13 June, 2006

The one about the iPod

I realized yesterday that I had never made my iPod rant here, and what else is a blog for, after all? So here it is.

Sometime back I came to the bus stop and had an epiphany forced upon me. Everyone had something attached to their ear - some had cell phones, but most had those familiar thin white wires, myelinated axon fibers running directly from their ears to their vital nerve centers: the small white boxes in their pockets. Each one of them was being fed their own private stream of sound, covering them in an invisible shell, hermetically sealing them off from the world around them, from the very people they were brushing shoulders with. At that moment I got down on my knees, laid my axe on the ground in front of me and raised my arms to the heavens, swearing by the name of Dyaus Pitr that I would never, ever join that cult.

I am, of course, not the first to note the ill effects of isolation caused by iPods. Andrew Sullivan has a very nice column on the subject in the Times Online, and a private school in Sydney went so far as to ban them. Quoth the principal: "It's important for kids to be talking to one another at school, socialising and being part of a community. That's why they come to school, to be connected."

iPods are an exemplary phenomenon, a poster-gadget for the alienation our society seems to encourage; as a single manifestation they're probably not, in and of themselves, worthy of close attention or ire. But I've always tended to latch onto particular archetypal examples as actual demons - the GAP as the embodiment of monotonous, sweatshop-produced trendwear, or SUVs as destroyers of the environment. This instantly makes my statements weaker, since the implied action (stop wearing GAP clothing, driving an SUV, and listening to an iPod) is not going to stop the problem. It is only indicative of it. Social isolation would continue exist even were everyone to take the buds out of their ears; everyone isn't going to magically start talking to their neighbors or the guy standing next to them on the bus. But iPods do make things incrementally worse, and it's really the death of a thousand cuts that we should fear. Catastrophe rarely emerges directly in front of us, roaring and tearing things apart like Godzilla. Usually it sneaks up upon us from behind, so quietly and gradually that we barely notice that the buildings have crumbled, the flood waters have risen, and we're standing ankle-deep in flotsam and rubble.

There's a whole host of choices available to us these days that allow us to defect to the hermetic world. Blogs, for example - you can read what you want and ignore what you dislike. Even the opinion you dislike usually comes through the baleen curtain of some ideologically aligned blog - you only have to listen to the echoes, never to the actual source sound. These kind of choices are always easy to make - why would I, indeed, choose the unpleasant, the difficult world that stings me and causes me discomfort? Better to gather the warmest bits of the world around myself and build a nice, soft cocoon, of the sounds I like, of the people I like, of the opinions that are like my own, of the world that is the way that I want to see it, and not as it actually is.

So this is the way we're going to go: each to our own quiet depths, alone and dead to each other. Bye. Nice knowing you. I'll see you in your YouTube video clip.


also there's the product manufacture  side of them.

the walkman was originally designed to fend off the incredible crowds in japan's public transportation system. if we're supposed to be socializing and we don't want to, are ipods really a bad thing for society? isn't operating an ipod on a bus better than driving your own car to get the same social result? 

Posted by hibiscus

Hibiscus alludes to the fact that the ability of technology to allow cocooning did not arise with the iPod, but came with the Walkman. However, portable mp3 players are also used to combat the public nuisance of people who use cell phones on the bus. Why shouldn't I drown out the guy yapping about his errands on a crowded bus?

Also, unlike the Walkman, the iPod allows people to have more choice too. The perfect example are amateur museum tour podcasts. Instead of forking over $10 to the curator for an authoritative (read: snobbishly intellectual) listening tour, I can go online and pick from a myriad of different tours. 

Posted by echan

iPods surely have their uses and their benefits. It's a gorgeous piece of technology. I'm merely bemoaning one aspect of them, though I think it's a not insignificant one.

As to why you shouldn't drown out the guy yapping about his errands on a crowded bus: that guy is a tool, but that's what the world is. I assert that there's a positive social value in being exposed to the world as it actually is, not in running away from it when we don't like it. That makes it much less likely that you will, for example, tell that guy, "Hey, it's really fucking rude to yap on your cellphone while you're on the bus." 

Posted by saurabh

but you can think of the invasion of the ipod people as a manifestation of the gamer apocalypse. simulation is reality. dealing with the interface of fake and real is what cities have always been about. hiding and showing. exchanging interpretations.

i feel like you have to trust that private cultural manifestations in public space are productive for the people involved and will eventually spread. music as soundtrack is a big deal. wall-to-wall sound is a big deal.

on an irregular commute i sit on buses for about an hour. long trip. in the morning, i'm too groggy to talk with people. it's hard to read nonfiction because i can't take notes or look things up. fiction doesn't really interest me. so, i started listening to music. eventually i switched to a pair of sound isolating earbuds so i wouldn't go deaf pushing the volume up over the bus's engine.

this has an interesting effect. not just that a person with 3 c-notes of sound accessories stands out among passengers a periphery bus route. (although the argument that spending less on cars means having "better" stuff should really be more commonly made in public space.) anyway from what i can see, by going all the way toward a deep listening experience in this space, it challenges the other passengers. first because i look like a crazy person, generally and specifically. second, because to a large extent the question of how far simulation can extend into public space has not been resolved in america. i'm not sure that music or mobile phone use in public is a privacy issue. what if it's an honesty issue? DON'T do what you want or say what you think. is being angry about mobile phone rage or other self-gratification a protection or a corruption of the concept of public space? 

