The iPod and the End of Civility

Is There a Place for Silence?

by Robert Velarde (Posted: 3/1/04)


[Please Note: As with all Bully Pulpit articles, the views expressed in this opinion piece are completely those of the author, and are not necessarily representative of CMUG.]

It may not be an overstatement to say that Apple's fabulously successful MP3 music player, the iPod, has revolutionized the way people listen to music. Since its release just a few years ago, the iPod has captured a good chunk of the MP3 player market in the United States, as well as the hearts (or, more appropriately, the ears) of consumers. The recently released iPod mini has continued the trend of blending style and simplicity into a highly portable music-playing device.

For those uninitiated into the ways of the iPod, basically it is a device about the size of a deck of cards (the mini is even smaller) which is capable of storing anywhere from 1,000 to 10,000 songs; or, as is boasted on the Apple web site, "four weeks of music—played continuously, 24/7—or one new song a day for the next 27 years." At the time of this writing, the cost of an iPod ranges from $249 to $499 USD.

A recent Billboard article (February 28, 2004) observes, "shipments of MP3 players totaled 3.8 million units in 2003, which is a 121% increase over 2002." The article goes on to state that at least one organization that tracks such statistics "predicts shipments of more than 5.1 million units in 2004." Apple Computer, which currently has only around 3 percent of the personal computer market share in the U.S., is said to have about 30 percent of the MP3 player market. Not bad for a company that has been pronounced dead multiple times over the years.

While I'm happy for Apple's success with the iPod, I have to wonder what kind of impact MP3 players and other forms of electronic entertainment are having on popular culture. More specifically, are there philosophical implications? Has the proliferation and infiltration of electronic devices spelled the end of civility? Furthermore, is there a place for silence in a culture accustomed to diversion?

Writing in the 17th century, the French scientist and philosopher Blaise Pascal observed: "I have often said that the sole cause of man's unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room." (Pensées [thoughts], trans. Krailsheimer, fragment 136) Is there something wrong with times of silence? Why, then, do we surround ourselves with diversions of all kinds? Is it, as Pascal argues, because we are afraid to confront the weightier matters of our existence? Do we, as he says, "run heedlessly into the abyss after putting something in front of us to stop seeing it"? (ibid., fragment 166)

On the matter of why we seek diversion, Pascal writes, "Being unable to cure death, wretchedness, and ignorance, men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things." (ibid., fragment 133) He continues, "The only good thing for men therefore is to be diverted from thinking of what they are, either by some occupation which takes their mind off it, or by some novel and agreeable passion which keeps them busy, like gambling, hunting, some absorbing show, in short by what is called diversion." (ibid., fragment 136)

Just think for a moment of the kinds of diversions and devices one might come across throughout an average day in a metropolitan area. There are cell phones, personal digital assistants (PDAs), pocket pagers, televisions, radios, computers, and, yes, music players such as the iPod. When we enter a store, more likely than not, we will hear music piped in. If we decide to go out to eat at a restaurant, we might be hard pressed to find a place to sit where we cannot help but see a television displaying the latest in popular culture. In some department or electronics superstores, children can stand in front of televisions and sample the latest video games. Even when pumping gas we might hear music or see an advertisement scroll by as we make our selection. My children go to a salon tailored for children where they can play video games or watch a video while getting their haircuts. In short, we are surrounded by devices of distraction.

Of course, these devices are not bad in and of themselves. Many, such as the cell phone, have actually helped save lives. Other times, they are perhaps more of an unnecessary luxury. Have these kinds of devices spelled the end of civility? They are in many cases simply neutral tools, until they are used in a manner that approaches the surreal.

Once, while I was in a public restroom, a gentleman entered and appeared to be talking to himself. He was actually wearing earbuds and was engrossed in a telephone conversation. He, uh, went about his business and left. Strange.

At other times I have been in waiting rooms (hospital, auto repair, etc.) where several people were completely immersed in either listening to music, using a PDA, fiddling with their cell phones or watching television. Few, if any, talked to one another beyond simply saying hello. I have also noticed this while shopping. Has technology so infiltrated our culture that human civility has significantly waned?

Other devices, such as television, can quickly convey important information in a manner that is sometimes difficult to do in print or on radio. When the terrorist attacks of 9/11 took place, for example, millions turned to television for the news (though a case can certainly be made for voyeurism by prolonged exposure to such shocking images). The television, of course (as the late Neil Postman aptly demonstrated in books like Amusing Ourselves to Death) can also be a mind-numbing tool of pointless distraction.

I am certainly not against technology. After all, I am writing this article on a laptop computer, while connected to the internet. In addition, as a classically trained musician, I can certainly appreciate music. I own a 5GB iPod which holds around 1,000 songs ranging from Classical to Rock to Jazz and more. Moreover, I started playing video games in the early 70s and have owned a personal computer since 1980. However, my study of Pascal's philosophy of diversion has led me to ponder these matters further. As a father of three, I'm also making a conscious effort to help my children focus on much more than just electronic entertainment. As a Christian, I am seeking to understand my place in popular culture, as well as making an effort to use my time wisely.

If, as Pascal argues, diversion is a way of leading people astray by getting their attention off weightier matters; and if, as Christians believe, individuals will spend their eternal destiny in one of two places, then, should we not be more concerned about such matters of eternity? Pascal wrote, "Between us and heaven or hell there is only life half-way, the most fragile thing in the world." (Pensées, trans. Krailsheimer, fragment 152) Every person we meet is suspended between these two eternities. In The Weight of Glory, C.S. Lewis noted, "There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal ... it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendours."

The iPod can be a great tool for enjoying equally great music. Creative musical expression is part of our nature and a reflection of the fragments of the image of God that remain ingrained, to a certain extent, in each of us. Unfortunately, we are also fallen beings, capable of, as Pascal would say, wretchedness. Let us not be so overcome by technological (and other) diversions, that we fail to ponder the greater metaphysical questions of reality or ignore those who, as Pascal observed, are running "heedlessly into the abyss."

Moreover, let us make room for silence and civility in our lives. The next time you get in your car, the radio does not have to be on. The next time you enter your living room, the television does not have to be on. The next time you are waiting in line, consider if you really need to make a call on your cell phone. Times of silence can be refreshing, while times of civility reflect the ethics of Christ and a character of caring.

Robert Velarde, co-author of Examining Alternative Medicine (InterVarsity Press), is a writer and editor. He is pursuing graduate studies in philosophy of religion at Denver Seminary, and is the author of a forthcoming feature article on Blaise Pascal's anthropological argument (Christian Research Journal, 2004). He is also author of an article on Pascal's Philosophy of Diversion.

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History or Gospel? Can the Biblical accounts of Jesus' passion be trusted?
Who Killed the Christ? Who is ultimately responsible for the death of Jesus?
The Passion Implies Exclusivity: The sufferings of Christ make it unthinkable that there could be any other way to God.

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