Me, Myself and iPod

We’re kneedeep in magazine shipments today at Mbird HQ, so thought we’d whet appetites with […]

Mockingbird / 11.10.15

We’re kneedeep in magazine shipments today at Mbird HQ, so thought we’d whet appetites with another preview of the new issue. To order click here. This one comes to us from ur-Mockingbird Jady Koch:

“Jady, here, listen to this.”

I remember it like it was yesterday; I was sitting in the back row of a late 80s conversion van, complete with shag carpeting and an old-school TV up in the headrest above the driver’s seat. We were heading to Houston, to go to (the now defunct) Astro World as part of a sixth grade band trip, and as our chaperone was turning around in her passenger seat to explain the rules for the trip to the six of us crammed in the back, my friend sitting next to me put a pair of headphones on my head and my life changed forever.

Walkman1As I saw the movement of the chaperone’s mouth going over the various dos and don’ts we were to follow, I was getting my very first exposure to 2 Live Crew’s As Nasty as They Wanna Be album. Shocked by the vulgarity and profanity, I was nevertheless transfixed by the thrill of sitting in my own private and illicit world while my friend’s mother continued to talk, oblivious to the alternative soundtrack thundering in my head. Thus began my love affair with the interior world that I could create with a set of headphones, and from that day on, this availability became my transcendental “soundtrack of myself.” From that day forward, whether it was Rocky III (and IV) at the gym or audiobooks on the train, a private escape in public was just a push of a button away.

Now that I’m older, I realize that my experience had been predicted by many philosophers and scholars during the advent of personal music players, particularly with the success of the Sony Walkman. This was so much the case that a term that was coined—the “Walkman Effect”—by Shuehi Hosokawa (in 1984!) has become something of a catch-all term for the phenomena of personal, portable music in general.[1] This “effect,” argues Hosokawa, allows for the further atomization of people by creating private spheres within which they are insulated from outside noise, interaction, and distraction. In an interview with BBC entertainment correspondent Stephen Dowling in 2004, technology writer Liz Bailey explains:

The Walkman’s design utterly changed the way we view electronic media—without it we might never have had the minidisc or the MP3, much less the digital camera, the handheld personal organizer or the mobile phone. . . But what the Walkman really changed was the culture of music: you could now listen to what was effectively the soundtrack of your own life, starring you as yourself.[2]

The “Walkman Effect,” in all of its modern iterations—iPods, cell phones, virtual reality headsets, etc.—has almost completely obviated the need for anyone to ever ask again, “Would you mind turning that down?”

With only a cursory internet search for the term, one can see that there is a surprising amount of agreement among sociologists, urban planners, and behavioral theorists, not to mention audiophiles, hearing-aid manufacturers, and parents(!), that the increasingly atomized nature of society poses a problem for healthy relational development. Writing in the Daily Mail, on the 30th anniversary of the Walkman’s debut, A.N. Wilson writes:

Music used to bind us together, whether we liked classical music at concerts, or whether we enjoyed the sort of light pop played on the radio. It still does so to a much greater extent than anything else in our divided society. But the phenomenon of plugging in earbuds removes the social element from musical enjoyment. There is something bleak about this. Societies are happy when the greater number have mastered social skills, and this must depend upon people learning to appreciate one another.[3]

c5834683c5bb336d26706c3542356109The privatization of music has further isolated us from one another, she argues, and this is an agreed upon problem. Nevertheless, personal music devices and earbuds are an increasingly standard sight in the ears of people from all walks of life across the globe.

From a theological perspective, Christian theologians would characterize this move towards atomization as one further manifestation of how, without a message of interpersonal reconciliation and healing, people will naturally gravitate towards isolation. According to the biblical description of “what ails us,” when given the choice to interact or retreat, to engage or detach, to invest or withhold, our default is set on the latter—to our detriment.

