It’s In The Cans

Some time ago my daughter came to me saying she was tired of the ear bud headphones most kids use with their iPods and such. She wanted a “nice” pair of over the ear headphones for college. She was, of course, most familiar the Monster Beats by Dr. Dre, which are de rigueur for anyone for whom street cred is the least bit important. The most popular models are the Solo, which are expensive for a 16 year old at $200, and the Studio, which, for a teen, tempt burglary at $300. The main feature of the Beats, that which gives them their cool factor, is their bass reproduction, which features the same kind of teeth rattling booming that you hear when a car full of gangsta wannabes pulls up next to you at a stoplight. This is what most teens want to listen to whether they are into hip hop, dubstep, death metal or classic rock. Monster sells them in droves.

The fact that a particular market segment has particular taste in what they like music to sound like is the basis for my observations of the headphone world, as I have been researching a pair for my daughter as she heads off to find adulthood in college. To get an idea of the positive and negative features of the various brands and models readily available I have been reading the user comments at websites such as Best Buy and Amazon, where the average user would purchase. I figured the more esoteric websites offering lesser known yet quality brands were the domain of audiophiles and aural fanatics and would skew my opinions of a product meant for an iPhone and laptop and not a studio or a top drawer entertainment room featuring class A amps and space age speakers with the best 7:1 surround sound crossover unit.

I found that the consumers who actually took the time to comment and review these products were primarily of two types, serious pro musicians and sonic aficionados with limited budgets who were looking for near state of the art, pro level equipment at high end consumer prices and high school kids who wanted to be cooler than their friends and have phones that were more expensive and had better bass than the ubiquitous ear buds worn by the mere peons.

Regardless of brand, model or price the comments were overwhelmingly either raving positive or bitterly negative. One could pretty much determine which category of buyer the commentary was from by the nature of the judgement. A scathing negative comment was invariably from a musician or self appointed audiophile while the “best I ever heard” comments were from kids whose best previous audio experience likely came from a pair of $12 budget ear buds from Walmart. This disparity speaks to many cultural values, our expectations, our perception of value, marketing, design and manufacturing strategies, who creates our entertainment media and why, the realities of sound frequencies, pressure, recording techniques and the human perception of same, and the broadly diverse range of subjective truth among humans relating to their relative perception of the exact same phenomenon.

It is the disparate perceptions, embraced by different people, of phenomenon witnessed by all people, pretty much from the same viewpoint, that are what I see as important here. People perceive both things and concepts, in some ways the same and in others quite different. The frames people use to process these phenomena depend on which perceptions they accept as true. We communicate our truths through language. If we agree that language deals with things and concepts then it is my contention that all things and concepts have both an absolute and a relative nature. I’ll examine this further.

Let us first look at things. The government gives people Food Stamps. This is a tangible activity. It has a giver, a taker, requirements, a physical transactional document that is honored by certain businesses as valid, and a result. It is an absolute thing whose metaphoric frame can be known by knowing any of those various segments separately. It is real and has a recognizable substance. Yet, different people see and judge its value in dramatically different ways, using radically different language to describe and define it. In this sense it is totally relative and one must be aware of the perceiver’s relative agenda before they can know the other parts of their base frame, see it in it’s entirety, and know the language that triggers it into consciousness. To simplify, the glass that is equally full and equally empty is absolute, tangible and universally knowable. But it is relative to those seeing it as half empty and those seeing it as half full.

Concepts are another thing entirely. Concepts are not tangible and therefore there are often as many perceptions of the definition of a concept as there are people perceiving it. But this does not represent relativity. Contrary to things, there is no physically tangible reality to perceive. The absolute nature of a concept must include every disparate perception, for everyone’s perception is real and has to be included in any definition of the concept.

Perhaps this can be slightly more simply stated by using mathematical set circles to describe these ideas. With things there is a real object which means there is something all viewpoints share. Thus all sets intersect and share points of data. These intersected subsets represent the absolute nature of the thing, qualities that everyone accepts as truth. For example everyone sees that a certain chair is made of wood. People who say it isn’t wood are considered as not being truthful. Their set does not intersect the “truth” subset. The relative nature is represented by all the different sets of perceptions, however slight, of the thing. These relative sets may include subsets of shared perceptions of their own but always include exclusive qualities that separate them from other sets. They are sets on their own and not subsets.

