Day’s Verse:
All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.
Acts 2:44-45

Everybody loves mp3 players, the iPod most of all: So (relatively) cheap, so handy, so portable in a way CD players, with their requisite huge books of CDs, never could achieve. Have 5,000 songs, plus videos, photos, and goodness-knows-what-next at your fingertips, in the most cleverly designed piece of electronics engineering to emerge in the last 25 years*. I own one. I can appreciate its genius. What’s not to like?

Three major issues arise with the increasing omnipresence of mp3 players.

The first issue is that that they insulate the listener from their surroundings, isolating the user by creating a personal world separate from the reality we all share. A person wearing earbuds tacitly proclaims, “Leave me alone. I’m busy. I have better things to do than engage with you.” This only exacerbates the problem of Americans’ individualism, which has been idealized to a fever-pitch without any serious dissention.

Already as a society we laud the independent man, the person who pulls himself up by his own bootstraps, who fulfills the American Dream through his own strength of character. We seek to live in mansions far from our neighbors, surrounded by verdant lawns—or, even if not so surrounded, at least well ensorcelled behind thick walls, high fences, and unfriendly attitudes. Our culture is oriented towards people alone: Driving to work alone, working individually (not in all cases of course, and I’m not saying that people don’t make friends. I’m talking about an overarching trend), building lives utterly separated from “the public,” people you don’t choose as friends.

Increasingly neighbors isolate themselves, rarely reaching out to the family across the street or in the house next door. The sense is that it’s safer (what if that new neighbor is a sex offender? Or puts razors in the Halloween candy?), easier, more secure to remain in your nuclear family. How rarely do neighbors chat over fences, or even call a cheerful “Good morning” in passing by, or borrow an egg in a moment of need. Kids, especially older children, stay in their own yards or homes, although it takes some years to train out the social grouping children seem to exhibit at first. So we draw in on ourselves, safe but alone, like a snail poked with a twig.

The Internet has also significantly accelerated this trend by allowing people to conduct business in the comfort of their own homes, when before such activities as banking, food- and clothes-shopping, borrowing from the library, renting videos, and innumerable other tasks required venturing into the wider world. If you so choose, most of your life can be delivered right to your front door, no interpersonal interactions required. Happily, you can also obtain music for your mp3 player right online, too, to save you from having to purchase a CD and do the work yourself.

We’re alone now in many aspects of our lives, choosing and indeed facilitating this aloneness by preference for many reasons. Yet we haven’t stopped to ask: Is this helping us? What benefit is this isolation? What happens in a moment of need, be it as small as lacking a cup of sugar or as large as a medical emergency? Do you remember the feeling of the country right after September 11? It was as if we suddenly drew together in solidarity, as if the people across the country woke up for a moment to realize, “I am not alone.” It was a wonderful feeling, a beautiful moment that budded from a terrible tragedy. We remembered community, not only community of our own choosing, but wider local, state, and national communities that have withered over the years. We looked outside the small sphere we individually inhabit to realize that other people exist, that we can draw strength from one another, and that we need one another.

But eventually we got back to our normal aloneness, and it’s only increased since then, facilitated by the ubiquitous mp3 player. But increasing isolation isn’t the only issue with mp3 players. They can actually be dangerous—not in and of themselves, although I imagine plenty of people sustain hearing damage from too-loud earbuds—by blocking out ambient noise, particularly while people exercise.

Lots of people find exercise boring, and I have to agree. It is boring, jogging along thinking about nothing. How wonderful to find a small, light device that provides entertainment, speeding the minutes by! In a gym setting, I fully agree that an mp3 player can make a huge difference. However, when people venture outside, as they have started doing with the advent of warmer spring weather, mp3 players should be left at home for safety reasons.

A walker, jogger, or cyclist on the road is always in a dangerous position, being the smallest, weakest, and easiest to squish (roadkill excluded) thing on the road. As such, the athlete needs to exercise extra diligence in paying attention to his surroundings to guard himself against unexpected behavior from drivers or other people around him. For example, imagine a jogger running on a multi-use trail. Safe from cars, yes, but on many trails cyclists routinely exceed 20 mph—fast enough to cause serious damage to both parties in a collision. Often bike riders provide auditory warning to pedestrians as the cyclist approaches from behind, but the polite “On your left” falls on deaf ears with an mp3 player in use. Or imagine a jogger on the side of the road, incapable of hearing the siren of an approaching emergency vehicle. Cyclists on the road listening to music cannot hear vehicles approaching from behind and can’t communicate with other cyclists—both dangerous in and of themselves, although particularly frightening when combined. Lastly, imagine an injured person calling for help, but failing to attract the attention of passers-by happily ensconced in their own musical worlds.

