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"I went back to science fiction to try a few experiments …and my first experiment was a disaster…"
- Alfred Bester

Hearing Aid  
  A service that allows people to anonymously talk with another person who only listens.  

This is another completely unique idea of Brunner's. There is also an interesting technical angle to Hearing Aid, but I don't want to discuss it (to avoid spoiling the novel). It has to do with the manner in which a call to Hearing Aid is done without creating any kind of record, thus ensuring the privacy of the session.

Stonkered or clutched or quite simply going insane, someone reaches for the phone and punches the most famous number on the continent: the ten nines that key you into Hearing Aid.

And talks to a blank though lighted screen. It's a service. Imposing no penances, it's kinder than the confessional. Demanding no fees, it's affordable where psychotherapy is not. Offering no advice, it's better than arguing with that son (or daughter) of a bitch who thinks he/she knows all the answers and goes on and on and on until you want to scream.

From The Shockwave Rider, by John Brunner.
Published by Harper and Row in 1975
Additional resources -

This remarkable book is deals extensively with technology; issues like privacy and the consequences of keeping vast amounts of data of all sorts on one network are extensively reviewed.

And yet, the key themes of the novel deal with how to stay sane in a world of technological complexity. In the case of Hearing Aid, a powerful technology is employed to allow everyone in a society in which there was little real privacy to have an essential human experience - a sympathetic, nonjudgemental listener.

This excerpt from the book details an experience of a user of Hearing Aid:

From a public veephone at the railcar terminal linking Tarnover to the nearest town he called Hearing Aid, for the first time in years, and for one dark lonely hour poured out the secrets of his heart. It was a catharsis, a purgation. But long before he had regained his room he was shaking, haunted by the fear that Hearing Aid's famous promise ("Only I heard that!") might not be true. How could it be? It was absurd! From Canaveral the tendril-ears of federal computers wove through his society like mycelia. No place could possibly be immune. All night he lay awake in fear, expecting his door to be flung open and stern silent men to take him under arrest. By dawn he was half-minded to kill himself.

Miraculously, there followed no disaster...

The complete anonymity provided by the Hearing Aid service was the result of a special computer tapeworm provided at the inception of the service:

The poker who wrote Precipice's original tapeworm was pretty good, but you could theoretically have killed it without shutting down the net — that is, at the cost of losing thirty or forty billion bits of data. Which I gather they were just about prepared to do when I showed up. But mine . . . Ho, no! That, I cross my heart, cannot be killed without dismantling the net."

The following statement by philosophy professor Jacob Needleman makes a very strong statement; in the world of The Shockwave Rider, there is support for this important part of the human experience:

Simply put, there is nothing, nothing in the world, that can take the place of one person intentionally listening or speaking to another. The act of conscious attending to another person — when one once discovers the taste of it and its significance — can become the center of gravity of the work of love. It is very difficult. Almost nothing in our world supports it or even knows about it.

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Additional resources:
  More Ideas and Technology from The Shockwave Rider
  More Ideas and Technology by John Brunner
  Tech news articles related to The Shockwave Rider
  Tech news articles related to works by John Brunner

Hearing Aid-related news articles:
  - OK2TALK Like Hearing Aid From Shockwave Rider
  - Blahtherapy - You Vent Anonymously To Strangers
  - Talkspace Anonymous Therapy App

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