TCS Daily

In Defence of the White Wires

By Josie Appleton - October 21, 2005 12:00 AM

Commentators are lining up to blame the iPod for ruining UK city life. In the Spectator recently, Henrietta Bredin lamented the fact that we were 'hooking ourselves up to those little white earphones to fill our heads with a sound-stream of our own choice'. In the New Humanist, Caspar Melville argued that iPods are turning people into smug zombies who are indifferent to others. Articles by reformed iPod users tell how they saw the error of their little white earphones and now listen to the 'music of the city' instead.

Which city soundtrack is that? For most people, the daily traipse through soggy streets and Tubes is dull and demoralising. The music of the city includes such hits as 'We apologise for the delay...', 'Please do not leave baggage unattended' and 'The next station is...'. Commuters do not exchange pleasantries with strangers, or discuss the pressing affairs of the day. For the most part, they stare into space and wish they were elsewhere.


iPods don't cause alienation: they just make it a bit more bearable. Music can give meaning to a pointless trip, or even make a small action seem heroic. You're just stepping on the bus, but with the drums in your ears it seems a bit more important. Of course, Walkmans have been around since the 1980s, but you had to sit through tapes from beginning to end. With iPods, you can design a playlist to reflect how you want to feel: users often look serene, a slight smile playing on their lips. While the Tubes are conspiring against them, they can control the world in their head.


Those who run to music take this one step further. 'All my problems disappear. I feel like I'm in an advert', one friend told me. Indeed, it can be exhilarating: you are forging past obstacles, the crowds all a blur.


People who couldn't normally bear the grind of long-distance jogging find they can go for miles. City parks and embankments are packed with these iPod joggers, with 'clean' runners becoming increasingly rare.


Of course, all this is delusional. You're not really in an advert; your step on to a Tube isn't really a step for mankind. Music doesn't make your job any more satisfying, or your trip to work any more meaningful. As a result, iPod users sometimes manage the music rather as they would alcohol. They decide to stay sober on a particular journey, to hear the cars and chatter of conversations -- or they take the headphones off to go into a caf, or to have a conversation.


Yes, iPods can mean you miss things around you. Yes, they can turn people away from each other. But too often there's not that much to miss, and people are already turned away from each other. On a Friday or Saturday night, when everybody is out with friends and the streets are buzzing, there's barely an iPod to be seen. Even solitary strollers will be headphoneless, soaking up the nightlife. By Monday morning, around one in four will be wired up -- more, when it comes to younger office workers.


Rather than attack the white wires, how about trying to put some real music back into city daylife? More looking each other in the eye, more conversations with strangers, more humane streets and transport systems, better jobs to go to. Streets shouldn't wear us out: they should enliven us and put a spring in our step. People will take off their pods when there's something worth listening to.


The author is a writer with spiked.


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