Has the iPod made us anti-social?

Steve Jobs launches a range of iPods

It's 10 years since the iPod was unveiled, but has the MP3 player turned us all into headphone-wearing, anti-social people?

It sounds like a dystopian vision. Half of humankind wired up to a parallel universe that leaves them oblivious to their surroundings and fellow man.

Those used to travelling on public transport will recognise the scene - a carriage full of commuters sprouting white wires that plug into the ear with little white buds. In the car, children listen to their own music on headphones.

Once upon a time footballers travelling to away games would bond over a game of cards on the team bus. Now they step off the coach with headphones on, as if their journey has been a solitary exploration of a favourite playlist or movie. Many runners, cyclists and even swimmers train with headphones.

The personal stereo has been around for three decades. But the iPod - by far the biggest selling MP3 player - has taken it well beyond the limitations of its bulky earlier equivalents, like the Sony Walkman or Discman. Since Apple unveiled its first iPod in October 2001, promising "1,000 songs in your pocket", the company has sold more than 300 million of them.

Start Quote

It was like a dream... you are putting a soundtrack to life so that it becomes like a film”

End Quote Andreas Pavel Inventor of personal stereo

In 2005 the media greeted the revelation that President George W Bush owned an iPod with surprise. Now that the iPod's tentacles creep through society, such news would be greeted with a shrug.

By 2007 over half of Western city dwellers were using an iPod or MP3 player, says Prof Michael Bull, author of Sound Moves: iPod culture and urban experience.

It has gone beyond the anti-establishment youth market of the personal stereo to embrace everyone from children to grandparents. And research suggests that when people switch to an MP3 player, they listen to music for twice as long as before, Prof Bull says.

Leander Kahney, editor of Cultofmac.com, based in San Francisco, argues the iPod has enriched people's lives, allowing them to escape the daily grind. "It's been a great boon to people on the way to work. There's nothing like music to be a mood lifter. The iPod is a mood drug."

And despite attempts by competitors like Microsoft to launch their own versions, Apple's product has not had significant opposition, never slipping below 70% market share, Kahney notes.

Thierry Henry Here Thierry Henry has his headphones in the "you may talk to me" position

German-Brazilian inventor Andreas Pavel can be regarded as the spiritual father of headphone culture, having invented the first personal stereo in the 1970s. Pavel's initial aim was to free recorded music from the yoke of the household music system.

But when he first tried out his prototype - "this magic combination of sound source and headphones" - he experienced something transcendental. "It was like a dream. It is the pleasure of the music combined with the vision of your environment. You are putting a soundtrack to life so that it becomes like a film."

In those days he was laughed at for wanting to move around while listening to music on headphones, he recalls. And Sony's marketing department told him his prototype was too expensive and wouldn't find a market.

But they later went on to develop the Walkman. In 2003, after 23 years of legal negotiations with Sony's lawyers, the Japanese electronics firm agreed to settle out of court.

So ubiquitous is headphone culture today that it has become a sort of cultural shorthand - often for a spoilt, selfish generation who lack civic values.

The impact on our ears

By Andrew Goodwin, outreach adviser at Deafness Research UK

There's no doubt we're sitting on a hearing timebomb. The kind of noise damage that went out with the shutting down of heavy industry in the 1970s, is now coming back. A third of 16 to 34 year-olds listen to their MP3 player for an hour a day, while 14% listen for 28 hours a week. Many of them listen at maximum volume.

When we tested MP3 players we found most went up to 100 decibels, 10 decibels higher than a pneumatic drill. Some went as high as 120 decibels. We're going to have tens of thousands of people who'll need hearing aids in their 40s and 50s rather than their 60s and 70s.

Part of the problem is that people listen to their music on public transport where there's horrendous background noise. And the ear buds that Apple and other manufacturers provide are cheap, horrible things. If you wear headphones that go over your ears it blocks out the background noise and means you don't need to have the music so loud.

When British sailors were taken prisoner by the Iranians in 2007, Able Seaman Arthur Batchelor admitted he had "cried like a baby" after his iPod was confiscated by his captors. He was branded a national embarrassment by newspapers. In the same year, a Muslim juror was discharged from a murder trial after being caught listening to her iPod under the hijab.

