The Tao of iPod

Speaker: Annie Welsbacher

Gadgets: The downfall of a free society, electric litter paving an inexorable path to our
culture’s moral, intellectual, spiritual, and inevitable destruction.

If you are an American living in the 21st century, you likely have fretted over this topic,
or some variation on it. You might even have done more than just fret: read stories
online, e-mailed, pod-casted, text messaged, twittered, Googled, or pontificated on your
cell phone about it—possibly while driving somewhere that you found with the help of
Mapquest.

Oh, you worry: Your kids can’t do their homework without at least two electronic
doodads playing simultaneously, friends who used to talk to you in person now mass-email
you slightly off-color jokes, God knows what sorts of cancerous rays are toasting
your brain cells every day.

This isn’t at the top of the list of any sensibly paranoid 21st-century American—far too
many other horrific dangers beckon to us daily, from human warfare to the poisonings of
our planet’s great life-giving gifts, to the snuffing out of our collective thinking skills that
the modern cults passing themselves off as “media” inflict upon us.

But it’s there, lurking below the surface, this vague worry that all these toys can’t
possibly be good for us. They’re diluting Art, reducing it to snappy tunes and pyrotechnic
tricks; they’re stealing away our reading time, replacing it with the popcorn of TV
commercials; they’re sucking us into the capitalist evils of American excess and damning
us to live out golden days that will be consumed with the work of disposing of all the
junk we accumulated, and that now corrodes in our basements.

But wait. It occurred to me—while jogging along the wildflower-strewn bed of what once
supported railroad tracks laid down for a form of transport nobody uses anymore—that I
have heard all this before.

I grew up in an academic 1970s household, and remember parties at which people stood
around imbibing white wine and martinis, rueing the ruination of our society’s culture. A
popular refrain of the day was: “Theatre is Life; Film is Art; Television is Furniture.”

I distinctly remember my father—who, if you press him on it, will acknowledge that he
has a PhD, but who in general has little tolerance for anything even mildly effluent of
pretention—saying to me that when somebody furrowed an eyebrow at him and uttered
that “television is furniture” bit, he liked to smile sweetly and reply, “oh, I’ll watch any
old crap”—except he didn’t use the word “crap.” He said this usually shut them up so he
could go back to watching Bullwinkle or Hee Haw or the WSU football game with a
clear head.

I like listening to my iPod when I jog. I set it on “shuffle” and it takes me places I didn’t
expect to go. Sometimes places I didn’t particularly want to go. I know that Corey
programmed those songs onto its soulless, metal-encased trappings of zeros and ones, so
the hapless little machine really isn’t some deranged Hal taking control of my brain. But I
swear sometimes that iPod has its moods. Out of a selection of more than one thousand
tunes, it will decide to play four Warren Zevon songs in a row. Or it will devise a peculiar
time-warp around the Beatles, wrapping something from Paul McCarthy’s Wings around
a song by John and Yoko and then closing the set with George Harrison singing about All
Those Years Ago.

How and why did it skip the group itself, the reason those soloists even had their own
songs? And isn’t it lovely that Ringo hasn’t changed a whit after all these years? And
why is that? Is it that, lacking the vapid beauty that thrust the other three into the
limelight, he was able to live a relatively more normal life and escape the murderous
consequences of the rocker lifestyle? Or did his mediocrity as a musician have something
to do with it? And what is the meaning of “mediocre” anyway—aren’t all measures of
success or beauty completely subjective?

Likewise, there are days when I really don’t want to hear Ani DeFranco spew invective at
society or former lovers; what I want is the good wholesome kick of a Kinks song, or the
quick wit of Bach, but there instead is Ani DeFranco, spitting away in some nonlinear
fashion completely at odds with my feet, and since I’m busy trying not to get hit by an
oncoming SUV, I can’t look for the forward button to skip over her. So what happens is,
her words disappear, and I notice, for the first time, that she’s done something canny
musically right there in that measure, slid in something I think might be hip-hop, forced
me to listen to something I have always despised.

Then I am thinking about the mathematics of music, and how I never would have
expected that dissonance to work the way it did, and then, suddenly, I am back at my own
front steps, my ode to my blood pressure and endorphin needs finished for the day.

In the past hour, I have pondered Art with a capital A, aging, failure, success, Beauty, and
death—topics it never would have occurred to me to think about, had I not stuck that
piece of cord in my ear.

I remember younger days when I ran along the Mississippi, headphone-free. I noted the
leaves decaying into the muddy banks of the river, saw sunlight dappled by half naked
branches of birch trees. I contemplated words I had memorized from wisdom traditions,
and even now when I recall them, they boomerang me back to particular bridges and
bends in the river that guided me back home. I treasure those memories, and I am glad I
had my holy moments one-on-one with the planet around me. But just as I love red and
green, company and solitude, classical and bluegrass, I am glad for the unpredictable
insights that I have found with both silence and my iPod.

Certainly, there are lessons to be taken from the past about the damning potential of
gadgets. In a NY Times article, Charles Morris wrote: “The 1870s saw possibly the
fastest sustained growth in American history … with the rapid spread of the railroads and
the telegraph, new department stores and mail-order catalogs pressured local producers
with mass-produced goods, a precursor to the Wal-Mart era. … The productivity shock
was comparable to that from the Internet in our own day.”

David Tierney notes about the same era, in another Times article: “As people abandoned
farms and small towns, they lost communal bonds; as personal incomes rose, public air
and water got dirtier…. Indoor plumbing and washing machines freed women of onerous
work, but there was less socializing at wells.”

A technology reporter for a medical Web site noted an array of health hazards littering
the short distance between you and your electronic toys. Working at night in front of a lit
monitor can screw up your internal clock; other potential hazards are repetitive stress
injuries, obesity, permanent hearing loss, accidents from use of gadgets while driving,
and even asthma, which might be triggered by some models of laser printers shooting out
invisible particles that can lodge deep in the lungs.

And, as very well demonstrated online at storyofstuff.com by Annie Leonard (everybody
should watch this disturbing, funny performance), the effect on our planet of the
American cycle of consumerism—a broader topic than what I address today—has been
and continues to be devastating.

But most of the negatives about technology and new inventions don’t live in isolation. As
Tierney notes, “Although new technology is often described as a Faustian bargain,
historically it has involved a trade-off not between materialism and spirituality but
between individual freedom and social virtue.” He says,

“Technology’s victims have become familiar images in the media: on-line addicts who
don’t know their next-door neighbors; workers displaced by machines…; frazzled
parents, especially working mothers, too busy to spend time with their children. We
contrast these pathetic figures with images of a happier past, … when people still had
time to read, contemplate the meaning of life, visit with their relatives and neighbors.

“But when exactly,” he continues “were those halcyon days?… Before the Industrial
Revolution, the average person … was short-lived, [and] illiterate…. Women’s lives were
consumed with domestic chores and continual pregnancies… … [even] after the
Industrial Revolution, … people still didn’t have much time to sit around discussing the
classics or communing with nature. In the middle of the 19th century, the typical man in
Britain worked more than 60 hours a week, with no annual vacation, from age 10 until he
died at about 50.

…“Contrary to popular stereotypes,” he continues, “ … the workweek has been
shortening, … [and] parents are spending as much time with their children as they did in
the 1960s. These children … are less likely to live with two parents, which may be partly
a consequence of technology that has made divorce and single parenthood less of an
economic burden: men and women …[today often]… can both support themselves,
relying on machines to make clothes, clean house, and do most food preparation. But new
technology is hardly the only cause of the traditional family’s decline, and in any case,
it’s hard to get too nostalgic for the days when women had no choice but to stay in the
kitchen.”

Technology’s potentials reach beyond domestic aid, significant as this is. In his book, The
Audacity of Hope, our president—whose status as president exists at least in part because
of the electronic devices of this century—describes a tour in its nascent days of the
Google offices.

“… a three-dimensional image of the earth rotated on a large flat-panel monitor. …‘These
lights represent all the searches … going on right now,’ an engineer said. ‘Each color is a
different language. … you can see traffic patterns of the entire Internet system.’ The
image was mesmerizing, more organic than mechanical, as if I were glimpsing early
stages of some accelerating evolutionary process, in which all … boundaries …—
nationality, race, religion, wealth—were rendered invisible and irrelevant, so that the
physicist in Cambridge, the bond trader in Tokyo, the student in a remote Indian village,
and the manager of a Mexico City department store were drawn into a single, constant,
thrumming conversation, time and space giving way to a world spun entirely out of
light.”

