyborg cool doesn’t include an earmold!

  2. Karen said,

    10 April 2007 at 13:17

    My daughter has a pair of those boring tan hearing aids but she dresses them up with stickers and paste-on diamonds whenever the mood strikes.

  3. qw88nb88 said,

    7 April 2007 at 3:37

    Adapt, adapt, adapt!

    You can always tell you’ve learned new things or taken thoughts into new directions when your brain feels as stretched out of shape as socks you’ve worn for two days.

  4. Anna said,

    7 April 2007 at 2:27

    Is that REALLY Grandad? Geez, such language! There are kids reading this blog, you know!

    … OK, typing this made me realize how weird my life is. I am going to go shred the shatterd remains of my schema.

  5. Grandad said,

    6 April 2007 at 20:05

    Hello, daughter-in-law of mine. I read your blog regaarding hearing aids and such with great interest. I find the bluetooth self important bastards one of the many disgusting creatures life presents us daily. You described the sitsuation so well. I see them picking up their grade school kids, not conversing with anyone, but always ready, and so hopeful they waill get a call so the other parents can know how important they asre compared to the run of the mill parent who must hold their cell phone in one hand and the kid with the other. Also wondering what it takes to be a fucking psychologist…are there others?

    Also, how is the seaarch going?

  6. Philip said,

    3 April 2007 at 18:42

    Great entry, great blog – keep up the good work.

    I’ve linked your blog to mine.

    Take care,



  7. 1 April 2007 at 3:53

    More than a few students tell me they don’t “feel right” without their handphones on (whether listening to music or not).

  8. mcewen said,

    31 March 2007 at 21:22

    An astute posting. Cheers

  9. 31 March 2007 at 19:41

    “Humans are so irrational.”

    You’re telling me.

    I’m a fucking psychologist… human behaviour follows no known laws.

    Never has. Never will.

%d bloggers like this: