February 15, 2004
The World at Ears' Length
dea for a sci-fi horror flick: New York is invaded by zombielike robots. They ghost along the sidewalks, oblivious of pedestrians, and have frequent near misses with taxis and cyclists, causing chaos. They carry a secret weapon - no bigger than a deck of cards - that can render humans invisible. The only sign they are not quite human themselves: two white wires that run from their ears into their clothes, just below the neckline, as distinctive as the bolts in the Frankenstein monster's neck.
No need to make the movie, of course. They're already here: the iPod people. Apple sold around 750,000 iPods during the holiday season, up from 250,000 in the same period in 2002, and a disproportionate number were bought by New Yorkers, said Vipul Patel, an analyst at Jupiter Research, a technology research firm. Having had time to figure out how to use the gadgets and their new imitators, and to load them up with a gazillion tunes, the wave of new iPod owners are strutting around Manhattan in a seemingly endless parade of one-person dance parties.
Much has been made of the reasons for the device's popularity - you can D.J. the soundtrack to your life, for example, or iPods hold a record store's worth of music. But not a few New Yorkers also notice that, corked off from reality by their ear buds, iPod users are gumming up the works of the city. They stand in line at Starbucks and at banks, unaware that the person at the counter is yelling "Next!" No matter how loudly you shuffle your feet on the sidewalk behind them - making the scrunchy sole-on-cement sound that New Yorkers instinctively understand as "Move!" - they won't step aside. And as the less fortunate among us know, forget asking these people if they can spare some change. They can't hear you!
"They're in a daze," said Rosie Garcia, the manager of the Hot & Crusty bakery in Grand Central Terminal, who said she deals with customers in earphones "all the time."
"It's: `Can I help you? Can I help you? Can I help you!' " she said. "You have to wave at them to get their attention."
Since the Walkman arrived in the United States in 1980, New Yorkers have been using gadgets to tune each other out, and cellphones have certainly done their share to complicate social relations. But the rise in sales of iPods and other portable digital players like the Rio Cali amounts to a significant escalation in New Yorkers' continuing campaign to ignore, snub and look through one another.
The immense storage capacity of iPod and its imitators offers at least the opportunity for total, uninterrupted isolation from one's surroundings for long - extremely long - periods of time. It is now possible to commute, to stroll, to shop, even to go to a Knicks game, without having to listen to another human being, or even the same song. There is no rewinding or CD-changing to permit the outside world to leak inside the cocoon. With a jukebox in your pocket, a suitable tune is always at the ready, no matter your mood. And if you have little white ear buds rammed in your ears, there is always an excuse not to acknowledge fellow humans. "I'm busy right now," iPod users seem to say. "I'll get back to you in 10,000 songs."
"It's `I'm listening to my music - don't bother me,' " said Douglas Ladendorf, 40, a Webmaster who got his iPod in December and uses it to listen to Sting and Seal on his daily commute in Manhattan. "Someone stops you, and they ask for money or any number of guilt-trip-type things - everyone is trying to avoid those situations. Having an iPod makes people pass over you. It's too much effort to get your attention."
Michael Gitlitz, an iPod-wearing art dealer walking down Fifth Avenue on Wednesday, put it another way: "It's the next best thing to being transported from place to place in a pneumatic tube."
Much of America - the part that lives behind the wheel of a car and views life through the glare of the windshield - has long since adapted to life in a bubble. But city dwellers are supposed to be different; their constant interaction with other human beings, urbanites like to think, makes them more socially advanced creatures than the detached inhabitants of car culture. But could the iPod and similar high-capacity players be turning the vibrant sidewalks of New York into the pedestrian equivalent of the soulless freeway?
Yes, it could, says Michael Bull, a lecturer in media and culture at the University of Sussex in England and the world's leading - perhaps only - expert on the social impact of personal stereo devices. Mr. Bull has studied both the Walkman and the iPod, and says the iPod is changing urban life.
"The potential for continual play means you never have to tune in to the environment you're in," he said. "You're perpetually tuned out."
Mr. Bull said that wearing an iPod all the time amounts to "blanking out" other people.
"We have certain rules of civility and recognition - to recognize their use of space," he said. "In some ways the use of these devices denies that prerogative. If you're in an environment where many people are blanking you out, that makes the environment more inhospitable."
Asking actual iPod users about this subject is no easy matter, since it means invading the cocoon they have spent $300 or more to construct. To get their attention on Wednesday at rush hour in Midtown, I made a sign saying, "I'm an NY Times reporter - CAN I INTERVIEW YOU ABOUT YOUR iPOD?" which I held in front of anyone wearing those telltale white wires to see if I could make mental radio contact.
Peterpaul Scott, 33, was walking home from work at Tommy Hilfiger when he saw the sign and removed an ear bud, acknowledging for a moment that I existed.
Mr. Scott said he has 1,400 songs on his iPod - hip-hop, house classic, soul, rock 'n' roll - and he said he listens to it three to four hours a day.
"I like that it drowns out New York," he said. "The only time I feel weird is on an elevator. When you get on an elevator, you've got to tune back into the world."
The only strangers with whom Mr. Scott actively engages while he is in his special place are other iPod users, he said.
"It's a society within itself," he said. "You've got your biker community, your hip-hop community. And now you've got your iPod community. It's all about those wires."
Griffin Creech, a 27-year-old actor, stopped for the sign and removed his earphones. He has a thousand songs on his iPod, which he got in November, and said listening to the device in Manhattan makes him feel as though he is in his own music video. He dismissed Mr. Bull's concern over the iPod's social impact as "something some professor would say."
"It's hard to ignore New York City," he said, before replacing his earphones and going back under.
The fear that personal stereos could lead to antisocial behavior is an old one. The late Akio Morita, a founder of Sony and the company's chief executive at the Walkman's introduction, was said to have been so afraid of the device's capacity for creating solipsistic drones that he insisted early on that the Walkman have two headphone jacks and a microphone so listeners could communicate with each other. There is little evidence that the Walkman wrecked modern society, so some technologists say there is little reason to fear the iPod.
"I don't see it as a private cocoon," said Mark Poster, a professor of film and media studies at the University of California, Irvine, who has studied the social impact of cellphones. "I see it as connecting with a musician and therefore making a connection that's not related to physical space. We need to understand it, instead of saying, `It's not how we used to be, so it's bad.' "
The people at Apple, which makes the iPod, concede that a few antisocial types might use the iPod to turn off the world, but call such people a small minority. The notion that the hot-selling contraptions could lead to social ills almost seemed to hurt one company executive's feelings.
"It's a little wacky to look at it that way, when the iPod has brought so much happiness into people's lives," said the executive, Greg Joswiak, the vice president for hardware product marketing.
Of course someone trying desperately to get the attention of a zoned-out digital-player user - someone being blanked out - might see it differently. Ms. Garcia, the Hot & Crusty manager, said that when a long line of customers are frozen in place by someone lost in his own mental music video, it can be highly irritating. But she expressed a measure of awe at the immersive powers of those white wires.
"These people are very distracted by whatever it is they listen to," she said.