Does the iPod destroy the social fabric?

Via Tym, I learnt that Andrew Sullivan wrote a recent column in the Times decrying the atomisation of society by iPod. Which may be true, but is hardly a revelation - Warren St. John in the New York Times already noted how some iPod users use it to shut out the world more than a year ago, and a few bloggers have said the same thing. Heck, even graffiti artists have grasped the iSolating effects. Not quite sure how the isolation effect is that different from what was achieved using Walkmen and Discmen previously, although perhaps the iPod seems even more ubiquitous than those products.

I suppose the dimension Sullivan adds to the thinking is that he sees the ubiquity of iPod usage as a metaphor for the echo chamber effect:
You get your news from your favourite blogs, the ones that won’t challenge your view of the world. You tune into a satellite radio service that also aims directly at a small market - for new age fanatics, liberal talk or Christian rock. Television is all cable. Culture is all subculture. Your cell phones can receive e-mail feeds of your favourite blogger’s latest thoughts - seconds after he has posted them - get sports scores for your team or stock quotes of your portfolio.
That's the dark side of mass customisation: increasingly, everything you can access feeds overtly into your confirmation bias. That's a big problem for news, although I can't really see why Sullivan is all in a tizzy over getting personalised sports scores or stock quotes. Weak way to end the paragraph, really - it's not like the sports scores people receive are tailored so that their teams always win. (That would be a possible sci-fi premise, I guess, to have a world in which everyone's team is a winner.)

One obvious offshoot of the thinking about the iPod cocoon is that the isolation may insulate you, for better or worse, from urban life - and perhaps it's notable that both the Sullivan and the St John article focus on iPod users in New York. People have been self-isolating for a long, long time by actual physical relocation, to the suburbs, where the car is one's cocoon. (Not quite possible in a city-state such as Singapore, of course.) But those that remained in the cities have generally been exposed, for better or worse, to the demands on your space and attention that urban life brings. Even if you live in a tony neighbourhood like the Upper East Side, you're still forced into interaction with others on an almost daily basis.

Which makes me think of an essay on cities that I read for my intro to urban planning class, on the erotic effect of urban life (I'll dig it up soon). If I recall correctly, the writer meant "erotics" not in the sense of sensuality, but in the sense that cities are the meeting - and collision - point of various diverse groups, and the exposure to people very different from you stimulates ideas in a way that interactions with like-minded people might not. Since I'm an urban economist by training, I'm also inclined, of course, to point to Richard Florida's work on the importance of diversity to economic growth. And being in touch with very different people also probably increases your number of weak ties, which, as Mark Granovetter points out in his work on the strength of weak ties, gives you access to very different sources of information - having many weak ties is a good way to get jobs, for instance, as Joi Ito notes.

But that brings us back to the original Sullivan argument that we should try to listen to the soundtrack of the world out there. If there are strong economic arguments for diversity and for interacting with the world, surely choosing to wall oneself off from the outside world too much would be shooting oneself in the foot. Or has the trendiness of the iPod made it too easy to be left alone (i.e. the social stigma of choosing to wall yourself out against the world doesn't exist when you've got those little white buds), even when that goes against communitarian goals?

Personally, I would guess that similar arguments were advanced when Sony introduced the Walkman. And just as the seemingly inexorable flow of people out of urban centres was halted, presumably people will find an equilibrium when it comes to choosing just how much to shut oneself off from the world out there.


Lance Mannion said…

The same things were said about the Walkman craze. I was there. (I was there for the Japanese surrender on the Missouri and the driving of the Golden Spike too.) I was in college in Boston. One day there were no Walkmen. The next day every damn yuppie had their ears stopped up with headphones. It went on for a few years, until the yuppies began having kids, and found they couldn't remember everything they needed for the diaper bag and the tapes for the Walkman.

I don't know why high school and college kids gave them up.

iPods might last longer because you don't have to remember to take the tapes. But whatever forces ripped the Walkmans off everybody by 1990 will get iPod. Then you'll see them where you still see Walkmans---mainly on people out exercising.

Andrew Sullivan is turning into an old maid. He's one of those people who can't stand to see young folks having fun.
Daryl said…
I agree about Sullivan being an old maid, although I'm not sure he's "turning into one" - he's always been somewhat curmudgeonly. "You dang kids!"
Anonymous said…
Thanks, thois blog helped me with a case study on iPod's where i had to examine their social impact.

Daryl said…
Wow, that's flattering Jamie... if you could send me a copy of the case study it'll be interesting to look at.
Anonymous said…

sign up and complete an offer (I reccommend using efax, it's easy, you can cancel right away, and they don't rip you off), then get five other people to do it, and you can get a free Ipod. Apparently, the companies that are doing this understand that a lot of people are stupid and either sign up without looking at something or forget to cancel subscriptions and therefore the companies make a LOT of money...but if you can beat them at it, then you get a free Ipod....a few of my friends have already done it!
Anonymous said…
Why pay money for an ipod? SERIOUSLY? it costs so much. Also those free ipod sites still cost money, plus they give you spam and if you dont have a credit card you cant try it at all!. Well I have a sollution, go to for a guide on how to get an ipod absolutely free over a matter of time! 13 years and up, US and Canadian residents only.

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