Posted by hibiscus

I don't buy any of it. Sure, anti-social behavior is a form of social interaction, but it definitely can't be cast as positive or reinforcing the value of public interaction, or reducing alienation. Looking like a crazy person does not make you less alienated from your fellows, obviously. And if we hold dear those sorts of principles that result in mutual trust and mutual aid, then alienation is our enemy. In a democracy these principles are indispensible. 

Posted by saurabh

As someone who has physically struck fellow passengers on the bus for their disrespect to immigrants and the elderly, I do feel that telling people off on the bus is sometimes necessary. But in less significant instances, such as the cell phone yapper, it may be an invitation to a fight that has the potential to disrupt everyone's commute. It's much better to combat them with an iPod, and also in educate them in other ways. (One favorite moment involves a guy who boarded a bus, and said to his friend on the phone, "Sorry, dude, I have to hang up on you now because I don't want to be one of those assholes who talks on his cellphone on the bus." 

Posted by echan

apple responds to labor exploitation allegation .

so when speaking with transit fellow travelers, should i use the gendered honorifics "my brother" and "my sister" or would "comrade" suffice, i'm wondering.

IT'S A BUS!!! i'm ON the bus! alone! it's a long trip!!!! sheesh by this standard, people who sleep on trains must be an omen of destruction by asteroid.

if people aren't entitled to a little personal space between destinations, when do they get to switch between job and family? i guess they should get a car. then they can zone out as much as they want and be fully rested, unaware that they just hotted things up a little more and maybe ran over some other family's beloved breadwinner.

other fora are needed and more appropriate than this. zoning out after showing good spirits to others aboard is fine. 

Posted by hibiscus

i know that didn't address the question of whether being totally preoccupied inside the allotted space (by music, not by book or newspaper or kissing) has redeeming qualities. it's a strange issue that bleeds into the question of whether personal stereos have really brought the personal experience of music into acceptance outside the home (or the car). i have the feeling that an interesting mix of music that was playing on a boom box would be more acceptable? -hibiscus.

Forget that I'm talking about iPods. This isn't about whether it's morally correct for you to wear iPods on the bus - this is merely an example to explore the abstract idea of the degeneration of public interaction. This is more or less what I'm talking about: you're asking for personal time in a public space. That is, you want to expressly destroy the public space entirely. The public space has no value and is, at best, a nuisance. You're on the bus, "alone", sure, in the sense that you don't WANT to interact with those people who are actually around you. That's precisely what I'm decrying, and that's precisely what the iPod enables. You juxtapose the iPod with people running away into their cars - but my problem is with people running away from the world at all, not with how they happen to do it.

And I decry it because I think that it's useful for us to experience the world around us and not to be insulated from it - you should know the city you live in. Unless you think that "community" has no meaning in the colloquial sense of actual communities and should henceforth be reserved for virtual "communities" like your favorite blog or online bulletin-board or club scene. 

Posted by saurabh

Wait, Saurabh, do you read on the bus or the T? Surely, you must. How is that any different then listening to personal music device on public transit?

One does not need to engage with the public at all times. We have the individual choice, depending on our tolerance, fatigue, and engagement levels at any given moment to pay attention, or not pay attention to our immediate surroundings. I have no idea where morality comes into this. As Hibiscus points out, "Zoning out" is not immoral, but may be necessary to retain one's sanity in this work work work world of ours. 

Saurabh, it's all very well and good to say that people shouldn't try to carve out their personal barriers while using public space, but I have to agree with hibiscus and echan that the truly damaging cultural impulse in our society is to bypass the public space altogether and splurge on a truly private means of doing [blank]---I would much rather have an army of people on ipods riding bart than have that same army driving across the bridge with no headphones--and a perfect personal stereo system. A lot of us *have* to spend a lot more time "in public" than we really want to. Some of that time we are gregarious and social--I have met lots of interesting people on bart, and spend a good time of my time there staring about and soaking in "my community." But if I were to make some kind of rule that I can't read or listen to my, er, discman, well then, I'd be much more likely to drive, frankly. I almost never do use it, but the ability to use it, and the rare occasion when it comes in handy, is very comforting. As someone who sometimes spent 3 hours a day on the train in high school, I can tell you that being able to shut out the outside world--whether with a book or a walkman or both--was invaluable in keeping my burst-into-tears episodes monthly instead of daily. I'm all for community, and I'm pretty freakin' conversational. I'm also for maintaining my sanity, though. The point is that your decrying implies a false exclusivity. Just b/c I have a discman doesn't mean I have to use it all the time. It's the habit, not the possibility, that makes the issue. People who want to be unneighborly will keep to themselves no matter what sound is in their ears.

