Using iPod to shut out the world


Suzy Spressert feels like she's in her own world when she puts in her distinctive white iPod earphones and listens to worship music. Blocking out the squealing buses and wailing sirens helps her focus, says Spressert, a 30-year-old Episcopal youth minister.

But she's also noticed something else about having an iPod. "I think it's really easy to avoid people," she says. When she walks by homeless people or a group taking environmental surveys, she is much less likely to be hit up for spare change or a signature. The earphones make her seem almost unapproachable.

We barely interact with strangers as it is these days, except for maybe giving tourists directions or offering a perfunctory "thanks" when someone holds a door open. Now that so many of us are listening to music out in public -- sometimes with a cell phone clamped to one ear -- or playing video games or just enjoying the silence beneath a pair of noise-blocking headphones, will we ever talk to each other again?

There's certainly much to be gained from the pleasure of walking around with our own personal soundtrack playing in our ears. Yet the more we're connected to entertainment or information, the less we're engaged with our immediate surroundings: the person sitting next to us, birds singing, cars honking, children shouting. We can transform a dull bus ride into a symphony at the touch of a button, but then get so wrapped up in it that we don't even register a familiar face 10 feet in front of us.

"The space around you becomes kind of invisible," says Michael Bull, a senior lecturer in media at the University of Sussex in Brighton, England, who has interviewed more than 1,000 iPod users around the globe. And the message people are sending when they put earphones in, he says, is: "I choose when I interact with people."

And it works. On a bus trip from New Hampshire to Boston, Wonnie Tai, 18, plugged herself into her iPod so no one would bother her. "No one's really going to try to talk to you if you have your headphones on," says Tai, a Boston University sophomore.

Avoiding certain types of communication with strangers can be a good thing, says Jonathan Bowman, assistant professor of communication at Boston College. "Using an iPod on the subway, if you're female, is going to stop the creepy guy from hitting on you," he says. On the other hand, avoiding an unpleasant situation rather than dealing with it doesn't help teach a person how to handle a similar experience in the future.

"My personal view," Bowman says, "is that an increasing reliance on portable technologies is likely to lower our general communicative abilities as a society. These technologies remove individuals from interacting in situations where they would normally hone their interpersonal skills."

Nick Mira, 25, takes his iPod when he goes out for a run, and he's often so focused on the music that he doesn't even notice if the weather changes. "You don't feel like it's raining so much because you can't hear the rain," he says.

Since getting his iPod last year, being out in public alone is "less boring," says Mira, an architect. Tai has noticed the same thing. When she doesn't have her iPod, she says, "time goes by slower."

A lot of people don't know what to do with themselves when they're out in public alone, Bull says, and like to have something, such as music or a cell phone conversation, to occupy their thoughts.

Of course, these things can be too much of a distraction. Jared Maeda, 26, was listening to music at the airport and missed the announcement that his flight was delayed. "You're not as aware of your surroundings," he says.

But you are more in control of your personal space, and for people with busy, overwhelming lives who live in crowded cities, that can be a relief. As a woman from New York told Bull: "I think I've come to the conclusion that overall I feel pretty out of control in my life. Stores play music to get me to buy more. Work tells me what to do and when. Traffic decides how quickly I get from here to there. Even being in public places forces me to endure other people and their habits: the guy slurping his soup, the brat crying for a piece of candy. I didn't realize how much I yearned for control and probably peace and quiet. Strange, since I'm blasting music in my ears."


Katie Johnston Chase writes for the Boston Globe.

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