A computer that glows

Are MP3s ruining your ears?

Behold the ear. It is an incredibly sophisticated tool: Even the finest high-tech microphones still can’t do what the ear does. Your ear has a whole bunch of built-in filters that alternately strip out bits sound you don’t need, while amplifying others that you do. That’s how you’re able to stand in the middle of a loud cocktail party and yet still hear a single voice amidst the tumult.

But could MP3s be damaging it? This guy Christian Oliver in Germany seems to think so. I have no idea of Oliver’s credentials — indeed, his website seems mildly bonkers, and includes stuff about a religion he’s invented called “Logologie”. But he raises some interesting questions about MP3s and the ear.

As he points out, MP3s compress music by stripping out sounds that are almost inaudible to the human ear. That includes an awful lot of music, and indeed much of everyday sound, which lurks at the edge of audibility. But maybe this isn’t good for our ears. Maybe by taking away the almost-not-there background stuff, MP3s disturb the delicate work it’s been engineered to peform. Think of it as a figure-on-a-ground question. What if, to pick out the things we think we want to hear, our ears actually rely on the other sounds that seem like inconsequential noise?

In this essay, Oliver speculates on some possible nasty effects of listening to too many MP3s — or “datareduced audio material”:

Possible consequences of intensive consumption of datareduced audio material could therefore include ear noises (tinitus), a general degradation of the perception of quiet sounds, as well as a worsened timbre perception (a so-called “tin ear”), which would make the human of the cyberage even more insensitive than he already yet has become by the continuous mass media infotrash bombardment he is exposed to. Actually it is still unclear whether the consequences of such maladjustments are only temporary (similarly like seeing the world in green/ red discoloured after taking off red/ green 3D glasses) or if the continuous consumption of neuroacoustically datareduced sounds can lead to long lasting or even permanent damage.

Great. So while I’m sitting here listening to Shelby Lynne’s “Gotta Get Back” on an MP3, I’m slowly being driven deaf, or insane.

(I’m coming to this one late, but got it from the fine filtering of Slashdot.)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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