In the biblical description of primal humanity, we see a set of interrelations between humans and God that exudes peace, contentment, and joy. God’s creative, authorial work is described in poetic grandeur: “And it was evening, and it was morning” intones the account, “and it was good,” while “the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.” It is the description of a world of peaceful relations—a world foreign to all who have ever read it. And yet it provides an instructive contrast to what we experience as reality. When Adam and Eve transgress, we see this world of intimate and reciprocal trust break down, immediately following the eating of the apple.

Picking up the account in Genesis 3 at this point, we read:

The Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.” Then the LORD God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” (Gen 3:9-13)

For the man and the woman, the voice of God has become a terrifying sound; their own relationship has become accusatory and insecure—they both look for somewhere else to put the blame. The rest of the Bible and the rest of recorded human history provide the evidence that supports the central argument of this account, namely that not all is not as it should be. As Will McDavid in Eden and Afterwardhis hauntingly beautiful theological reflection on Genesis—writes:

il_570xN.837967761_tgof-1Our entry into the story—the long, old story of fallen human beings and God’s presence with them—starts with the figure of Adam, who has one foot planted in an idyllic past and another raised up, hesitant, but inexorably stepping down into the confused drama of history.

Writing about the Walkman, Hosokawa writes:

The Walkman represents a parasitic and/or symbiotic self which has not become autonomous and mobile. Consequently we should analyze it not as a phenomenon in itself nor as one of the examples which represent the latest development in musical life, but as an effect (not in a causal sense) or effect-event in the pragmatic and semantic transformation of the urban. To think about it is to reflect on the urban itself: Walkman as urban strategy, as urban sonic/musical device.

In other words, the Walkman has transcended its value as an observable device precisely because of how it has transformed the entire sensory world. The discussion surrounding the “Walkman Effect” has moved beyond amazement at the technology and into the realm of urban development itself.

Although his concern in the article centers on the transformation of merely urban “soundscapes,” it is not difficult to see how, some thirty years later, this sonic revolution he portended has transformed the entire world; to think about the Walkman is to think about the world itself, because the device allows for the creation of an entire parallel universe where we are, quite literally, the conductors of our own soundtrack. In the urban setting to which Hosokawa refers, this means that we can shut out the sounds of the city, the traffic, the sirens; but for all of us, this freedom means that we can further perpetuate our desire for autonomy, for mastery of our own world irrespective of what counter voices (or sounds) might exist.

Of course, this shutting out can seem benign, insofar as our music choices do not physically pull us off the street we’re walking on. Nevertheless, the Bible says that when given the choice between a self-created world and a life in relation to others, out of self-preservation and fear we will always choose the former.

tumblr_m685a8e43e1rusbejo1_12801It is easier to believe, with The Animals blasting away in our ears, that “I’m just a soul whose intentions are good,” than it is to believe that something about us has gone amiss. When we make this choice—to exist as interiorized souls disconnected from the world—we affirm a world that is familiar to us, but foreign to the world God called “good” in Genesis. In that world, we are created not for interiority, but for relation. That relation constitutes us. We are creatures first and foremost, given to parents as sons and daughters. We are born in particular times and given bodies, abilities, histories, lives. These lives are never intended to exist in isolation; they were created as pre-existent parts of a system—a symphony that cannot be listened to or played alone.

As we can see from automatic milking machines to robot mailmen, Walkmen are just one aspect of technology being used to detach humans from the created world. But the Walkman is still in its own class. To be spared manual labor or dangerous work is a great freedom provided by technology; a Walkman, though, doesn’t just detach us from our world. It replaces that world with a world of our own. Don’t want to hear the sirens, the baby, the cries? Here, listen to this. The direction of the world, as attested to by the success not merely of the Walkman, but by all the ‘virtual’ lives of our own creation, is not towards isolation as traditionally understood, but towards autonomy. We like to have our friends and our worlds and our lives as we choose them, and now, with the right playlist, profile, and filter, we can.

