Uber is trialling a feature that allows customers to stop their drivers from talking. But theres growing evidence that cutting ourselves off like this isnt healthy
The mute button was invented in 1956 by Robert Adler, an Austrian-born engineer working for the Zenith Radio Corporation in Chicago. It was one of the four buttons on his Space Command 400, the first commercially viable TV remote control. The other three buttons on/off, channel up and channel down might have seemed more vital, but Adlers boss, Eugene F McDonald, a former naval intelligence officer who was nicknamed The Commander, had insisted on mute.
He hated commercials, Adler recalled in 1987. McDonald feared these constant intrusions would kill the new medium of TV. So Zenith boasted that the mute button would allow viewers to shut off the sound of long, annoying commercials.
Still, McDonald couldnt have predicted the pop-up ad, petrol pumps trying to sell you nachos or the ravages of the distraction economy. It is only now, in an age of incessant interruption, that we are beginning to grasp mutings full potential not only when it comes to our gadgets, but in real life, too.
Last month, the taxi company Uber began trialling a suite of new features for users of its Exec service including a button you can activate if you want to mute your driver. Quiet preferred is the euphemism Uber is using (you can also toggle it to happy to chat lucky driver). But it appears to bring the dream of being able to choose who and what we listen to a step closer.
From a drivers perspective, its quite rude, an Uber driver from east London tells me. And offensive, to be honest. Its like saying: Shut up. It says a lot about Uber. Uber claims it is responding to concerns from customers that drivers will give them low star ratings if they dont want to chat; drivers meanwhile often fear entering into conversations with passengers for the same reason.
But lets be honest: who among us hasnt fantasised about being able to mute an annoying colleague, a screaming toddler or an over-friendly waiter? Mute promises a snake-free garden, a world where you can curate your content and silence dissent. And it is proving irresistible online.
Twitter introduced a mute function in 2014 and it has proved to be the social networks most popular feature, a sort of automatic talk-to-the-hand. Instead of blocking someone objectionable (which they will know about) you can now discreetly mute them (which they wont know about). Part of the appeal is the thought of trolls screaming and @-ing and wondering why youre not replying. Twitter followed it up with a subject-based mute feature in 2017: so, if you dont want to hear about Love Island, or Terfs, or the Champions League final, or Dominic Raab, for ever if need be, you dont have to. If you want a glimpse of happy Twitter, type mute button into the search box: Just wanna thank my mute button for never giving up on me <3; mute button is top 10 most powerful things in the universe; i thank @instagram for creating their mute posts and story buttons etc.
Instagram added its own mute function last year, inspired by what it called complex social dynamics. Now you can avoid your friends nauseating Ibiza selfies and tasting menu stories without fear of causing offence. Im happy for my friends who are achieving great things, but Instagram makes it too easy to start getting bitter about why thats not me, one muter explained. Im looking forward to living in a self-imposed creative bubble for a little while.
The clinical psychologist Paul Gilbert, author of Living Like Crazy, sees such responses in Jungian terms. Were becoming more persona-dominated, he says. We all put on an act about how people want to see and hear us. We do it all the time on social media. For him, the Uber shush feature is a welcome chance for us to rest those personas for a few minutes. Human beings evolved in small hunter-gatherer groups where everyone knew one another, he says. We arent necessarily adapted to be interacting with strangers all the time. People find it incredibly tiring. At least in a taxi, you have an opportunity to sit and be quiet.
Well, yes, that is true. But what I find disturbing about the Uber silence feature is precisely that it cuts off any possibility of human connection. It is a way of automating a function that we might once have negotiated in human language. The Uber driver points out that its not hard for him to gauge who might be up for a chat and who isnt. You say: Whats your name? Where are you going? And the way they respond is a fairly clear indication of whether they want to talk or not. Most people have their earphones on anyway. I usually have my Bluetooth earphone in too.
A lot of the time, he is plugged into Telegram, the Russian-designed messaging app that functions a bit like an aural WhatsApp. There are groups with about 200 drivers on Telegram theyll report whats happening in real time. If you see an accident, you can report it to the group. Otherwise, its audiobooks, lectures, radio, podcasts, educational stuff. If I want to know something about anything, Ill download it when Im home and listen to that.
But you could see that this retreat into our own discrete sound worlds is its own form of muting. Looking around the office in which I am typing these words, at least half of my co-workers are wearing earphones or headphones, and the younger they are, the more likely they are to be plugged in or out.