But the most visceral concern is that the iPod is making people anti-social. It's not just the tinny noise that leaks out of the puny ear buds but the barrier the device erects between people. Telegraph columnist Bryony Gordon says young people have grown up to be "plugged in" to their iPod, rather than relating to their surroundings.

"I wouldn't stop someone wearing those white wires to ask for directions. It's like they're putting up a big closed sign," Gordon notes.

Prof Bull's interviews with iPod users confirm this perception. Many iPod users told him they resented people interrupting their listening to talk to them.

The iPod has thus created a minefield over how to behave. When entering a shop, should the user take off their headphones to talk to a sales assistant? Should they take one out? Or leave them both on and turn the volume down?

Debrett's etiquette adviser Liz Wyse says that both of them must come out. "It's very belittling to a shop assistant if you can't be bothered to take your headphones out. And the half on, half off, look is compromised - it's like you're going to put them back in any minute."

Woman wearing headphones in park Many people wear headphones in circumstances where they would not anyway want to be disturbed

But in a reflection of what a battlefield public space has become, she defends the iPod as a means of defence against a still worse public nuisance - the mobile phone. "An iPod is a brilliant thing on trains. Otherwise you're forced to listen to people's loud conversations on their mobile phones."

Psychologist Oliver James says the reluctance to take one's headphones out shows the "self-absorbed and atomised" state that people have got themselves into. "It's almost like madness. Will I come out of my bubble? How much of a compromise will I make to my external reality?"

But the fact is, it fits our modern desires, says Prof Bull. People have never talked much on trains - hence the famous commuters' trick of hiding behind their copy of the Daily Telegraph. The iPod is merely amplifying that trend.

"It can be lonely travelling through public space and using music warms it up," he says. The downside is that while the individual feels warmer - and has the perception of being safer despite not being able to hear an approaching assailant - the public realm becomes a less social, "chillier" space.

Man with MP3 in front of iPod billboard The MP3 player dominates the Western world

But the iPod hasn't caused this move from public to personal space, it is just reflecting the trend, Prof Bull argues. Nowadays people work out to their own playlists in the gym rather than hearing the same tunes. But that's not to say people are becoming anti-social.

"The actual presence of people next to you in the street is not recognised as social any more. We get our intimacy from nearby loved ones or people who are absent over chat sites and social media," he says.

Pavel says he never set out to isolate people from the outside world when he made that first rudimentary personal stereo. Indeed he recalls how his patent suggested a non-recording microphone so that users could hear the world around them during the music. And there were to be up to four outputs so that people could listen in groups.

In the end, it's a trade-off, Pavel believes. Sometimes we want privacy and escapism, other times interaction with our fellow man.

"It is somewhat isolating. But when I'm on the bus I don't necessarily want to talk to people. I want the aesthetic involvement of listening to music."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 331.

    As someone who is deaf (can't hear high frequencies), I can tell you that it is quite a challenge. Fortunately, I've lived with it all my life and have found ways to compensate. The generation that is growing up with constant music piped to their ears will discover this to their cost much later in life and will probably struggle to adapt in a timely manner.

  • rate this

    Comment number 330.

    I'm an MP4 user and very happy to be so. I use public transport and in the UK it's a grim experience at the best of times. My MP4 allows me to control who I talk to at least and keeps the riff-raff at arms length. Plus it's a lot more engaging than half overheard moronic conversations that most people laughingly describe as conversation. Isolated? Yes please!

  • rate this

    Comment number 329.


    MP3 works by throwing away a lot of the information in a CD.
    "CD works by giving you samples of information at set intervals.
    Vinyl is all of the information.

    The only system which equals the quality of vinyl is SACD or BluRay audio."

    Do you really think that BluRay does not reproduce audio in much the same way as CD? Or is BlueRay actually analogue, but no-one has ever noticed before?

  • rate this

    Comment number 328.

    Lets be honest, its not like people used to strike up conversations with complete strangers, unless the train or bus was delayed. All that happens is that instead of group of people standing there staring into space, you get a group of people staring into space while listening to their fav tunes or book. And to be honest, I would not be without mine.

  • rate this

    Comment number 327.

    Anybody who cycles while listening to an MP3 player is a complete and utter idiot.

    But headphones have been around a lot longer than the ipod. Years ago, I used a Sony Walkman and remember how irritating it was lugging tapes about which would soon get chewed up. You could tell how posh a walkman it was by the presence or absence of a rewind button. But cycle with one? Just plain stupid.