This desire is not predicated upon the goodness of things, but on disorder. And this is the greatest cut. This desire for control (the Greeks called this auto-poesis, or self-creation) is understood theologically as “the law.” The Apostle Paul describes the law as like an unreachable end: “the very thing that promised me life, killed me” (Rm 7:10). This endeavor to have an autonomous life, removed from the unchosen cacophony of voices around us, promises life but brings death. This is because the place where we seek refuge is full of every voice but the one outside that we need. With our Walkmen, what we really want to do is drown out the infinite accusations rattling around in our own heads.

3d0b3fcd423a087f281a307746da01461Genesis 3 and 4 are marked as much by drama between God and humans as by drama between people themselves, and this is no accident, because just as there is no true life lived only in one’s head, neither is there a human life that is not intimately tied to the relationship between oneself and one’s God. God, or the question of God, is a big deal in everyone’s life, perhaps particularly for those who rail against him. These questions from God in these two chapters, therefore, are instructive in this reciprocal way.

The first, as we’ve already seen, is where God asks Adam and Eve, “Where are you?” and thus sends them into hiding on account of their fear, guilt, and shame. In Genesis 4 we see the further breakdown of the human family, that began with Adam and Eve turning on each other; now we see Cain murdering his brother in a jealous rage, thus provoking the question from God, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground” (Gen 4:10a). These two questions, so goes the account, are not merely for the specific actors in this drama, but represent the universal questions from God to the world that, on account of sin, are now heard as judgment, as condemnation, as law. The tragedy of all this is that we think that we can escape the voice of this condemnation by retreating deeper and deeper into worlds of our own creation. If we can finally get the soundtrack right, then we can stop the anxiety over what we have done, the fear over where we have been, and the confusion over whether this all means anything in the first place.

This is where the headphones have to be taken off and the world heard for what it is, namely, a place where “blood is crying out to me from the ground.” Nevertheless, this is not the only sound that exists outside of our own heads, because there was one who came from Nazareth whose voice has replaced the autonomous soundtrack in the heads and hearts of countless followers, who came preaching and calling people out of their own worlds and into the one for which he gave his life so that those walking alone could be free.

In Hosokawa’s final analysis, the Walkman Effect was particularly nefarious because of its secrecy. “What surprised people when they saw the Walkman for the first time in their cities,” he writes:

18r6wtl8a90q5jpgwas the evident fact that they could know whether the Walkman user was listening to something, but not what he was listening to. Something was there, but it did not appear: it was secret. Until the appearance of the Walkman, people had not witnessed a scene in which a passer-by ‘confessed’ that he had a secret in such a distinct and obvious way. They were, in fact, aware that the user was listening not only to something secret but also to the secret itself, a secret in the form of mobile sound: an open, public secret.

This “open, public secret” is as good a descriptor of the plight of humanity—both pre and post modern!—as I have found. The interiority of our lives, attractive because of the autonomy, nevertheless condemns us to a one-note symphony of the law, namely, that if only we can get things in just the right order, then we can finally make some beautiful music. The message of the Bible paints a darker picture of the human predicament, but also promises a brighter future, because the author of life and the conductor of our past, present, and future, has broken into our worlds, replaced our playlist with his, and says, Here, listen to this: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice, For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.’”

[1] Shuhei Hosokawa, “The Walkman Effect,” Popular Music, Vol. 4 (1984)

[2] Stephen Dowling, Liz Bailey, “The Music You Could Take Anywhere,” BBC News, 2004

[3] A.N. Wilson, “As the Walkman Returns after 30 Years, Why We’d All Be Happier if We’d Never Heard of the Gadget that Helped Break Britain,” Daily Mail, 2009

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2 responses to “Me, Myself and iPod”

  1. Mark says:

    At the end of a long week, I sat down for some quiet time to catch up on reading in The Mockingbird Journal. I grabbed my headphones and plugged in to a favorite internet station, something calm and Zen, to block out the sounds coming from dinner prep in the kitchen. Ironic, then, that the first thing I read was this article. Still, I kept the headphones on.

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