One Nation Under a Groove

Consider the iPod, destroyer, or perhaps protector, of worlds

I wrote this in 2005, and in some ways it seems quaint, our ability to filter out what we don’t want to hear has certainly become a more pronounced and visible problem. I think the intervening time has suggest that while technology can contribute or exacerbate cultural problems, there’s usually much deeper issues at work. Let’s not take the cheap easy way out and blame headphones.

The sky is falling again. The man outside the liquor store seems unconcerned. The sky seems to fall a good bit. Perhaps the man didn’t notice. Perhaps the sky has fallen too many times now. Perhaps it’s been falling for quite some time and we’re just now noticing it. Perhaps its always falling. Perhaps it never has and never will fall. Perhaps we just really like to say the sky is falling.

This latest chunk of sky hurling down at us is a brilliant little piece of circuitry known as the iPod. Andrew Sullivan, writing for The London Times claims “society is dead, we have retreated into the iWorld.” A catchy headline no doubt, but it’s basis in reality is questionable.

Echoing this trend is John Naughton’s recent article for The Guardian “a generation lost in its personal space.”

Joining these authors is Christine Rosen who has managed to parlay this topic into two separate articles, The Age of Egocasting and Bad Connections.

The underlying implication of all these articles is that the iPod (and the cellphone and TiVo and the remote control and…) narrow our perspectives and, in case of the first two, make us oblivious to and in public spaces.

The proportion of young people who never venture out in public without first putting on headphones is astonishing – John Naughten

Even without the white wires you can tell who they are. They walk down the street in their own mp3 cocoon, bumping into others, deaf to small social cues, shutting out anyone not in their bubble. – Andrew Sullivan

I have owned an iPod since 2001 and I really enjoy my bubble. It’s not so much that I disagree with any of the authors cited above, it’s that I think the iPod is less a destroyer of worlds (public space in this case) and more a response to the destruction of personal spaces, the origin of which lies far deeper and farther away than a pair of white headphones.

I was in a band a few years back and we were recording what would be our only production, a five song ep. For those that have never been in a recording studio and have this mistaken idea that it’s all fun and games… well, it’s not. Recording music is pretty boring actually. One evening the drummer and I were smoking cigarettes outside our studio and we got to talking about walkmans and the newfangled mp3 players that were just hitting the market. Nice we agreed, but what would be really cool I said, what I really want, is a way to put my entire collection of music in a device the size of a deck of cards. True story, 1995 or so. Buena Park California, sunset iridescent orange. High clouds lending a bit of purple. Swig of beer. Drag of cigarette.

The first few iPods were too small, 5 gigs and then 10, if I recall correctly from a billboard in Redondo Beach stuck in traffic and thinking, holy shit, they’re gonna do it. And they did. When the 20 gig version arrived it seemed like plenty of space so I bought one. Unfortunately when I got done ripping all my cds it was almost full. Now four years later I have almost 35 gigs worth of mp3s and I’m needing a new iPod (holding out for the 80 gig model, which again seems like plenty…).

I am far too much an audiophile however to settle for the cult of white ear buds and in fact have never used apple’s provided headphones (too much time spent in the recording studio to trust my music to cheap speakers). No I am actually worse in Mr Sullivan’s view, I use noise canceling earbuds from Sennheiser. Even if I turn off my iPod I am still deaf to your social cues Mr. Sullivan.

I will even confess that sometimes, when my iPod runs out of batteries, I leave the headphones in just to have an excuse to ignore social interaction. In fact, I find it really irritating when people fail to respect the message of headphones (don’t talk to me) and insist that I remove them so they can ask me for a cigarette (no) or a donation (sorry, one step away from the breadline myself).

Space is the Place

At the same time, as a writer, overheard conversation and snippets of other lives caught accidentally or through purposeful audio voyeurism are very important to me, invaluable even. This is the sort of accidental material that can put you where you ought to be — where you least expected to be.

But at the same time I never knew I would feel quite like that as the winter afternoon glare crystallized the spires at the top of the Sixth Avenue Library to the sound of Grant Lee Buffalo’s lament of New Orleans. I got the same juxtaposition of the familiar and foreign that I might glean from an unexpected snippet of the overheard.

