Pod nation

You see them everywhere, on campus and off, downtown, uptown, on the streetcar, on the bus, in cars:


the Pod people. The little white wires trail from their permanently plugged ears. Their semi-glazed eyes take in far-off vistas. They drift around like the shades of social agents submersed in an auditory texture of their own creation, an audience of one for a personalized symphony.


They are iPod users. And they don’t want to talk to you.


Maybe that’s a little harsh. There are a number of reasons why someone would want to run around all day plugged into an iPod, and being anti-social doesn’t need to be one of them.


For one thing, they look cool. In the second place, they give you choice. With the explosion in personal audio devices precipitated by Sony’s Walkman and revitalized by Apple’s aesthetically orgasmic iPod, people have been given more choice and control of their personal music experience than ever.


Personal audio devices are an appliance of control, according to some researchers, including Dr. Michael Bull, the man known as “Dr. iPod” after being recognized by the The New York Times as “the world’s leading – perhaps only – expert on the social impact of personal stereo devices.”


According to Bull, people use the iPod for commuting and traveling in urban spaces for the express purpose of moderating their mood and experience: “[The iPod] gives them control of the journey, the timing of the journey and the space they are moving through. The main use [of the iPod] is control.”


Given that people like control, it is no surprise that personal music player use is on the rise. According to a Pew Institute study conducted last April, some 11 percent of adults in the U.S., that’s 22 million people, own and use an iPod or other MP3 player. In the typical student demographic of 18-28 years, the number is nearly twice that, or about 20 percent. Interestingly, there is a racial divide in these demographics. According to the study, “Some 16 percent of African-Americans and English-speaking Latinos own iPods/MP3 players, compared to 9 percent of non-Latino whites.”


But what about concerns that iPods make us more anti-social, allowing us to float around in our own personalized musical bubble, conspicuously incommunicado? Bell talks about players enabling “non-reciprocal looking.” Bell describes non-reciprocal looking as the ability to stare at someone without having to answer their questioning return gaze. The reason you don’t is because, obviously, your gaze is not contextualized by the music playing. Bell told Wired News that non-reciprocal looking is “a great urban strategy for controlling interaction.” Perhaps what he meant to say is it’s a great urban strategy for avoiding interaction. Some people openly admit to putting in ear buds, sans music, specifically for the socially insulating effect.


While some may praise the little white box for its part in reducing the noise pollution in the urban soundscape – from boom boxes and block-spanning car stereo systems to those obnoxiously loud one-sided cell phone conversations – others worry that the privatization of our music obsession has turned us further away from each other, making strangers less likely to interact. And maybe that’s the idea. “Urban life is one of the reasons they’re using these devices,” Bell said. “How often do you talk to people in public anyway?”


Well, a lot less often now. And that, on a large urban campus that already suffers from a sense of isolation and disconnectedness, can hardly be seen as a good thing.


If it can be called an appliance of control, the iPod and other digital music players can also be labeled as enablers of antisocial behavior, providing people a highly conspicuous excuse not to exercise their social muscles. According to a recent BBC article, “Some women use earphones to deflect unwanted attention, finding it easier to avoid responding because they look already occupied.”


Right. Because as any male who lives in Portland knows, the majority of women here, as anywhere, really need help deflecting unwanted attention.


Look, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying music when you’re out and about. If you really love music to the point that you need it pumped directly into your inner ear to the detriment of your situational awareness, be my guest. But don’t use a digital music player as an excuse to avoid having to deal with challenging social situations.


Your social muscles need exercising just as surely as your skeletal muscles. Don’t let the trendiness and usability of Steve Jobs’ latest resort-home-down-payment generator blind you to that fact.