Unheard Mentality: A Geek Without an iPod

Geek Culture

Image: Jonathan LiuImage: Jonathan Liu

Image: Jonathan Liu

I have a confession: I don’t own an iPod. Shocking, yes, I know, but please don’t downgrade me from GeekDad to GeezerDad just yet. I’ve got a story to tell.

Let me elaborate: I’m a full-time dad (my wife’s a family doc) and I’m in charge of our two daughters, and my lifestyle doesn’t really allow for an iPod. We currently live in a small town in western Kansas, and by small I mean it’s less than a mile across from edge to edge. I transport the kids in a Burley trailer hitched to my bike and even if the wind’s especially rough it only takes me five minutes to get anywhere. Occasionally we take longer drives to visit family in the eastern part of the state, or out to Denver (the nearest major airport) but the six-CD changer in the Honda Odyssey pretty much covers that with at most one reload. And since I’m generally with my kids, I can’t really have earbuds in because I need my Dad-Radar active.

I do have a Palm TX that I’ve been using for a while, and I have a bunch of MP3s loaded on it but there are podcasts of “This American Life” that have been waiting, unheard, for upwards of six months. I’m just not the sort of person who needs something playing at all times, and if I really want to listen to something I can fire up iTunes on my computer or pop in a CD. Other than the general gadget envy, I haven’t missed having an iPod.

Until recently.

I played piano for the high school vocal class last semester. Part of that responsibility involved driving a Suburban full of high-schoolers five hours to Wichita for the State Solo & Ensemble competition. I picked out some CDs that I thought would make for good driving music for me and that would be least offensive to the kids. But of course I needn’t have worried about that. For the first hour, in fact, it was eerily quiet: I listened to a CD, a couple kids watched a movie on a laptop, and the rest had iPods.

Eventually, I let them take turns DJing for us. One of them had an FM transmitter, and we passed it around to hear what everyone had on their playlists, blasting it through the Suburban’s speakers. At one point I scrolled through somebody’s iPod and was finally struck by how ridiculous it was to shlep around my little zipper case of CDs (maybe ten hours of music?) when each of these students could fit ten times that in their pockets. I’m only 33, but suddenly I felt so old.

But then something else struck me. Until I asked if they wanted to share their music, the high-schoolers were all in their own separate listening worlds. Sure, there were Walkmans and portable music devices when I was in high school, but they were hardly ubiquitous, and ten hours’ worth of cassettes doesn’t exactly fit in your jeans pocket. I grew up with music as a communal thing. You took turns picking the radio station, or found something that everyone could agree on. You found out what other people liked; you learned to compromise; maybe you were even introduced to something that you fell in love with.

All of that is now largely unnecessary. Who needs compromise, when I can put a DVD on for the kids while I listen to Neil Gaiman in the front seat of my minivan? Why listen to somebody else’s music when I can plug in my earbuds and access my entire library? As I write this, I’m flying over the Pacific, and everyone has their own screen. 33J is playing Tetris. 32G is checking out the flight path. 34E is enjoying a romantic comedy. Nobody has to put up with anyone else’s taste. We can all be blissfully unaware of what everyone else is hearing.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Is our iPod mentality the reason politics has become so polarized? Or why we can’t seem to delay gratification? Hey, I’m not asking you to give up your iPods, don’t worry. But next time you get ready to put on your headphones, take a minute to listen to your shared surroundings. Maybe there’s something worth hearing.

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