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Little white gods

Observations on iPodism

Walking through central London recently, I played “Spot the iPod-less”, tallying the rare individuals not plugged in while rushing about their daily business. The numbers are dwindling. Commuters, cyclists, pedestrians. Young and old. We’re all addicted.

This is hardly surprising. Since the iPod was launched eight years ago, more than 173 million have been sold worldwide, making it the bestselling digital player of all time. Demographically speaking, I am one of the iPod generation: I’m in my mid-twenties, I live in London and I have a (little) disposable income. I should have one glued to my ears night and day. But I don’t.

I do possess one of these sleek little devices. It was a gift, and while I hate to sound ungrateful, it is a contraption I feel slightly uneasy with. The little white box sat in another little box on the kitchen table eyeing me for months, before I mustered the pluck to open it.Does this make me old-fashioned? Perhaps, but I suspect this inability to face the music is part contempt at what I feel the iPodification of my generation is doing to our desire to interact with one another, and part fear that the iPod experience would prove so captivating, I would succumb to its anaesthetising “charms” for ever more.

IPod addiction, and it is an addiction, demands that every experience have a soundtrack to make it complete, or just plain bearable. Music, charged with private and familiar emotional association, makes the listener, stuck in an atomised and excessive urban milieu, feel whole. One American academic, Michael Bull, has christened this experience “iPod love”. He regards it as empowering, allowing people to control their space, time and interactions. No bad thing, says he. But, like all true addictions, iPodism is based on denial. We’ll tell ourselves anything to believe it is we in control of the situation, or drug of choice, before we’ll admit that we’re at its mercy.

IPods deny my generation the chance to be kind. I recently witnessed an elderly woman being pushed off a crowded bus and into the road as her pleas for help fell on the ears of her fellow passengers – not actually deaf, but otherwise engaged. She wasn’t so much pushed, as shuffled off. And unlike, say, a hat, the iPod does not allow the wearer to communicate anything about themselves. Only that they would rather not be there, looking at you, listening to you, or, God forbid, talking to you. Do people doff earphones? I suspect not.

To see the world as it is isn’t very seductive, but a busy Tesco set to Philip Glass’s latest piece becomes strangely lyrical. I am a spectator of the scene, not a participant, the iPodders reassure themselves. And there’s the rub. This is not control over our environment. Instead, the iPod is about building up a strange, stoical intolerance for the unknown or unsavoury. Including the person next to us on the bus.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Tragedy!