Bill Woodall

Bill Woodall

Among the uncommon, scattered oddments of knowledge tucked away in my head (my brain is far more like waxed paper than paper towels – it absorbs very little) is the law of Just Noticeable Difference.  As concepts go, this one is so important psychologists simply refer to it as JND.

Weber’s Law of Just Noticeable Difference is most easily described with an example. You hold out your hand and on it I place two tablespoons of sand. I add sand in tiny increments until you are aware the weight has changed. The added increment is the JND.

JND has all kinds of sensory applications. How much can I reduce the volume level before my kids notice I’ve turned down the radio? How much pepper can I add to the chili before She Who Generally Knows Best laments my disappearing sensibility? Can I lower the thermostat two more degrees without disturbing the distaff side of the office staff?

It also has marketing applications. How much smaller can we make a Hershey bar without provoking the natives? If we reduce by another ounce the volume in a box of Honey Bunches of Oats with Almonds (let’s leave the box the same height but make it narrower), will that Woodall sucker continue to buy it or will he switch back to Honey Nut Cheerios?

I find myself distressed, overcome by angst, at a particular social JND: earbuds and headphones.

In social media parlance, “I am Koss headphone old.” In my misspent youth, we frequented a record shop in Tyler. The shop had tiny sort-of-soundproof closets in which we audiophile-wannabees previewed albums before we made our purchase or turned up our nose. We would, pretentiously, select an album and hand it to the attendant. He would cue it up and we would adjourn to the closet, slip a pair of Koss headphones on our head and either nod in appreciation or snort our disgust.

We failed to recognize those headphones as the genesis of a social trend. From those headphones, we’ve “progressed” to the cusp of achieving – gradually, one smidgen of sand at a time at a time – complete isolation from our fellow travelers.

Look around your office. Notice how many of your co-workers are plugged in, wirelessly or otherwise, to their phone or some other device offering audio entertainment and announcing that I Can’t Be Interrupted. Take a road trip with your grandchildren and attempt a conversation; I dare you… Grandfather, you have been tuned out. Watch professional athletes striding toward the field of combat. They see the crowd, but they won’t be interrupted by the enthusiasm of their fans… their attention is buried inside a set of wireless $2000 headphones.

We got here gradually, over time in tiny leaps of technological progress; we added, one at a time, grains of isolationist sand to the pile in our palm until we’ve reached – for me, at least – the Just Noticeable Difference.

We stand at a social precipice. Soon we will decide nothing we have to say is important enough to justify flailing madly at the person whose attention we seek. And nothing you have to say is important enough for me to pull the buds from my ear. It’s a precipice from which we cannot be pulled back.

But know this: I enjoyed talking with you.


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