So maybe, while it doesn’t fit the binary choice narrative of our age, just maybe it’s possible that both wearing headphones and not wearing headphones have their place.

I like to be able to choose whether or not to involve myself in the public space. But the elective to remove oneself from the public is troubling for our iPod critics. “Walk through any airport in the United States these days and you will see person after person gliding through the social ether as if on autopilot,” writes Sullivan.

Naughten even has the dystopia mapped out for us: “imagine the future: a crowded urban street, filled not with people interacting with one another, but with atomized individuals cocooned in their personalized sound-bubbles, moving from one retail opportunity to another. The only sounds are the shuffling of feet and the rock muzak blaring from the doorways of specialized leisurewear chains.”

It’s funny to read this in 2019 and realize that in fact Naughten was close. I haven’t been in a major American city in a few years, but last time I was his description would have fit perfectly. But are the “atomized individuals” the cause or the result? I’d argue they’re the latter.

It seems natural to me that people bombarded with advertising and the crass commercial commodification of public space at every turn would want an isolationist bubble to protect themselves. Naughten’s vision, which turns out to be more or less the culture we have in the west in 2019, seems a perfectly logical extension of the culture we have created.

It’s perfectly logical to string together phrase that, in 2005, would have sounded like something out of Infinite Jest: Meet me down at the Blockbuster Pavilion where we can catch the Verizon Wireless Presents show tonight and maybe afterward we can head to the Trojan Condom presents DJ Circuit City spinning at Club Walmart. Come on down, we’ll have a grand time ringing in the new Year of the Depend Undergarment.

What Mr. Naughten seems to ignore is the second to last sentence of his own nightmare, one that has nothing to do with headphones and everything to do with cultural changes that precede the iPod — moving from one retail opportunity to another.

This is the sum total of our public spaces. They are “retail opportunities”. Our “public” space is not public at all, it’s branded private space that views the public as little more than advertising targets. How long before we have advertisements beamed up into the night sky?

Rather than contributing to this sort of corporate co-opting of public spaces, the iPod allows us an escape into private worlds of the imagination.

Headphones are an attempt to avoid the homogenization of the “rock musak blaring from the doorways of specialized leisurewear chains”.

Is it not the desire to escape the vulgar commercialism of our advertising-polluted culture that drives us to block out it’s monotony? To seek something meaningful in one of the most intimately and meaningful realms, music and interject back the danger that once lurked outside the burlesque theaters and dance halls that seem to have closed just after Henry and June sneaked out the back door.

The New (Old) Danger

The problem with the iPod for these authors, and for similar articles about phones in 2019, seems to lie in the shutting off of the public space in favor of the personal.

As I’ve already pointed out we the public largely lost our collective spaces to more nefarious forces than the iPod. But, setting aside larger cultural issues like promiscuous advertising, what of the iPod’s privatization of public space as these authors claim?

Neither author gives any kind of reason as to why this is bad. They both get abstract and use the iPod as jumping off point for larger concerns, starting with Mr Sullivan who sees in the iPod the loss of, call it respect for music.

“Music was once the preserve of the living room or the concert hall,” writes Sullivan. “It was sometimes solitary but it was primarily a shared experience, something that brought people together, gave them the comfort of knowing that others too understood the pleasure of a Brahms symphony or that Beatles album.”

I don’t know about you, but the music I listen to was never welcome in the living room I grew up in.

For some reason, my parents failed to relate to or appreciate License to Ill or Nothing’s Shocking. Mr. Sullivan seems to think ‘once upon a time’ music was confined to the space where we expect it and now, good god, now it’s everywhere and no one is sharing or bonding over it.

I for one would much rather everyone carried around a pair of speakers with their iPod and blasted them at 11 so music became a truly public space, but apparently I am alone in this desire and there are noise ordinances against this sort of thing. (If this notion intrigues you check out some of the Flaming Lips’ experiments with hundreds of simultaneous playbacks to form textures of sound).

Typical of a lazy essayist, Sullivan is really just aping statements made a generation earlier in response to the iPod’s predecessor, the Walkman.

