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Thursday, October 21, 2021

Column: Soundtrack to your life

You probably saw me the other day. I was that guy – the one wearing earphones everywhere. I was jamming to my iPod on the G Line, in the CoHo, on the way to class, in Safeway – that was me. I’m willing to bet, provided you don’t know me personally, that you still didn’t recognize me. And that’s exactly the point.

MP3 players are ubiquitous, so much so that including them in a description of a person is no more helpful than saying “You remember Shelly, right? She’s the one with four limbs and teeth.” For all I know, by identifying myself as the guy with the earphones, I might have just IDed you.

One reason why the perpetual earphone is so common is because it seems so normal. It’s almost as if we’ve always been attached to our iPods – both at the hip and the head. Of course, they are not natural, at least in the sense that our bodies didn’t evolve with speaker jacks and carrying cases. It’s hard to believe, I know, but there was a time when no one wore earphones that brought our favorite music to the privacy of our own listening pleasure. It is not something I can imagine all that well (even though there were no iPods around when I was born the Sony Walkman was common enough). And yet this is the history most older adults come from.

When I was younger, my parents forbade me from wearing headphones around them. They found it irritating when I couldn’t hear them and respond. When they were growing up (in a story I heard so many times I came to memorize it), people didn’t have anything in their ears. They listened to each other, talked to each other, made use of public spaces and listened to music together. Now, they argue, iPods have undone what was left of public space.

My parents didn’t know it at the time, but they were defending one side of a chicken-and-egg debate in the social sciences. Does our culture (as a set of ideas, beliefs, practices) shape the innovations we pioneer, or do those innovations come to define culture? For example, is it really the case that MP3 players and their earphones created a society of inattentive and self-isolating people? Or is it the case that we already are self-absorbed at the core, and MP3 players have come to be a proxy, standing in as something of a material metaphor for our true nature?

James Katz, who runs the Center for Mobile Communications Studies at Rutgers University, believes iPods are emblematic of our image, adding to our “personal statement.” Junior Dominique Chao agrees that there’s a difference between someone who merely has an iPod and someone who constantly walks around with earphones in, the latter carrying the message: “I’m a sophisticated and busy student who has too much to do to be stopped and spoken to.”

Dr. Michael Bull, lecturer at the University of Sussex, believes iPods take otherwise lonely experiences (sitting alone in a bus of strangers, walking to campus or class, working out), and give us “control of the journey,” or the ability to frame time, space and interactions on our accord with our music. In this way, earphones make us the masters of our environment, creating something of a home away from home. When asked if iPods make people more likely to ignore strangers, he responds: “How often do you talk to people in public anyways?”

It’s a good question, so I ran a little experiment. For two days, I had my earphones in, music on (and loud), at all times that didn’t absolutely require interaction. So I got up in the morning, and put my earphones in as I brushed my teeth. I put them back on after I got out of the shower. I had them on for breakfast, I wore them to my Unitrans stop and I had them on the whole ride to school. I wore them into the CoHo, and my job, during lunch, in between class and again at the Unitrans MU stop. Then I wore them home, kept them on and did some problem sets with them. My earphones got sweaty when I worked out. Then I put them back in as I got in bed. My earphones lulled me to sleep. I had no interaction, neither on campus nor in my apartment.

Yeah, it was as depressing as it sounds.

If RAJIV NARAYAN is always jamming to his iPod, then the only way to reach is by e-mail: rrnarayan@ucdavis.edu.

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