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 351.

    Leaky headphones seem to me to be a far worse problem than antisocial folks wanting to isolate themselves. It's exhausting to be on a long train journey and unable to escape those dreadful tinny beats for hours.

    Also see youths without disabilities hogging the disabled seats, with music turned up leaking from the headphones, no one dares disturb them, even of they really need the seat.

  • rate this

    Comment number 350.

    I travel a lot and my ipod makes the journeys bearable. I also have good headphones so there's no chance of people around me being annoyed by my music. That and a few books are essential for travelling. I don't hold with the perception of the ipod as antisocial. If I got into a shop the headphones come off. If someone talks to me they come off. People are, by nature, antisocial or not.

  • rate this

    Comment number 349.

    Quite frankly i don't care what people think of me when i wear my ear phones, I use the in ear ones so no sound comes out of them. What bugs me most of people that are very loud talking on their mobile fone's without considration of the others. If i want to be left alone so be it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 348.

    These ear-bug style audio devices have inflicted significant damage to many users hearing in the specific frequency range of electronics. The volume of automated phone systems and other electronic audio is now routinely set loud enough to accommodate these hearing damaged individuals. Using these systems now feels like someone is shoving an ice-pick into my ears.

  • rate this

    Comment number 347.

    i pod has not made us anti social but probably less social becoz ppl moving with i pod seems less inclined to start conversation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 346.

    I work as a postman and I find that wearing earphones stops customers from talking about the weather or asking 'what time do you start on a morning'. As such, I get home more quickly! I sometimes pretend I am on the 'phone to cut out any chit-chat too.

  • rate this

    Comment number 345.

    Argh. Before I even read the comments I could have predicted what they'd say - 'numpties with their i-pods..' Whingeing and more whingeing. Is Britain the most pedantic and unforgiving place on earth or what?! Who cares, they are HEADPHONES.

  • rate this

    Comment number 344.

    An absolutely essential device necessary to filter out the nonsense spoken by others on the train!

  • rate this

    Comment number 343.

    It's either listen to your favourite music or read books or news articles, or be forced to listen to the annoying or generally unpleasant people around you. That's not going to change, but if technology allows me to ignore it, then I have no problem with it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 342.

    As a school student, most days when I walk home alone I listen to my iPod. But I don't think it as particularly anti-social. I'm not shouting swear words, spitting, smoking or littering like other students in my area, and if I do see any neighbours/classmates I turn my iPod off to greet them & chat. When I cross a road I turn my iPod off as an extra safety precaution.

  • rate this

    Comment number 341.

    "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."

    Oh yes, it IS antisocial. At least it is when it's played loud enough to inflict the wearer's taste in music on everybody else. And on public transport, one loud, tizzing ipod brings out more in defence, exacerbating the problem.

  • rate this

    Comment number 340.

    I tend to listen to my iPod (for audiobooks, as well as music!) when travelling on a packed bus. This is because I don't want to talk to the borderline racist person to the left of me, or I'm trying to ignore the stench from the unwashed lady on the right. Alternatively, I'll bang my head against the window and make miaowing noises to get them to leave me alone. Your choice.

  • rate this

    Comment number 339.

    I catch public transport every day back and forth to school. I'm not saying that having ipod headphones in all the time is good, however, there have been numerous times where perverted old men have been completely innapropriate simply because i was sat at a seat alone. I'm not antisocial, i would just rather listen to music than to the weirdo's on the bus.

  • rate this

    Comment number 338.

    Living where I do, I just don't see many folk walking around like stooges with a couple of wires hanging out of their head. I believe they are called IPZs. Perhaps a rural life in a small community in a stunning location gives young, midlife and older folk much more than those on a daily crowded commute to a pressure cooker. IPZ ? - I Pod Zombie.

  • rate this

    Comment number 337.

    75. Me. 5 Hours ago. Wonderful, I seem to have annoyed the Haters! :)

  • rate this

    Comment number 336.

    I don't listen to music with headphones in public. But that's mostly because I'm almost incapable of listening to music without singing along.

  • rate this

    Comment number 335.

    Hello and thanks for the article!
    I would like to point out that first Sony walkman did have an orange button to activate a non-recording microphone. It was called 'hot line' (afai-can remember).
    It had as well two inputs for sharing the same device with another person.
    In fact a photo ad used to show two persons on rollers listening to the same device with one pair of earphones each.

  • rate this

    Comment number 334.

    Oh please... society was already headed this way before the iPod, at least in the cities. The denser the population grows, the more isolated we are. Even without the headphones, people do not converse much with those around them. This just gives an easy excuse to people who wouldn't want to talk anyway (especially women who don't want male attention in public, not that it discourages them all!)

  • rate this

    Comment number 333.

    I suspect the internet is far worse for making people unsocial(not anti social as we aren't harming others), in fact I suspect many, maybe even most of us write more online than we speak day to day. The only real question is whether in the absence of such devices would be speaking instead or simply remaining silent. Also, no I don't count talking online or facebook as socialising.

  • rate this

    Comment number 332.

    Of course it's anti-social, but it's worse than that. Look at any busy street these days and you'll see many people either plugged into some MP3 player or other or on a mobile phone. They get in the way of others because they don't realise they're causing an obstruction. They don't see what's happening around them or appreciating their surroundings.

    Don't get me started about volume levels!


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