I also don't see what's so awful about talking on your cell phone in public as long as you don't do it any louder than you would have a normal conversation in public. When I have to raise my voice, that's when I say, gotta go, but other than that, what's the problem?  

Posted by Saheli

saurabh: i like communities. many of my nearest friends are community activists. however i am pretty much a hermit for a variety of reasons dating back to my single-digit years. really none of this has anything to do with justifying the destruction of public space, wet or dry, offline or on.

i see your point about enjoying the company of people in public places. this is a tricky subject which i've tried here to divide clearly between other people and myself. as myself, i end up giving out tons of ideas and advice on this subject but am completely incompetent on my own. as other people i can talk a little more clearly and even calmly about ideals, goals, realities.

when i stopped riding bikes in SF it was because my brain tends to wander when i travel and this is unsafe on a bicycle that's mixing with car traffic. things i see make me think, thinking makes me run red lights. sad but true.

now for the hard part. i was just talking with someone about the role that community building plays in today's society. we were wondering together about the speed at which things move and how well building fairer, saner networks works when it involves dropping out or slowing down. i worried that there is a speed at which the merry-go-round appears impossible to safely dismount and that no number of community-based cushions will make people jump and that what people are really afraid of is jumping without their friends and being lonely. something that needs some more thought.

there are stories of people who ride trains and throw themselves parties. i like these stories and the idea of the train as a community space. OTOH the trains are full of rich, happy people who don't do physical work. their work isn't really tiring. buses are full of people living somewhat uncomfortably, waiting for the moment they return to their own folks and can set aside their public face. plus the bus is too bumpy for drinking or dancing.

there are chances for talk in that space but really in my attempts at this in the past, the results are odd. finding common ground across the wide economic and cultural mix on a bus is tough. the space is a little small for personal comfort when talking to strangers and the instability of the environment (moving, jerking, big windows, new people coming and going) means that people feel a little jittery. a local is just not a good place to talk unless you brought the conversation with you.

there are ways around this but generally there's a strangeness throughout the chat as though somebody on the street had started talking to you as you were walking. now if i were with someone it would be different. anchor things with a funny conversation and people will join in. but i don't have the skill to create that by myself. i'm too analytical for people's comfort. if i'm too far from them (wherever they think they are in the family of people), they'll shrug it off.

the puzzle for me is whether a bus can become a cafĂ©. a place to be and watch actively. being an entertaining thing to watch, i can do without breaking a sweat. 

Posted by hibiscus

When I was in college, we had this goofy idea of serving people tea in the elevators of the math building, which was the tallest building on campus. I'm not sure how it started--some kind of jokelist of wacky psychologically revealing things you could do on an elevator. So we showed up at the elevator at the appointed time with about four large bottles of iced tea and some paper cups---and realized we would be justifiably lynched if we took up any more space in the elevator than we had to. People would scowl at anyone using it for less than three floors. So we sat in the lobby couches and declared ourselves to be serving iced tea for no good reason, and thus was born the short lived "Society of Mad Hatters at Cal"---and we always did it that way thereafter, we served iced tea for no good reason at various spots on campus, carefully chosen to be near traffic but not in its way. You didn't have to talk to us if you didn't want to, but if you did, the conversation was scintillating. Our very first takers that first time were some bikers who had just come from very far to the building. It was great while it lasted, and it ended when it had to, and I love it when I see other people doing similar things.

There are plenty of underutilized public spaces, both real and metaphorical. There are ways to utilize them without forcing people to drop their iPodveils. I'm all for open invitations. Forced participation not so much.


Posted by Saheli

Just to be contrary - Hibiscus, you probably know the female Stuart, the one whose 38th birthday was celebrated on the 38 Geary from the Transbay Terminal past the hospital where she was born and out to the beach. Along the way, friends got on at whatever bus stop was appropriate. There were no streamers out the windows (all remained on the bus stanchions, safely indoors) but they just somehow knew it was the right bus. We got the other passengers to sing `happy birthday' not one, not two, but now what would you pay, three times on the 7-mile ride. It was a blast. I don't even remember the beach party because the bus party was so fun.

