The Cult of the iPod

Tom Hume spotted this article in The Times, which I find just weird.

The writer starts off by rehashing the old idea that with everyone listening to iPods, it tends to cut them from their environment. Actually, this isn’t a new riff anyway. Dr Michael Bull, a Senior Lecturer at the UK’s University of Sussex, has been studying and writing about this for years – first with the Walkman and more recently, with the iPod.

What’s actually happening, according to Dr Bull, it’s all about controlling your environment (from a Wired article last year):

People like to control their environment, and the iPod is the perfect way to manage your experience. Music is the most powerful medium for thought, mood and movement control….

The [New York] Times asked what becomes of the public space when the public space becomes privatized. What about the others — the person in the supermarket checkout you don’t recognize is there? It asks whether the public space becomes colder as the personal space becomes warmer through music.

There’s a lot of studies in the literature that demonstrate with the urban space, the more it’s inhabited, the safer you feel. You feel safe if you can feel people there, but you don’t want to interact with them.

Music allows people to find pleasure in the place they’re existing. (Personal stereos) make the user’s life much better. It helps them manage urban life…. Urban life is one of the reasons they’re using these devices. How often do you talk to people in public anyway?

But then The Times article takes this cocooning effect of the iPod playing your favourite music as somehow evidence that technology generally actually narrows people’s lives:

You get your news from your favourite blogs, the ones that wonÌt challenge your view of the world. You tune into a satellite radio service that also aims directly at a small market Û for new age fanatics, liberal talk or Christian rock. Television is all cable. Culture is all subculture. Your cell phones can receive e-mail feeds of your favourite bloggerÌs latest thoughts Û seconds after he has posted them Û get sports scores for your team or stock quotes of your portfolio.

Technology has given us a universe entirely for ourselves Û where the serendipity of meeting a new stranger, hearing a piece of music we would never choose for ourselves or an opinion that might force us to change our mind about something are all effectively banished.

Errr…not sure where to start with this.

Firstly, people have always selected their media based on what they want to hear and read. Why else does the UK’s The Sun or The Mirror sell any newspapers? Or The Times, for that matter, if you want an Establishment, right wing view of the world. Bias in media is as old as the printing press.

Socially, people have also tended to mix with people they like, which normally means people whose view of life is pretty similar to their own. It’s just not much fun socializing with those you despise or violently disagree with all the time.

But more than that. I’d suggest for the vast majority of people, technology has opened far more minds than closed them. I’ve been exposed to far more ideas, people, learning experiences, writing and opinions than the old grey world before 1995, when I first went online. Plus, I’ve been exposed to art, culture, books and music I would never have heard of, but for the web.

The web has also allowed the Long Tail to emerge in the arts and culture, leading far more variety and choice than at any time in the history of mankind.

Finally, the article makes an appeal to us all:

Not so long ago I was on a trip and realised I had left my iPod behind. Panic. But then something else. I noticed the rhythms of others again, the sound of the airplane, the opinions of the taxi driver, the small social cues that had been obscured before. I noticed how others related to each other. And I felt just a little bit connected again and a little more aware.

Try it. ThereÌs a world out there. And it has a soundtrack all its own.

To quote a line from the great Fawlty Towers. “Pretentious? Moi?”

If this is the best old media can come up with, no wonder they’ve left the door open for bloggers to enter their inner sanctum.

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