Far more reasoned and persuasive is Christine Rosen’s piece in The New Atlantis. As Rosen relates in her essay, “music columnist Norman Lebrecht argued, ‘no invention in my lifetime has so changed an art and cheapened it as the Sony Walkman.’ By removing music from its context — in the performance hall or the private home — and making it portable, the Walkman made music banal. It becomes a utility, undeserving of more attention than drinking water from a tap.”

I suppose that’s one way to look at it. But you could go back further. Swap “radio” for “Sony Walkman” and the argument still stands. Want to go further, gramophone works too. Yes, it’s true, recorded music has never had a context. It has always existed in the abstract space of our heads more than any temporal location. We are not in the room as it as the music is played, we get only an abstracted representation of the music.

This is where to whole thing collapses for me — so what? The notion that music has to have a context in order to understand it is only one way of approaching it. I’m not saying it’s a wrong way, I agree music is more powerful in person, but the abstraction, the ability to summon up the music you love whenever you want is indistinguishable from magic, to me anyway.

The notion that music has a natural space where it belongs is an extremely limiting definition of music. But even accepting that notion for a moment, applying it to recorded music makes no sense. If recorded music is located outside any temporal location, how can it have an appropriate place?

So ultimately Rosen is arguing that personal space is invading public space, that is, headphones are narrowing our public cultural space, but also, that music (in said headphones) really ought to remain in a private performance space as well. At least I think that’s what’s she’s saying, though it makes no sense.

I for one don’t think music should be consigned to where we feel comfortable and safe with it. Music is not safe. It should not be relegated to the living room or the concert hall, it should be played in the streets at top volume until the sky really does shudder and crumble. But that option has already been taken away by noise ordinances. So we have gone internal, put the speaker directly in our ear.

If anything changes with headphones it’s the attention devoted to the music. Music coming from speakers has a directional vector. It approaches you from some point and is blatantly external to the listener. Put on a decent pair of headphones and the music becomes omnidirectional and you are enveloped in it. Close your eyes and you can swim through it and pick out tiny bits of sound that you would never notice coming from an external speaker. For the listener on headphones the experience is both more intimate and more consuming than music from a living room stereo or even a concert hall stage.

As for the loss of public culture to personal headphone cocoon, is not the mere recognition of white earbuds itself a form of cultural interaction? Even if it be only a nod and smile, is this not even closer to the truth of life, the mystery unfathomed but acknowledged? I know how you feel the nod says and it is good speaketh the smile.

Its All Around You

Neither Sullivan nor Naughton is content with the iPod as harbinger of doom, the end of social space, the isolationist future of automatons. Yawn. No, it does not stop there, this is the slippery slope down which we all slide into communism and cannibalism and them russians and them russians and them earbuds and them earbuds and them them, damnit the sky is falling why don’t you see it?

Rosen at least has a more reasoned argument that might actually be on to something.

She believes that the personalization of media is leading to a narrowing of experience. That’s a legitimate fear that the passing of time has shown to be very legitimate indeed.

Mr. Naughton in the Guardian article sounds a bit like Wordsworth calling us all back to the countryside. He even goes so far as to stake his critique partly on recently uncovered Edwardian era documentary films. These movies he claims reveal a society where, “men raise their hats to women; people stop to talk; groups congregate at junctions and street corners.” The clear implication is that, for Edwardians, being out in public meant being on display and being sociable. It meant paying attention to what was going on around you, and acknowledging the existence of others.

Beware all calls for a return to past glories. Still, assuming for a moment that people act naturally in front of a camera, and that they weren’t in fact congregating to discuss the weirdos at the end of street pointing lenses at everyone, the Edwardians were more self-consciously aware when out in public. Does that make them role models of public behavior? They were also more elitist, racist, and classist as well; should we emulate those behaviors too while we’re out for a Sunday stroll?

In researching this little piece I found several nice rebuttals to Sullivan’s piece. The best of which is by a man named Jerry Stratton in an essay entitled society never ends, it just fades away.

Stratton rightly cuts past the iPod intro of Sullivan’s article and addresses what Sullivan really wants to talk about. “His most worthwhile observation was that iPod users sometimes accidentally break out into out-of-tune singing to whatever is on their pod,” writes Stratton. “But [Sullivan] seems to think that it’s bad, whereas I stand with Joni Mitchell that the more out-of-tune voices, the better. And that’s the real point of Andrew’s editorial. The proliferation of multiple viewpoints runs the risk of isolating individuals so that they hear only the viewpoints that they want to hear. We as individuals need more out-of-tune voices.”

