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Attack of the Pod People

It was inevitable, of course—though we might have expected it a little sooner. Finally, the anti-iPod backlash has begun.

Sure, they originally debuted back in 2001 and, yes, they started hitting the mainstream, like, two years ago; but it’s only relatively recently that major non-tech-niche media have really started to take notice. Within the last year, The New York Times, and other publications, began running strangely starry-eyed pieces extolling the engrossing little boxes’ diverting capabilities. And then, predictably, luddite Cassandras and Chicken Littles began decrying the End of Society As We Know It.

In a piece titled “The World at Ear’s Length,” which ran last month, Times writer Warren St. John likened iPod wearers to zombies, dubbing them “iPod people.” The piece, though playful, had an ominous tone, highlighted by quotes from a British professor of media and culture (identified as “the world’s leading—perhaps only—expert on the social impact of personal stereo devices”) who warned in sci-fi solemnity of the danger of citizens “blanking out.” The likely result of all this iPod-induced blankness was an environment he labeled “inhospitable.”

Even self-identified pod people have begun outing themselves and offering up weird mea culpas. At his Web site, conservative journalist Andrew Sullivan wrote a lengthy, and somewhat tortured, account of his deprogramming. Here, he sums up:

“Not so long ago, I was on a trip and I realized I 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 cabby, 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. There’s a world out there. And it has a soundtrack all its own.”

It does? Jeepers! Thanks for the tip. Is it as cool as the Strokes to Plastic Bertrand to Wyclef Jean to Serge Gainsbourogh to Os Mutantes that my own iPod offered up to me on the way into work today?

No? Then, for God’s sake, shut up.

I mean, give us a break, Andy—and spare us the self-flagellating/self-serving (not to mention totally insincere) lecture. If all it takes to separate you from reality to that degree is a personal stereo, you had a pretty fleeting relationship with it to begin with.

See, Sullivan doesn’t for a moment believe that his iPod cut him off from his fellow man in any way that he wasn’t already cut off. (The fact that he’s a gay conservative, now that maybe cut him off, but blaming his record collection, that’s plain silly.) He’s a journalist and a cultural critic, for cryin’ out loud. In any other context, do you think this guy would ’fess up to being removed from his fellow man, to being out of touch, to being insulated from “how others relate to each other?” Of course not. Not for as long as he’s soliciting donations from readers via a Paypal option at his Web site, anyway.

It’s just a fatuous and convenient anti-fad pose.

Commentators, if you’re old enough to remember, made the same dire and ridiculous warnings about Sony’s Walkman when it hit the shelves in 1980: We were being driven inward by our entertainments, made antisocial by our toys. (And even still, from time to time, some doddering crank will pipe up about the communal experience of viewing movies in a theater rather than at home in your DVD and plasma screen, Surround Sound-equipped living-room bunker.)

This is all nonsense. First of all, it discounts the real possibility that the iPodder is very much engaged with art, which some might contend is one of the more valuable fruits of human effort. And people necessarily interact with art in highly idiosyncratic and personal ways. Can you really begrudge someone for choosing to engage more, and more deeply, with [fill in a compelling audio artist here: Camille Saint-Saens, Cole Porter, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Harry Partch, 50 Cent—whomever most challenges and delights you] than with the cabby? Given the limited amount of time most people have these days to indulge in beauty—productivity-and-profit- oriented folk that we are—that’s just efficiency, in my mind.

Furthermore, in the event the mere utterance of 50 Cent’s name sounds like the restless pawing of the barbarians’ steeds beyond your picket fence, keep this in mind: Your iPod can as easily accommodate e-books (the Bible, say) or T.S. Eliot reading The Waste Land, or “Podcasted” radio programs running the gamut from history lessons to political commentary to personal essays to movie reviews, as it can “Gatman and Robbin”.

Human disconnect is not an Apple product (nor a HP, nor a Sony) and I find it impossible to believe that we’re losing a generation’s best thinkers to thought-deadening, socially insulating playlists—the enjoyment of which I point out again is human interaction.

It’s worth noting that Jackson Pollack often painted while listening to bop jazz records; the music clearly had an informative effect, whereas his actual social interaction was, um, less beneficial. In a foreword, Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, thanked Paul Simon, claiming that he listened to One Trick Pony over and over during composition. And you know that if Nietzsche had access to an iPod you’d have had to tear the buds blaring Wagner right out of his head.

The iPod backlash is a reactionary and paranoiac strain of McLuhanism: We shape our tools, and then they eat our brains!!: And it’s goofy. It’s like blaming Atari, solely, for the tendency of humans toward violence.

And, seriously, does anyone buy the “Frogger made me do it” excuse?

—John Rodat


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