Augmented Audio: Living with In-Ear Technology

As I headed out to the gym the other day, with my progressive-lens glasses, high-tech crutches, and stormtrooper stabilizing boot, it occurred to me that I looked a little like a cyborg—which got me thinking about my friend Sara Hendren and the research she’s done on “art, adaptive technologies and prosthetics, and the future of human bodies in the built environment.” The Atlantic Monthly ran an interview with her called “Why Are Glasses Perceived Differently Than Hearing Aids?” I’ve been asking myself and others the same question off and on for the past year without a satisfactory answer. What I have noticed, though, is that those who have hearing loss, but don’t have hearing aids, also seem to have the most negative feelings about the very thing that could help them.

IMG_3253 Of all the “assistive technologies” connected to my body, my hearing aids are the most technologically advanced, the most powerful, and yet the least noticeable (at least to others). I can take a call through them with my phone in my pocket, or send the audio of a podcast or Netflix movie to them from my iPad. When there’s a lot of ambient noise, I can turn down the volume or turn on restaurant mode from my iPhone’s home screen. And I can hear people talk to me face to face a whole lot better than I’d been able to for a long time. Even so, a lot of people don’t even notice that I’m wearing them. Until I tell them. It’s fun to see their reactions.

starkey-halo A couple days after I started wearing the hearing aids, my wife asked me an inoccuous question as I was walking away from her and into the next room. When I turned to face her with an equally mundane response, she burst into tears. That baffled me. When she told me they were tears of joy, I was no less confused. It wasn’t until she explained how she had grown used to my walking away in the middle of a conversation—even though she knew I wasn’t deliberately ignoring her—that her crying made sense. That’s when I knew. That’s when I knew that I wouldn’t be taking the audiologist up on the offer to return the hearing aids for a full refund.

In her interview, Sara Hendren hints that broad acceptance of hearing aids might be simply a matter of time. After all, “eyeglasses have moved culturally from being a medical aid to a fashion accessory.” For now, though, I’ll happily risk being perceived by some as infirm or frail or old if it means I can more actively engage in relationships with my family and friends. I, for one, welcome this cyborg revolution.

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