This is also Rosen’s concern in both of her essays, that our means of consuming information (for her the remote control, TiVo, and iPod) are narrowing our exposure to new ideas. By meticulously selecting content that we already know we like we are even less likely to discover the new stuff. Couple this with "smart" search algorithms that pick recommendations based on what we already like and our chances of encountering the shocking, the challenging or the potentially enlightening approach nil according to Rosen.

Without these sorts of jarring, chance encounters with the unknown we cease to think outside ourselves. This may well be true, but it’s always been true. Conservative viewers are more likely to tune into Fox news because it fits their pre-existing worldview. Liberals read the New York Times and watch Woody Allen movies. This is nothing new. It has always taken conscious effort to find viewpoints outside your own reality tunnel of beliefs.

I fail to see anyway in which the iPod contributes to this trend. In fact it may well go against it if only by virtue of its ubiquity. On college campuses for instance many students swap headphones to see what the other is listening to. The iPod’s ease of use and the easy availability of mp3s make exploring new music simple — hear a band on someone’s headphones, go home and fire up a torrent search, grab the album, slap it on your iPod and be enlightened. Illegal? Certainly. Potentially life enriching? Certainly.

No Alarms and No Surprises

When you come down to it, how is the iPod any different from other music devices that use headphones? It’s not. It’s just the latest harbinger on the chopping block if we mash our metaphors for a moment.

At the same time, the targeted nature of new modes of consumption do raise some issues for thought. Is algorithmic content, narrowly selected constricting our exposure to the unfamiliar? Maybe, but as illustrated earlier there has always been a tendency to seek the familiar, the safe, the comfortable, the expected.

But even that doesn’t always happen. The gravity of this potential danger, if we may call it that, that comes from targeted advertising depends greatly on the realm in which occurs. If we are talking about the realm of politics then this kind of marsupial burrowing is decidedly bad. If you bought Bill O’Reilly’s book (presumably he has one) and the suggested "you might like…" stuff is more of the same, then yes your worldview remains narrow. But in the realm of art where the political statement is often less overt, less likely to be partisan, more likely to be complicated and often not there at all, then the suggestion might be welcome and can lead one far from the sources that suggested it.

For example let’s say you really like Jay-Z and so when the new album comes out you pre-order it on The "you might like…" screen claims that people who like Jay-Z have also purchased Outkast. So you figure, what the hell I’ll pick up this Outkast album. Turns out that those who purchased Outkast also bought both Stevie Wonder and Sun Ra. Hey, why not? You buy them too. If you’re a fan of Jay-Z but have never ventured into Sun Ra territory, well, you’re about to blow your mind.

In my own experience, I find that I tend to read books that mention other books. So I read the other books and maybe they mention some other books and on it goes. I don’t see a significant difference between that and the Amazon suggestions. Or potentially TiVo’s suggestions or any other targeted marketing. In the realm of the arts nothing is so much the same that it cannot lead to something ever more different.

It seems that to a certain extent the authors in question here are specifically concerned with the potential narrowing of political capital, which is a concern given that democracy depend on the existence of a multitude of voices. Are we losing that? Well that’s a larger question and one that does not necessarily relate to remote controls, TiVo or the iPod.

You Were Wrong When You Said Everything’s Gonna Be All Right

All three of these articles reveal more about their author’s sentimentality for earlier times than anything else. If those kids took the headphones out of their ears, put down the remote, turned off the television and read a couple of books everything would be fine…

In fact this notion of iPod=evil represents the same simplistic thinking that has landed us where we are in the first place. If easy prescriptions worked to solve our problems we wouldn’t have the reactionary mess we have. And I don’t mean that in partisan terms. I think we can all agree that America is somewhat of a mess right now. I don’t think one political party or the other is as fault. We are all culpable. And we are all looking for solutions.

I don’t believe in the techno-utopist future of completely wired life and peace through blogging, but I also don’t believe in the techno-dystopist future where we all end up like the overweight blobs in floating chaise lounges ala Wall-E.

