Shutting it all out

Last year I was asked to deliver a lecture to a group of students. As I began my talk, displaying my usual skills of eloquence and persuasiveness, I couldn’t help noticing that a young person in the front row was wearing those little white earphones we have come to see everywhere ever since Apple launched the iPod. Not only was he definitely focused on what must have been his music, his fingers were drumming along on the desk, and there were small but visible nods of his head to accompany the beat. And then I noticed that another student, further back, also had earphones, though in her case I couldn’t tell whether she was equally distracted by music.

I shrugged and got on with it. It’s life. But it’s not just in the classroom. If you walk down any major city street, you will see dozens of people who are more or less oblivious to their surroundings and who are somewhere else entirely, wherever their music is taking them. It’s a modern equivalent of the account by the 19th century German satirical poet, Wilhelm Busch, of an English traveller walking along while looking through a telescope. Busch has him saying:

‘Warum soll ich nicht beim Gehen – sprach er – in die Ferne sehen?
Schön ist es auch anderswo, und hier bin ich sowieso.’

[‘Why shouldn’t I, he said, look into the distance while walking?
It’s beautiful elsewhere too, and I’m here anyway’]

In fact, Busch’s ‘Mister Pief’ ends up falling into a swamp because he doesn’t see where he’s going. Today’s earphone addicts run similar risks, or worse ones. A recent report found that there has been a significant increase in deaths or serious injuries to pedestrians wearing earphones. Looking occasionally at the conduct of road users with their white earpieces, you can see why.

Personally I love the iPod and its successors, and I will often sit at home with earphones listening to music. But that’s where it should be done. The rest of the time, we should live where we are, and experience what’s there. Including my lectures.

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10 Comments on “Shutting it all out”

  1. Vincent Says:

    Why turn up at all if one intended to rock to the music. Of course they could be sitting in a lecturre for the relative peace provided.

    Just a Q. Can the thing-a-ma-jig do a couple of things. Play music through the headphone while picking up the sage like utterances from yourself and laying it down in it’s Gigs.
    And the Allegory of the Cave condensed into two lines, well done.

  2. It might be an idea to introduce the students in question to these ideas in class at such a moment – unless of course, you are certain that this particular and delayed medium is more effective for getting them across!

  3. