I’m not a luddite, but …
February 18, 2011, 11:03 pm
Filed under: Editorializing

It occurs to me that iPods and the like may be hurting us in unseen ways. I’m not talking here about the way that ubiquitous social networking and other mechanisms of positive feedback can isolate people from conflicting opinions. I’m talking specifically about portable music playing. If any of you have traumatic memories of the SAT, skip down a little bit. For the rest of you —


Bear with me. Before calculators, we used to have to know things, fundamental things such as multiplication tables and formulas (or even how to derive them) and what x cubed looks like when graphed. With the advent of calculators, particularly graphing calculators, students can give correct answers without having to understand or remember. Or, you know, think.

And then there’s the iPod. My grandfather is known for singing, more or less constantly. Jingles from commercials, songs from movies, and other numbers he makes up on the spot. This act of singing involves memory (of lyrics and tunes), creativity (for ad libbing), and social interaction (with all those within earshot). iPods don’t breed social interactions; they immunize you against them. And why remember lyrics or make up your own when you can just call a song up at any time?

They’re not all bad, of course. Podcasts can be brilliant, and having a full music library on-hand for jogs or commutes or gym classes can add immensely to the experience.I suppose I’d just like to see more of a balance in the way we consider technology, looking not just at the benefits but at the costs as well.

I have not heard of any research that points to a creativity crushing effect by portable music players (an SSRN search reveals only research on intellectual property, but Google Scholar has some sociological articles by M Bull on “the culture of mobile listening”). But neither have I seen research which proves that the invention of air conditioning ruined Southern US literature, and yet I maintain that heat-based hallucination can’t but have helped shape the writing of Tennessee Williams, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, et al. [Though there are those who argue that there is still great Southern literature.]

Am I just rationalizing why I can’t sing like my grandfather? This is possible. Though thanks to iPod-fueled personal dance parties, I dare say I’d give him a run for his money in a dance off. Yet, when I am unable to work because of loud talking in my office, I am consciously trying to solve the problem of focus without resorting to a different, louder noise, piped directly into my head.


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Slate recently posted an article on this topic as well —

Comment by essareye

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