Additionally, I have heard that safety concerns have also led various localities to ban earbud-use while in a car, because they so effectively cut the driver off from the outside world. Is being entertained while exercising or driving worth the danger that comes with it? Better, I say, to spend the time bored than to risk your life or other peoples’ lives through inattention.

The last issue I have with mp3 players is that they facilitate downright rude behavior. We have plenty of rudeness in our lives, but people plugged into their portable music players take it to a whole new level when they refuse to take earbuds out during conversation. This behavior says quite clearly, “You’re less important than the music I’m listening to,” and damns the conversation to a loud, short, often irritating exchange for both parties.

A “polite” listener often removes one earbud, thereby not missing too much music but still providing a modicum of attention to the other person. This happens all too often at work, with employees individually enjoying their music selections—and not disturbing anybody else, thanks to iPods—but not stopping that enjoyment long enough to hold a 30-second informational discussion on a work-related topic. Social small talk, meanwhile, falls completely by the wayside. This type of rudeness, prioritizing personal pleasure over basic respectfulness to others, is simply disgusting. Imagine sitting watching TV. Somebody approaches you to ask a question. Without looking up, you grunt a short, monosyllabic reply and thereafter ignore your questioner utterly. Such an exchange would, I think, strike most people as outrageously rude, yet that’s exactly what we accept as normal with mp3 players. There’s no excuse for it, and yet we tolerate this behavior as normal.

What’s not to like about mp3 players? Community dies out as isolation increa
ses; short, friendly exchanges among strangers—the kind that makes those towns in 1950s movies look so appealing—vanishes into individual musical worlds. People endanger themselves and others while out in the world by choosing to effectively block out all auditory communication through the use of mp3 players. And people listening to mp3 players display a kind of wanton rudeness to others that would, in other circumstances, leave us wide-mouthed in disbelief. Although mp3 players do have their place in society (I don’t think I need to enumerate the reasons; I’m sure you’ve come up with dozens of them yourself already), it’s time to pause to think for a moment before popping those earbuds in. Ask: What will I miss, what messages will I pass along, by engaging in this activity? Is this the right time for personal music? And if the answer is “no,” be brave. Be bold. Leave the darn thing at home.

Bike talk.
It was positively hot today. I rode to Concord for 25 miles, turned around, and came home. Not my best ride by any stretch; my stomach felt bad and I rode against the wind what felt like the entire way there and half the way home. But the weather was lovely, and I rejoice to think more of it is coming my way. Tomorrow I ride only 20 miles for a break, and that also makes me happy. I am very tired.

*I merely restate opinions I have heard, and welcome dissention (with examples) on this point.

Please help me raise money for the MS Bike Tour Cape Cod Getaway. Donate today on my MS Participant page.

KF quality

6 thoughts on “Why I Hate iPods

  1. 100% of the reason why i dont own an ipod is because i am already incredibly self-isolating, and i would probably never talk to anyone ever again if i had one. although i confess i do want an iphone pretty badly. i just cant resist the concept of the facebook wherever you go.

    but i am the first to admit that nobody should join the facebook. it sucks your time away from you like none other.

  2. Yeah, these are the same reasons I don’t own an ipod. I’ve found myself wanting one during thesis, because a) I do the vast majority of my work with no other people around and b) I move around a lot so anything with speakers doesn’t work well, but really, it’s not worth the isolation.

  3. The main reason I have one is to also use it when I’m doing mindless tasks in the lab like counting thousands (literally) of bacterial colonies. But sometimes, I need to convey the message- “Leave me alone. I?m busy. I have better things to do than engage with you”… mostly when people in the lab are acting like total jerks and I really just want to be left alone while I do my work. Sad. I know.

  4. 1. Ian brought up the point that iPods may not be the cause, even the proximate cause, of antisocial behavior. Perhaps, he suggests, they’re just an enabler that is readily available. Lacking the invention of portable music players, it’s quite possible that we’d still see the same isolationism, just with other tools to enforce it.

    2. Michelle, I think you bring up a good point: There are times you WANT to be left alone, and using an iPod at those times can be a very effective way of communicating that to people. I have done the same thing at work when I’m feeling grumpy or need to not be interrupted superfluously. And I certainly conceded their usefulness in providing entertainment during tedious tasks.

  5. In our society people are both more AND less isolated. It’s difficult to be truly alone and silent what with all our electronic devices!

    I agree that Ipods only facilitate rude behavior (just like driving can). Being rude is always a choice! I listen at work, but take out BOTH ear-buds to interact with anyone who comes by my desk. In an open office situation like mine, it’s much easier to ignore other conversations and focus on work when plugged in 🙂

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