Before I owned an iPod I thought they were the most overpriced electronic devices on the market. Why would anyone spend $400 on what was essentially an exaggerated Walkman? After we bought my wife an 30 gig iPod for her long commutes to school, I started to realize how useful they actually were, and within a week or so of owning my first iPod I started to swear to my friends that if it broke I would find a way to buy a new one within a week.
What sold me on them was not the ability to play all my music from one little device, although that was a wonderful feature, it was they way I could easily manage and listen to podcasts. Once I started subscribing to various podcasts and listening to them on my iPod, a vast world of entertainment and knowledge opened up to me: Ravi Zacharias, This American Life, Covenant Seminary’s Theology courses (particularly the ones on Francis Schaeffer’s life), This Week in Tech, The ForceCast, Reformed Theological Seminary’s courses, Old Time Radio, and of course, the Christ and Pop Culture Podcast. These shows, at least the theological ones, changed the way I thought, expanded my understanding of God and the world and my role in it. And they also changed my habits.
I listened while doing dishes, vacuuming, cooking, driving, eating, walking, brushing my teeth, working out, walking the dog, and shopping. If my wife asked me to take out the trash, I would spend three minutes finding my iPod and turning on a podcast just to have something to listen to during the five minutes it would take me to take out the trash. Now that we’ve moved to Baylor, my habits have changed slightly. I listen to fewer theological podcasts, since grad school leaves me craving less intellectually taxing shows, but I still listen to some show or another almost every chance I get. The biggest difference is that now I typically find myself listening around other people. Unlike in California where I drove everywhere, at Baylor I do much of my podcast listening while walking to classes. And I’m not the only one. As I walk to class or take our dog for a walk, I see many other students strolling through the busy campus with both earbuds plugged into their ears. While I’d like to think that my habit of listening to my iPod at every chance is a redemptive use of my time, if I’m honest, I know that it has serious consequences for the way I view myself and others as part of a community.
Using technology to “tune out” others around us is a broad social issue that has been a problem for decades. Ever since the Walkman made it possible to stroll through the world with a soundtrack, people have been choosing to exclude others in preference for their own world. Handheld gaming systems, cell phones, and PDAs are other examples of technology that encourages us to tune others out in public. Certainly, you don’t need technology to tune out. We can always daydream or just ignore the people around us without the aid of an iPod or Gameboy. But the difference is that daydreaming doesn’t usually communicate to others around you that you don’t want to interact with them. When we put headphones on, we are actually saying, “I am chosing to listen to this, and not you.” And to some extent, talking to someone when they are listening to an iPod seems to be becoming impolite. I often feel a bit guilty when I stop to talk to someone who has earbuds in, as if I’m really interupting something important.
And that is what makes iPods different than cell phones or PDAs or handheld game systems: they shut off one of our primary means of communication, often in very public settings, for the sake of private entertainment. A cell phone conversation in a supermarket might be annoying to those around the caller, but presumably the person is chatting with another human, and since a phone only requires the use of one ear, they are not completely shutting out the world. Similarly, someone using a PDA or handheld game system in public might be doing so for their own private entertainment, but they are not closing off their ears to those around them.
Listening to an iPod in public typically sends the message that the listener doesn’t want to talk to those around them and would rather listen to their music or podcast. I know I often feel this way walking home from a long day of teaching or rushing through a supermarket, getting my weekly shopping done. The effect this has on me is that it encourages me to compartmentalize my world, to choose when I am “on” and open for conversation and when I am “off” and concerned only with my pleasure. We all compartmentalize our lives like this to some extent; it is not necessarily a selfish thing. When I am asleep in bed, I do not give the impression that I want to have a conversation with my wife; I am “off” for the night. The distinction is that an iPod allows us a very visible and practical way to communicate to others when we are “off” at any time and in any place, so that when I walk into my local Target with my iPod on, I am communicating to everyone in that store that I am ignoring them as a community; I am “off” for the day, as far as they are concerned. Rather than live as an active and open member of a community who responds to the needs of those around him, I tend to choose, quite liberally, when I will listen to those needs by plugging in my earbuds.
My purpose here is not some Luddite condemnation of iPods and listening to music in public. As Christians we are not called to have our ears unplugged at all times, but we are called to love our neighbors as ourselves. And if my habits, however beneficial they are to my understanding of God and however they might help me relax, lead me to visibly and forcefully cut off my neighbors, then I need to alter my habits. This does not mean that listening to iPods in public is wrong, but rather that we need to be sensitive about where we listen, who is around us, and what it is communicating to them.