Obama’s account is a striking illustration, I think, of the hopeful possibilities of a world
sewn together in communication and industry, one example of the positive potential of
modern electronic gadgets. But he continues: “Then I noticed the broad swaths of
darkness as the globe spun on its axis—most of Africa, chunks of South Asia, even some
portions of the United States, where the thick cords of light dissolved into a few discrete
strands.”

Technological devices might offer all people a means to lift themselves up, but more
importantly, I think, devices can show us—more graphically than even good oratory
can—where our hard work remains in achieving true parity.

When you think about it, the alleged evils of “new contraptions”—or at least, our fears of
their dubious evils—began plaguing us long ago. Talkies were supposed to spell the end
of live theatre—but got their comeuppance, since today, the movie industry regularly
bemoans its own exaggerated demise in the face of home DVD players. Radio, that
heralded pastime of yor, ushered in the modern era of propaganda as a political tool.
Cameras killed portraiture—and today are major players in museums and the creation of
fine art.

Further back: Actors once thrived as traveling “journalists,” going from village to village
to deliver the news orally; when printed pages containing the news, the precursors to
tabloid newspapers—themselves now in danger of extinction—came into being, they put
a whole slew of actors out of business. Anybody notice a shortage of thespians today?

And further: Gutenburg’s press, besides putting all those monks out of business, also
made obsolete the concept of mneumonic devices, which might have weakened our
ability as a species to memorize. Probably more significantly, the Gutenburg press,
because it made possible mass printing, diluted the power of the Church by spreading
literacy beyond its high, narrow, isolated walls.

You can go even earlier if you want to. According to some historians, many Greeks
absolutely detested the construction of “that new mall”—also known as the Acropolis.
And the invention that has really gotten us into trouble over the years was that of fire.
David Tierney even suggests, in his article, that the human brain itself was perhaps our
earliest “new gadget”: “The original Information Revolution,” he says, “occurred during
the Pleistocene, a decentralized era if there ever was one, when hunter-gatherers on the
African savanna developed a powerful new computer: the human brain. [It] evolved to its
large size because its information-processing capacity enabled humans to band together
and increase their chances of survival.”

We tend to think of computer-like gadgets as the purvey of the young. There’s that joke
that centers around the idea of the computer so easy to use that a 10-year-old could
manage it, but the elder is stymied because he doesn’t have a 10-year-old in the house.
But in my life—and I’m guessing I’m not alone here—my parents discovered and
embraced many gadgets long before I did. CT scanners, for instance. MRI machines.
Chemotherapy IV monitors. Cunningly designed needles that inject anticoagulants so
easily that even a 53-year-old can do it.

For those of use circling ever closer to that generally shared human goal of getting old, I
offer a purely pragmatic reason to try to embrace the kids’ new gadgets: They’re here,
and they aren’t going anywhere soon. And the kids, at least some of them, seem to
understand how they can be used in positive ways. I was in an e-newsletter class recently,
and a (younger) classmate there challenged my tired old definition of a “nerd”—that
cliched, pasty-skinned adolescent boy chained to his computer monitor, capable of
speaking only through a screen or ear device, going days without human contact, much
less having any real social skills.

Apparently, as she patiently informed me, there actually are human chat groups, where
friends who’ve met online get together in person. They don’t talk about devices or their
favorite websites. They talk about life, love, Saturday’s plans—the stuff of eternity. And
they never would have met if they hadn’t shared some esoteric hyphenated abbreviated
acronymated passion like FaceBook or MySpace or Podcasts or Twitter.

What gadgets like iPods have to offer us, in the end, is—like so much else in the world
we inhabit—an entirely subjective matter, based not on what they are, but on who we are.
Whether jogging, running a family, experiencing the companionship and loss of loved
ones, or seeking your own spiritual path through life, the gadgets we create along the way
are neither evil destroyers nor enlightened saviors. In the final analysis, what matters isn’t
the tools you use, but how you as a person choose to embrace, ignore, interpret, or
flourish using them.

Notes
New York Times, September 28, 1997, John Tierney, “Technology Makes Us Better; Our
Oldest Computer, Upgraded.”
New York Times, June 2, 2006, Charles R. Morris, “Freakoutonomics.”
WebMD, March 10, 2008, Susan Kuchinskas, “7 Ways High-Tech Gadgets Could Be
Hurting You.”