Bluetooth coming to an ear near you

The Canadian Automobile Association has found cellphone use behind the wheel – particularly texting – trumps impaired driving as Canadians’ top safety concern on the road.

But with distracted driving laws targeting these practices now in force in 10 provinces and two territories, Canadians may face an even greater cultural threat: the widespread adoption of Bluetooth earpieces, for years the preferred accoutrement of self-important slicksters with popped collars and an affinity for designer hair gel.

Tim Blackmore, professor of media studies at the University of Western Ontario, says Bluetooth earpieces – which allow people to wirelessly interact with their phones – were so flagrantly flaunted by early adopters that they became the tech equivalent of penis measurement.

By contrast, those without the devices came to presume the people wearing them were the type to have spent prom night alone, watching Wall Street for the ninth time.

“There’s historically been a sense of pretension to someone who had one of these things,” says Blackmore. “They’re so important, they have to be completely connected all the time.”

In fact, a Google search for “Bluetooth” and “douche” returns more than a million hits, while publicly shames people who use earpieces in inappropriate places (during a wedding, for example). Wired magazine drove the point home in 2009 by placing an earpiece in Brad Pitt’s ear on its cover, then proceeding to unpack the conceit.

“Perhaps spending your formative years watching The Six Million Dollar Man and RoboCop gave you the mistaken impression that upgrading your body with electronics is the height of cool,” the magazine reported. “Let’s be clear: Walking around with a Bluetooth device in your ear is pure douchebaggery.”

Brandi Perron, a working mother from Calgary, long abhorred Bluetooth earpieces, which she believed to be the province of “men in suits who used their hands to emphasize just how important their conversations were.” She vowed “never to partake of this demon.”

But when Alberta’s distracted driving law took effect in September, and she begrudgingly bought an earpiece of her own (all the while professing her self- loathing to the store clerk), it led to something unexpected: The presumably unholy union was her salvation.

“Other Bluetooth owners smiled and nodded at me. I’m not even kidding. It was like getting a high-class golf membership and finally being let into the clubhouse,” says Perron. “The convenience part has really helped me get over my initial judgment. I’m in love and I don’t care who knows it.”

Kit Eaton, technology writer for Fast Company, says any lingering taboos may be partly due to the visual curiosity created by Bluetooth conversations.

“Speaking into a Bluetooth headset is sometimes so undetectable from afar, it just looks odd, touching on what may be some deep programming in our cultural systems,” says Eaton.

But if any device is set to “rocket-boost” Bluetooth into our collective hearts, he believes it’s the iPhone 4S. The new smartphone features Bluetooth 4.0, which allows people to do everything from dictate text messages while driving to have emails read aloud by Siri, a personal assistant application.

The CAA reports that all 10 provinces, as well as the Yukon and Northwest Territories, now have some form of distracted driving legislation in place, helping diminish Bluetooth stigma by virtue of mass adoption.

UWO’s Blackmore notes that a coming market stall for mobile devices will likely also play a role, as manufacturers seek alternate revenue.

“We’re really approaching a watershed here; there’s only so much stuff you can force onto these mobile devices,” says Blackmore. “As a result, companies will start pushing all the accessories they can. Bluetooth devices make a lot of sense in that way.”

Actor Brad Pitt poses with an earpiece for this 2009 Wired cover to drive home the magazine’s argument that walking around with a Bluetooth device in your ear is pure douchebaggery.
Photograph by: Wired, handout