Regarding concepts the sets are much different. In this case all the relative sets are actually subsets of the gigantic absolute set of qualities. Once again they may share qualities, creating other subsets, but are again unique subsets unto them selves and thus relative.

So to summarize, the absolute nature of things are subsets and the relative nature sets, and the absolute nature of concepts are sets and the relative nature subsets.

Back to the headphones. Applying the aforementioned principles, the actual headphones are a real and physical thing. They have an absolute nature, the subset of construction materials, color, name, packaging, which everyone sees as the same, and a relative nature, represented by the sets of semi pro and amateur listeners, with their different perception of what the headphones do, how they perform. These differences are revealed through the reviews. Although the relative sets are all different, the subsets created by the shared perceptions of certain relative sets point to a modestly dualist relationship between those sets. They break down basically into those who, for a number of reasons, think they sound good and those who think they sound awful.

This is where things get interesting from my perspective. There are undoubtedly those who would say that how the headphones sound is not about the physical reality of the thing at all but a subjective thought process, in other words, a concept. This sounds logical but it is not quite accurate. Yes, it is subjective process but it remains a thing and not a concept. Regardless of the relative perceptions of sounds good or sounds bad those perceptions are still dependent on the thing being the thing. Therefore the perceptions are also a thing. This is the logic behind the statement “perception is reality”. The thing itself represents the physics of it’s existence and the perception of the thing signifies the metaphysics of it’s nature.

Where we get into concepts are in the reasons for the perceptions. Yes, reasons also relate to the thing but are not dependent on the thing. A reason may relate to several other things. Reasons that relate to many different things, often in a large shared subset, can sometimes be called ideologies, or a logic of ideas. So a reason can exist outside the realm of the thing and must be considered a separate idea, or concept. This subtle but significant difference between perception and reason is confusing to many of us and, when applied dishonestly, can blur the line between the perception and reality of both things and concepts.

Often when coherent collected concepts, ideologies, are applied to perceptions, things can be made to appear to have several different realities, and the agenda behind the ideology directs and focuses all perceptions of the thing into a particular desired reality, somewhat like cattle being led to the killing floor. Absolute truths can appear relative, and thus subject to seemingly logical doubts that the truth might not really be universal. Relative truths can be made to appear universal and apply to everything. It can get kind of scary.

But back to the headphones. The concepts dealt with here are the “reasons” people use headphones in the first place. They relate to the use of the thing, the headphones, but they are more broad reaching. In this instance they line up in a simple, if over generalized, duality of “I want to be cool and have fun” versus “I want state of the art and have a superior experience”. But they could also apply to a relationship with other things, such as the choice of buying an X Box or an iPad, or the choice of going to a poetry slam or a theatrical play. So the reasoning is more conceptual than tangible and thing specific.

What I find interesting about this is the phenomenon of people using the same words to describe essentially different concepts. This muddying of the waters has been called using contested concepts. Words such as love and freedom have become contested concepts because there are many unrelated ideas that use the very same word to describe all of them. For example the people with the highly disparate concepts above, about headphones etc., could all describe their reasoning as doing what is cool. Cool is perhaps the ultimate contested concept.

So how did I get off onto all this esoteric tangential stuff just from thinking about buying my daughter some headphones. Because sick minds leave no stone unturned when it comes to complicating a simple task. But I do think its not bad to understand that we all share at least some truths about “things” even though there are those who say we don’t. And many of us have very few or no shared “concepts”, outside of a sharing of contested words, when we are often told that we not only do share but must share.

So Monster can market Dr. Dre’s Beats headphones to impressionable kids because they are able to convince them that the concept of being cool can only become an absolute reality when they buy those headphones. This flies in the face of the relative reality that any number of headphones, some more and some less expensive, are perfectly able to satisfy their initial reason for having “good, over the ear headphones”. But it is a clear example of how smart marketers use psychology and knowledge of metaphysics to influence our nation of consumers.

Confusion about absolute and relative truths and ideas, concepts, perceptions and reality abound in our world. But we don’t have to suffer that confusion. It can be as simple as believing what we feel or believing what we are told. Yes, one man’s ceiling is another man’s floor. Just try to remember that both men are in the same building.

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