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 431.

    My headphones are noise reduction full ear headphones. These do not reduce the noise coming out of them, these reduce the noise of the general populace around me.

    I am glad that my headphones remove me from normal society, if you had ever spent the 2 hour journey home on the 11C bus in Birmingham, you'd be glad for overly loud headphones to drown out the peons.

  • rate this

    Comment number 430.

    @384 budgood, excellent comment. Apple are a prime example of this marketing vision. They advocate their products will increase your personal freedom, enhance individuality, give you more opportunity for self expression and autonomy, freeing you from the mudane. But only if you buy in (literally) to what they consider to be freedom and individuality on their terms, with the rest of the Isheep. ;)

  • rate this

    Comment number 429.

    Liam: the best cure for shyness is to talk to lots of people, and then you will find out that it's not so difficult as you think it is, unless of course they are plugged into a personal stero.

  • rate this

    Comment number 428.


  • rate this

    Comment number 427.

    See feral youths causing trouble on a bus whilst an Aussie is the only one to confront them and gets stabbed: Put on headphones and listen to music and pretend it's not going on whilst hoping those yobs dont start harassing you.

    Yup I think they have cut us off from sanity, though we allowed society to crumble before then.

  • rate this

    Comment number 426.

    I think the Sony Walkman got there several years before the ipod!

  • rate this

    Comment number 425.

    I think the quiet coach on the train is a good start. Hopefully, given time, things will progress to the point where there is one noisy coach. Here people will be allowed to damage their own health without anoying others.

  • rate this

    Comment number 424.

    People have rated me negative because I pointed out headphones were a haven to the shy? Seems harsh... Maybe I should have included I know the difference between when it's inappropriate to wear them and not ;)

  • rate this

    Comment number 423.

    People have always been in their own bubble when commuting, walking or training, the medium of escape is the thing that's changed. Before iPods it was newspapers and books, and more recently iPads, netbooks and Kindles. And I wouldn't view this apparent antisocial-ness as a bad thing. For many people the half hour commute every day is the only time they get to themselves all day.

  • rate this

    Comment number 422.

    TheTomTyke Yep, definitely a curmudgeon.

  • rate this

    Comment number 421.

    TheTomTyke What a strange person you are - you should be flattered that someone, upon seeing you, thought you intelligent and knowledgeable enough to give them directions; instead you're just a curmudgeon. Would you misdirect an ambulance, i wonder.

  • rate this

    Comment number 420.

    My bus journey home usually includes:
    1. single mother with screaming kids
    2. group of teenagers with 'music' coming out of thier mobile phone
    3. someone talking across the aisle of the bus to someone else (I don't understand why the don't sit together)
    4. someone having an argument on thier phone
    I can't ask them to shut up (I would only get abuse) so the only option is to block them out.

  • rate this

    Comment number 419.

    People complained when teenagers started playing their music through the tinny sounding speaker on their phones. Now people aren't happy they're using headphones. I always prefer to have my music on when I'm on the bus or train, and some times I do it because I'm in an anti-social mood, but it's usually quiet enough that if someone does talk to me, I can hear them and turn my music off.

  • rate this

    Comment number 418.

    I've seen people of all walks of life using headphones in public, personally, i carry them, and use them as and when the feeling takes me. I dont like hearing the speakerphone standard of music that sometimes i hear being broadcast in public, but i do enjoy pondering over what a particular person might be listening to as i cast an eye around those surrounding me. I read the situation then choose.

  • rate this

    Comment number 417.

    Everyone's using a mobile phone (whatever brand) to listen to music nowadays. Separate mp3 players are a thing of the past.

  • rate this

    Comment number 416.

    They are a very good way to stop people asking you for directions, which is a fantastic thing.I resent wholeheartedly the intrusion a car-user makes when he pulls up alongside you to ask for directions, as if your journey is somehow less important or urgent because you are on foot. Before I used to deliberately misdirect them, now I look at them directly in the eye, then continue walking.

  • rate this

    Comment number 415.

    I wish people would stop talking about Apple like they innovated and changed everything.

    They didn't.

  • rate this

    Comment number 414.

    I once saw a similar discussion to this where a woman left a comment "in my day we used to talk on trains and busses, or even played board games". After reading it I immediately resolved to go and by myself an iPod and some nice big headphones, so I would never have the misfortune of being stuck with such a person. It is not unsociable, I just couldn't care less about talking to you.

  • rate this

    Comment number 413.

    People are plugged in no matter where you turn your head. Finding solitude in a public space is a unique concept. Thanks, iPod for helping us do so. But at what point does the public realm become a field of private bubbles, impeding social interaction? It's already happening... Keep the iPods but remember: a human being is always of greater value than a piece of technology.

  • rate this

    Comment number 412.

    It makes me sad that there are so many people out there who don't want to talk to other people.


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