  • rate this

    Comment number 326.

    Never used an ipod/iphone as there are too many cheaper alternatives with better sound and i do not tend to fall for marketing or peer pressure or things that are white. But as for social impact it depends in the education of people. Anti social is a hard word.

  • rate this

    Comment number 325.

    At the risk of appearing pedantic (because I am!), I would just like to point out that using an Ipod or similar in public is NOT antisocial. It may be perceived as unsociable and probably is. Urinating in doorways and dropping litter is antisocial.

  • rate this

    Comment number 324.

    To everyone asserting that motorists are responsible for not running over "plugged in" pedestrians & cyclists I suggest you acquaint yourselves with:

    The Highway Code

    Whilst there are no specific rules about wearing headphones (probably because it dates from 2007) it makes abundantly clear that pedestrians and cyclists are responsible for their behaviour and actions on pavements and roads.

  • rate this

    Comment number 323.

    @317 - I don't think it should be legal to cycle while listening to music. Maybe it's boring, but there is no way you are as aware of what's around you.
    My biggest gripe about commuters listening to mp3s is how oblivious it makes them to everything else. Many times I have been crammed into one end of the carriage or stuck on the escalator because some numpty in their own world is blocking the way

  • rate this

    Comment number 322.

    The tube one of the most antisocial places to be. Close to human being but yet so far with most people minding their own businesses reading books, papers or thinking and frowning if you brush them mistakenly. At least with headphones I can close my eyes relate to the song and singers, audiobooks writers. Having a cheap earphone which allows sound out like the one supplied by apple is antisocial.

  • rate this

    Comment number 321.


    Interesting point, but that's not realistic, and won't be of much help to anyone actually hit by a car. I think even with all the money being generated by the music industry, its probably peanuts compared to the car industry.
    As I mentioned before "switch" had a section devoted to the issue recently, but there have been pages on-line re this issue going back several years.

  • rate this

    Comment number 320.

    People hardly sit there on the tube and chat to each other. They either sit there and read the newspaper or listen to an MP3 player. Just sitting on the tube can be quite boring. I do understand how you might think that listening to music can be anti-social but if you look at the situations that people do such a thing its when they are by themselves.You can't be anti-social if you are by yourself.

  • rate this

    Comment number 319.

    Anyway - you ought to know that the chip set in all iPods incorporates subliminal brain-washing messages alongside the music. Steve Jobs only has to say the magic words and you will all become part of his Rotten Apple Army.

  • rate this

    Comment number 318.

    Yes of course it's a big closed sign, that's entirely the point. With earphones in you have control over when you interact with people and when you don't. If everyone considered everyone else's privacy while going about then there wouldn't be so much need, but it's an effective way to tune out all the people who decide it's OK to hassle you. Which goes double if you work in an open plan office.

  • rate this

    Comment number 317.

    The cyclist issue isn't to do with the use of MP3's, it is more to do with some ignorant cyclists (with or without MP3's) believing that they do not have to obey road laws which riles other road users, myself included (I cycle to work every day when I can using my MP3 player). Bring back the cycling proficiency test to teach the rules of the road to cyclists, it was free to me as a child of 11 :)

  • rate this

    Comment number 316.

    If people are listening to their music they shouldn't have to worry about cars... drivers should always be aware of pedestrians... Id actually say that if a driver hits a pedestrian then regardless of his excuse the driver should always be found at fault. Even if pedestrian just walked into the road without looking the driver should have been aware and been more careful.

  • rate this

    Comment number 315.

    There is nothing more deafening than the silence that comes from a power outage. Its sends neighbours out of there homes asking "what was that".

  • rate this

    Comment number 314.

    I wouldn't say headphones have made me antisocial. I already loathed and hated being forced to interact with other human beings.

    I despise you all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 313.

    I wouldnt say that using an mp3 or an iPod makes you anti-social. I mean I'm a big fan of using my iPod especually when going home from university, (which is usually a good four hour train journey) and listening to my music makes that bearable. It also means I can be inspired on the go.

  • rate this

    Comment number 312.

    It is the poor-quality head-phones that are the most antisocial. They constantly ruin my commute!

    Why Apple can't provide a pair that don't shriek out tinny noise to everybody else around them, I don't know.

    That's half the reason I wear my own (noise-cancelling) headphones


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