Anyway, I am somewhere in between. I'm mostly a public-space fundamentalist, believing that we should all experience one another as much and often and intensely as possible, even if it does drive us to tears, and I have also enjoyed the strange isolating spectacle existence behind the windshield or the sunglasses or the walkman. My personal solution has been to use a single ear-bud. It's less obvious and while it might be less intense it allows conversation along with the sound-track. I recommend it. I don't recommend acquiring such technology the way I did, which was to tear an ear-bud off a pair in the wheel of a bicycle.  

Posted by hedgehog

For the nth time, I'm NOT trying to get anyone to stop listening to their iPods, nor am I saying it's immoral to listen to iPods or anything of the sort. Nor am I saying you have to talk to everyone around you, or always be open to the people around you. I'll quote myself, here:
But I've always tended to latch onto particular archetypal examples as actual demons - the GAP as the embodiment of monotonous, sweatshop-produced trendwear, or SUVs as destroyers of the environment. This instantly makes my statements weaker, since the implied action (stop wearing GAP clothing, driving an SUV, and listening to an iPod) is not going to stop the problem. It is only indicative of it. 

I'm only saying that iPods DO create a wall, and that the tendency of people to want to create walls between them and other people rather than break them down is destructive, and it's unfortunate that the popularity of the iPod, as with MANY OTHER modern innovations, has facilitated that. I'm not suggesting that you're destroying the world every time you listen to your iPod on the bus, just that as a social phenomenon  it does more harm than good.

Also, listening to an iPod is qualitatively different than reading a book. I've had many conversations start because of someone (either me or the other party) reading a book on the T. Never because someone was listening to their iPod. That shuts people out in a way that reading does not.

Anyway, I think I've said my piece, here. 

Posted by saurabh

I think that was the first time on this page that you said "my piece." Unless command-F doesn't work anymore. 

Posted by hedgehog

I just("just" as in 10 minutes ago) made intense googly eyes with someone on the 38 Geary (whilst listening the white demon device). I couldn't have done that if I had my head buried in a book. 

Posted by echan

Hmph. I must get myself on this 38 Geary Bus. Echan never makes googly eyes with me .

Got it, Saurabh. As a trend and not an absolute, then, I'm *mostly* with you. I actually just hate iPods b/c their user interface drives me batty, and then my frustration is doubled by all the Jobsists insisting it must be the best user interface ever. Luckily I've only ever had to use one once.

Tangentially, I have to say that I love it when people ask me about what I'm reading, but am usually too terrified to interrupt anyone else reading unless I just must desperately know more about their book.

My favorite recent Bart conversation. . .a teenage boy was staring agape at a middle aged man. Finally he said, just as the man was getting off, "Has anyone told you that you look like The Dude?" Everyone gasps. It was so true. The man sighed--"Yes, yes. I know. I look like Lebowski without the beard." He gets off and then that entire end of the train breaks out into a dozen different exchanges of favorite lines, Caucasian recipes, and Julianne Moore and John Turturro imitations.


Posted by Saheli

yeah i can be known to forget that people will drop nearly anything including a veneer of cool for a good party. in terms of this i am a fish out of water, with no fish. the constant experience flows outward. each face is layers and layers of smudged lyrics wanting a kiss. i give them the fish and they turn away. just like that the mystery smooch machinery uncoils to stalk unsuspecting lips.

(oh! i forgot that the hedgehog asked if i ever danced to the music i hear. i thought the question was rhetorical because no answer came to mind. i think i made something up.)

i think i blanch at many statements in support of community and public space because they so often include charts and tables describing net decreases of fun in painful detail. i am looking for project proposals or even the recommendation to convene a task force for further study. 

Posted by hibiscus

on googly eyes: iPods can be like semiprivate space. Like front porches, books, bicycles, open-top cars, phones. They make it possible to interact on your own terms with the world, which for many of us makes it more possible, not less, to interact with strangers. Of the bunch, though, I have had most luck with the bicycle. With headphones and cell phones, yes, I've had many nice smiles and eye-locks with strangers, but none have led to more. On the bike, you each have an escape route, your own physical space, your direction, and I have had dozens of conversations, a couple of which led to acquaintanceship, with people I glimpsed while riding.  

Posted by hedgehog

this afternoon i heard a song i associate with my kidhood: "les tringles des sistres tintaient" from the opera carmen . (i think this was the earliest exposure i had to andalusian and gypsy music which has been sort of important.)

anyway a funny thing. i lay there with the music running and i had a straight up physical memory of holding the LP and putting it on the turntable. looking at the label on the LP. lowering the needle.

that memory of course was nostalgic. i did nothing like that to hear the song this time. the last time i handled recorded media for the song was more than a year ago, when i ripped it to the computer that played it moments ago.

there has to be something in that as to explain the extra cocoon relating to digital music players and maybe the extra appeal. i can change a tape or cd in a portable player in the space where i'm listening and that feels like a public act. is it just an interface issue? is it more like watching television than dancing? 

Posted by hibiscus

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