Along with my visitor’s pass, a set of archaic earphones were thrusted into my hands. As I tweaked the buds in my ears, I watch the Kaolin automated assistant store someone’s coat in the closet. Prior to visiting Octagon Capital, the “largest macro hedge fund on Earth,” I heard whisperings about the methods by which Octagon manufactured its culture and success. I did not realize, however, that the same unique culture would also be swallowed by their office on Mars, or Octagon Outpost, as they call it. Soon I will learn that the company has replicated not just the culture, but also the notorious auditory experience and monitoring technologies used in their offices on Earth.
I was greeted by one of the smiling Management Associates in the lobby. Once Ella badged me into the sealed orifice and I was immediately transfixed by a sweeping symphony radiating through my ears. Ella calmly responded to my startled glance, motioning that she was hearing the same thing in her earphones.
Most modern offices in 2045, like Octagon Outpost, feature some visual design elements, such as Botanical Design; however, Octagon’s party piece wasn’t just visual stimulation, but an auditory experience called Synced Audio. Each of the office areas that I walked through featured custom soundscapes that were transmitted simultaneously to every employee in the room. The employees wore micro audio devices called Inserts, which are fitted into the tragus (the perforation of the inner side of the external ear) so that the soundscapes can be heard without impeding one’s ability to also listen to their surroundings or their coworkers. Inserts are also tethered to the employees’ smartphones and virtual assistants and can be used as a speaker and microphone. The employees may control the volume levels of their Inserts in the office, however, the specific audio tracks beamed to the device, cannot be changed.
In order to increase productivity and unify their workforce, Octagon implemented Synced Audio by requiring all of their employees to wear Inserts in the office. This enables the company to provide particular soundtracks for each unique workspace, essentially allowing the tempo and mood of the office to be modulated, synchronized, and controlled. Octagon Capital installed Synced Audio capabilities for their Earth workspaces in 2037.
Octagon’s head of productivity, Michael Westmund highlights “we realized that Synced Audio achieved a higher level of ‘oneness.’ By listening to the same sounds, people often worked better together, and more importantly, understood each other better. Synced Audio leads to more empathy. Depending on the type of work a particular team is tasked with, we feed that team a soundscape that caters to their particular task. For example, work that requires high levels of focus and perseverance receives intense pulsating soundtracks; whereas, creative work receives spatial, zen soundscapes.”
As I found myself hemmed in by these soundtracks around the Outpost office, I was not necessarily shocked by the soundtracks themselves, but by the knowledge that everyone around me was listening to the same curated sound. It was as if I was back at Penn, in the Fisher Fine Arts library—a notoriously quiet library, where a singular sneeze would resonate like the crack of a gunshot. Every student in the library was in it together, holding their breath, taming any twitch, and fighting to preserve the all-consuming silence against any rebellious racket. Yet, this time the offices at Octagon Outpost was filled with sounds of Tchaikovsky or Jóhann Jóhannsson; and we were not fighting to preserve the silence. In fact, we have already lost the battle on silence; however, losing the battle made us realize that we should rather fight a more meaningful war together.
I had another sensation of manufactured togetherness as a child. When I was twelve, my Aunt Margaret and Uncle Bill invited us to their son’s baptism in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. During the evangelical service, the room swayed to the thunderous baritone of a young man with a gray goatee. Aunt Margaret cried and Uncle Bill declared that this “was the best day of his life.” Although I was, and remain today, skeptical of religion, I still remember being enraptured by a strong feeling of unification and connection with the other churchgoers. The commotion, the swaying, and most importantly, the prayer and song that were sung throughout the church made it all easy to imbibe. I swayed to their sway, held my arms up, and praised the Lord.
At Octagon, I didn’t see any employees raising their voices and preaching the gospel (although there were some lofty declarations about commodity-intensive growth); however, I did see an audio-induced communal submersion take place. I felt closer to these employees knowing that they are hearing the same Corelli being played into their ears. By controlling the auditory experience in the office, I felt that the power of the goateed preacher has fell into the hands of the soundscape curators at Octagon. Some rooms had a pulsating soundtrack that spiked my adrenaline. Other offices broadcasted an ambient soundtrack, as if we were sitting in the Royal National Swedish Park on crisp spring afternoon. At the time, these sweeping audio-induced reverberations made me briefly forget that I was on another planet, 225 million kilometers from Sweden.
Westmund’s team studies how every soundtrack affects employee productivity, creativity, and performance using active and passive feedback. Through special cameras around the office that read body movement and temperature, keystrokes, other physical actions (that Octagon chooses not to disclose), and through regular polls, Octagon refines the Synced Audio program. Employee acceptance of Octagon’s Synced Audio and monitoring technologies is varied. The company has a 52% turnover rate after the first two years of employment, but a higher than industry-average retention rate afterwards.
When I asked several employees about their opinions concerning Synced Audio and other monitoring technologies at Octagon Capital, I received similar responses: long-term, loyal employees view the technology as a genuine way to improve their productivity and performance, leading to personal growth. The folks that do not view the technology as a means of personal improvement, generally leave the company within a year or two of employment.
Four-year Investment Associate, Carla Chen highlights: “The Synced Audio and the video monitoring technology, augments our performance and make us better people. The audio allows us to be a more cohesive team and makes it easier for us to be on the same wavelength. In fact, when I go home to my husband and kids in the evening, I miss having some noise or soundtrack playing in my Inserts while we spend family time together.”
Several academic institutions, such as the University of California Berkeley and University of Oxford began conducting studies on the merits and effects of Synced Audio. Department chair of the new Psychology+Technology program at Berkeley, Dr. Ariana Bessman states that “audio synchronization technology increases unification and communication between teams, due to a consistent stimulus that individuals experience together. In fact, most militaries have been using some form of Synced Audio for training purposes in the last decade. Soldiers are fed intense soundtracks (or special instructions) through their Inserts, as they speed through the physical drills.”
Previously, retailers have used spatial audio, audio that changes in response to the movement of the customers in a store. Retailers tracked customers’ point of view and movements using special cameras/software in stores and used curated spatial audio tracks to generate a particular mood or atmosphere. Although spatial audio enabled a nuanced auditory experience in stores, the technology was not widely adopted.
Since 2038, a company called Phonic Space began to mass produce the Synced Audio experience in retail spaces, by providing sound profiles to individuals wearing Inserts in stores and restaurants (Phonic Space is also the second largest retailer of consumer Inserts on Earth). In fact, many large retailers have began to collaborate with organizational psychologists, audio engineers, olfactory engineers, and interior designers, in order to provide a holistic sensory experience to customers.
The Synced Audio industry has also employed a number of musicians and composers that were previously involved in film score production. Musicians from the Zimerman School for Film Production, have provided spatial audio soundtracks for large scale events like the Flame Lighting Ceremony at the 2036 Delhi Summer Olympics, and for Octagon Capital’s own Synced Audio curations. Meanwhile, many amateur composers have been employed to create soundscapes for physical retailers.
Several other companies have followed Octagon Capital in implementing Synced Audio technologies. Given the increase in consumer adoption of Inserts, Synced Audio will be a pervasive technology around Earth and Mars. Despite the technology’s broad implications in changing how people experience the physical world, many have voiced their concerns against companies and retailers pushing curated audio to consumer Inserts. Nevertheless, as the sales of Inserts continue to grow, so will the use of Synced Audio and the aural immersion that will take place across Earth and Mars.