Sunday, February 20, 2005

The iPeople
Today's Sunday Times features a commentary by Andrew Sullivan (yes, the semi-retired blogger), recounting a recent trip to NYC:

Manhattan's downtown is now a Disney-like string of malls, riverside parks and pretty upper-middle-class villages. But there was something else. And as I looked across the throngs on the pavements, I began to see why.

There were little white wires hanging down from their ears, or tucked into pockets, purses or jackets. The eyes were a little vacant. Each was in his or her own musical world, walking to their soundtrack, stars in their own music video, almost oblivious to the world around them. These are the iPod people.
He's right, of course. Every since I got my own iPod at Christmas, I've noticed the same thing on the Yale campus—the number of people walking around with white wires sticking out of their ears is staggering. In addition, what he extrapolates from this is, I think, also pretty accurate, if not quite in line with my own conclusions:
It wouldn't be so worrying if it weren't part of something even bigger. Americans are beginning to narrow their lives.

You get your news from your favourite blogs, the ones that won't challenge your view of the world. You tune into a satellite radio service that also aims directly at a small market — 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 blogger's latest thoughts — seconds after he has posted them — get sports scores for your team or stock quotes of your portfolio.

Technology has given us a universe entirely for ourselves — 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.
Sullivan laments this technological division, pointing out:
That bloke next to you on the bus could be listening to heavy metal or a Gregorian chant. You'll never know. And so, bit by bit, you'll never really know him. And by his white wires, he is indicating he doesn't really want to know you.
And he winds up with a concluding anecdote, entreating his readers to unplug and return to the interpersonal real world:
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. There's a world out there. And it has a soundtrack all its own.
So, I said that I like what he has to say even though I don't quite agree with it, and you're probably wondering why.

I've never been a very public person. I don't party with anywhere near the regularity of my peers. I prefer IMing to phone chatting, with few exceptions. If I'm walking to class, I'd rather walk alone than bump into someone heading in the same direction, again with few exceptions. And of course, this exchange from the TV show Scrubs (DVD here), between doctor and patient, resonates quite strongly with me:
Patient: If it'll make you feel better, I hate this whole touchy feely culture anyway.
Doctor: Thank you!
Patient: And that whole kiss hello thing.
Doctor: Ugh.
Patient: Ew.
Doctor: Yeah I don't want anyone touching me unless we're gonna have sex and even then I don't want them to overdo it.
Patient: So where in Connecticut are you from?
Doctor: Greenwich, you?
Patient: Darien.
Yeah, I'm from Fairfield County too.

Anyway, I'd been using an mp3/CD player for about two years on and off until it got stolen in the fall. I then went several months before receiving my iPod, followed by a few weeks of using that every time I left my room. Then my harddrive crashed, and, like Sullivan, I was plunged back into the real world, without my personal soundtrack.

Now, maybe the Yale campus is different, because we're in the northeast, and the students are generally driven, moving quickly to their destinations. But what I've discovered is that the people without white wires dangling from their ears are icy and cold, while those listening to music have a bounce in their step—they'll stop to chat with people they know, smiling and pulling out one ear bud.

There's a distinct difference here, of course: Sullivan is encouraging us to meet new people, I'm talking about interactions with people we already know. The thing is, I'm not sure we stand to gain anything from meeting complete strangers. That heavily tattooed man on the train is happier because he has his Gregorian chants, and the business man likes escaping to his punk-rock. And they go home at night, and sign online to IM or blog in their little circles of people they like, too. If they should bump into a member of their group on the street, they'll gladly stop, smile, and strike up a conversation. What benefit would either of these men experience from my butting in during our commute?

The hustle and bustle that is disappearing in New York was well known for its profanity—why should we miss that? Sure, the global interaction is smaller, but if we have to give that up to differentiate into select populations that make us happier as individuals, is that such a bad thing?

While technology is separating us, it also gives us the ability to make our cliques bigger, and to avoid the things that irritate us. It's not a wall, as Sullivan seems to suggest, but a filter—let in the music, the people, the blogs, the sports, the stocks, the everything else that you enjoy, and keep out the noise.

UPDATE [2/20/2005 - 17:10]: I've been accused of hypocrisy, by my girlfriend, of all people: "[Brian is] always talking about dialogue even when your views differ. He'll often push his opposing viewpoint into a conversation just to get that dialogue. With a filter, that wouldn't happen. Seems to me [Brian]'s a little hypocritical about the whole issue."

Fair enough, but I think a clarification might help. I'm not saying it's a good thing for interpersonal communication to cease. I'm not saying you shouldn't be open to the possibility of getting to know people.

My point is, that the venues where iPods limit interaction are not ones where meaningful opportunities are regularly being missed. The conversation Lexi had with her interviewer is not an occasion that would have been prevented by headphones. The political discussions I spark with my views do not occur on the train or on the street, and I think would be quite inappropriate if they did. And, if you're the type of person who gets something out of random conversations on airplanes, as Lexi definitely is, then you aren't the type of person who is going to plug in and tune out in the first place—else you would have already done so when they put radios into the armrests.

Here's the message I'm trying to communicate: nothing is being lost by the people who choose to walk to their own soundtrack, or by the people who wish to communicate; there are plenty of both species to satisfy themselves. Lexi will have conversations with people like herself, and people like me who find such forced small talk annoying at times can tune out when we do.

There are absolutely benefits to dialogue by people of opposing opinions—but we don't need to be open to it when we're walking down the street, and there may in fact be a greater gain if we only communicate when we're ready to in the first place. If you're not in the mood, and you have no way to tune out, what will you really get out of forced conversation? And in the meantime, the people who do want such interactions will find it that much easier to locate one another.

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