Society is dead, we have retreated into the iWorld
By Andrew Sullivan
I was visiting New York last week and Others began, as I did, with a Walkman —
noticed something I’d never thought I’d say about and then a kind of clunkier MP3 player. But the the city. Yes, nightlife is pretty much dead (and I’m sleekness of the iPod won me over. Unlike other in no way the first to notice that). But daylife — models it gave me my entire music collection to that insane mishmash of yells, chatter, clatter, hustle rearrange as I saw fit — on the fly, in my pocket. and chutzpah that makes New York the urban What was once an occasional musical diversion equivalent of methamphetamine —became a compulsive obsession. Now I have my was also a little
different. It was quieter. iTunes in my iMac for my iPod in my iWorld. It’s
Manhattan’s downtown is now a Disney-like Narcissus heaven: we’ve finally put the “i” into Me.
string of malls, riverside parks and pretty upper-And, like all addictive cults, it’s spreading.
There are now 22m iPod owners in the United middle-class villages. But there was something else.
And as I looked across the throngs on the States and Apple is becoming a mass-market pavements, I began to see why. company for the first time.
Walk through any airport in the United There were little white wires hanging down
from their ears, or tucked into pockets, purses or States these days and you will see person after jackets. The eyes were a little vacant. Each was in person gliding through the social ether as if on his or her own musical world, walking to their autopilot. Get on a subway and you’re surrounded soundtrack, stars in their own music video, almost by a bunch of Stepford commuters staring into mid-
space as if anaesthetised by technology. Don’t ask, oblivious to the world around them. These are the
iPod people. don’t tell, don’t overhear, don’t observe. Just tune
in and tune out. Even without the white wires you can tell
who they are. They walk down the street in their It wouldn’t be so worrying if it weren’t part own MP3 cocoon, bumping into others, deaf to of something even bigger. Americans are beginning small social cues, shutting out anyone not in their to narrow their lives.
bubble. You get your news from your favorite blogs,
the ones that won’t challenge your view of the Every now and again some start
unconsciously emitting strange tuneless squawks, world. You tune into a satellite radio service that
also aims directly at a small market — for new age like a badly tuned radio, and their fingers snap or
their arms twitch to some strange soundless rhythm. fanatics, liberal talk or Christian rock. Television is When others say “Excuse me” there’s no response. all cable. Culture is all subculture. Your cell phones “Hi”, ditto. It’s strange to be among so many people can receive e-mail feeds of your favorite blogger’s
and hear so little. Except that each one is hearing so latest thoughts — seconds after he has posted them
— get sports scores for your team or stock quotes of much.
Yes, I might as well own up. I’m one of your portfolio.
them. I witnessed the glazed New York looks Technology has given us a universe entirely through my own glazed pupils, my white wires for ourselves — where the serendipity of meeting a peeping out of my ears. I joined the cult a few years new stranger, hearing a piece of music we would ago: the sect of the little white box worshippers. never choose for ourselves or an opinion that might
Every now and again I go to church — those force us to change our mind about something are all huge, luminous Apple stores, pews in the rear, the effectively banished.
clerics in their monastic uniforms all bustling Atomisation by little white boxes and cell around or sitting behind the “Genius Bars”, like phones. Society without the social. Others who are priests waiting to hear confessions. chosen — not met at random. Human beings have
never lived like this before. Yes, we have always a Stairmaster in silence? But what are we missing? had homes, retreats or places where we went to That hilarious shard of an overheard conversation relax, unwind or shut out the world. that stays with you all day; the child whose chatter
But we didn’t walk around the world like on the pavement takes you back to your early hermit crabs with our isolation surgically attached. memories; birdsong; weather; accents; the laughter
Music was once the preserve of the living of others. And those thoughts that come not by room or the concert hall. It was sometimes solitary filling your head with selected diversion, but by but it was primarily a shared experience, something allowing your mind to wander aimlessly through the that brought people together, gave them the comfort regular background noise of human and mechanical of knowing that others too understood the pleasure life.
of a Brahms symphony or that Beatles album. External stimulation can crowd out the
But music is as atomised now as living is. interior mind. Even the boredom that we flee has its And it’s secret. That bloke next to you on the bus uses. We are forced to find our own means to could be listening to heavy metal or a Gregorian overcome it. And so we enrich our life from within, chant. You’ll never know. And so, bit by bit, you’ll rather than from white wires. It’s hard to give up, never really know him. And by his white wires, he though, isn’t it.
is indicating he doesn’t really want to know you. Not so long ago I was on a trip and realised I
What do we get from this? The awareness of had left my iPod behind. Panic. But then something more music, more often. The chance to slip away else. I noticed the rhythms of others again, the for a while from everydayness, to give our lives its sound of the airplane, the opinions of the taxi driver, own soundtrack, to still the monotony of the the small social cues that had been obscured before. commute, to listen more closely and carefully to I noticed how others related to each other. And I felt music that can lift you up and keep you going. just a little bit connected again and a little more
We become masters of our own interests, aware.
more connected to people like us over the internet, Try it. There’s a world out there. And it has more instantly in touch with anything we want, a soundtrack all its own.
need or think we want and think we need. Ever tried
Explain what “Society without the social” means.
What does “External stimulation can crowd out the interior mind.”
+ of technology
- of technology