Reality is much more complex and to avoid it authors like Sullivan resort to cheap, easy sentimentality.”What are we missing?” he asks, answer ever at the ready: “That hilarious shard of an overheard conversation that stays with you all day; the child whose chatter on the pavement takes you back to your early memories; birdsong; weather; accents; the laughter of others.”

A lovely piece of sentimentality, it almost makes me want to take out these headphones and listen to the silence of the house. But as Wallace Stevens’ said “sentimentality is a failure of feeling.” Sentimentality is false feeling, pseudo-feeling and affectation. Sullivan’s quote is an embarrassing episode of mindless sentimentality, it fails to account for all kinds of complexity and depth ever-present in our lives.

Sentimentality is the easy answer: the birds, the laughter, the children…. Real feeling involves complexity, it rejects the simple. To realize that there is more to it than unplugging, more to it than any technology, more to it than a sound bite you can pass off as heartfelt — that is actually the very essence of the problem: the failure to engage your surroundings as anything other than a simplistic snapshot of what you wanted to see.

Does Sullivan acknowledge the ugliness? Never. He skips right over it and tells you what you wanted to hear. Sullivan’s sentimentality does the very thing he accuses the iPod of doing — he narrows your reality.

Never for a second does Sullivan acknowledge that the birds might be endangered, headed for extinction, that the weather might be worsening with global warming, that the laughter of others might well be cynical and cheap or that the children are living below the poverty line, abused etc, etc. This the same sort of narcissistic thinking that gave us romanticism, is it any wonder that these authors look too fondly at the Edwardians?

Everything looks good from the lazy middle class intellectual point of view. Edit out the things you don’t like and you too can narrow your reality to the point of irrelevancy.

Please do not mistake me for a cynic though. I use this example merely to acknowledge that there are things below the surface that we can happily ignore if we are constructing the world to our own desires rather than recognizing the complexity that is inherent in it.

…And I Feel Fine

Perhaps the problem with the iPod is so ephemeral it’s slipping through our fingers. Perhaps there is no problem with the iPod. No harm in headphones. No danger to run from save the desire to have a new danger to run from, a new evil to fight because the real one is just too big to tackle, a new threat to declare war on because the old one just bores us to death, a new something to rage against because the dying of the light seems inevitable and unvanquishable. Perhaps the new danger, same as the old, is our own failure, our own sentimentality that shows us the world not as it is but as we wish to see it.

At the same time I encourage everyone, as Robert Anton Wilson put it, to change reality tunnels often. Find viewpoints you don’t share, something outside your belief system, something you might even consider crazy. Listen to what these viewpoints are saying and think critically about why you do or don’t agree with them.

There has never (not even yesterday) been a day in the history of humankind when you have had so much information at your finger tips. Take advantage of that and see where it leads you — hopefully where you least expected. And hey, listen to music while you think.


Mike Cairns December 20, 2023 at 9:49 a.m.

Is the failure to close the apostrophes around the quotes in both the following paragraphs deliberate?

Reality is much more complex and to avoid it authors like Sullivan resort to cheap, easy sentimentality.”What are we missing?” he asks, answer ever at the ready: “That hilarious shard of an overheard conversation that stays with you all day; the child whose chatter on the pavement takes you back to your early memories; birdsong; weather; accents; the laughter of others.

A lovely piece of sentimentality, it almost makes me want to take out these headphones and listen to the silence of the house. But as Wallace Stevens’ said “sentimentality is a failure of feeling.Sentimentality is false feeling, pseudo-feeling and affectation. Sullivan’s quote is an embarrassing episode of mindless sentimentality, it fails to account for all kinds of complexity and depth ever-present in our lives.

Cheers - Mike

Scott December 20, 2023 at 10:18 a.m.


No, that’s just an artifact of an old publishing system that ate some quotes (Movable Type, which is what I started out using before I built my own system). The headings aren’t headings either. Quite a few things got lost.

Every time I re-read this I can’t help thinking I might be slightly wrong. On one hand I stand behind it. On the other hand, it’s clear to me now that Sullivan and rest sensed something was coming, that public spaces were going to change in ways that would not be a net positive. With that I do, in hindsight agree. I still disagree with their specific reasons and arguments, but their sense that negative change was afoot, I tend to agree with more now.


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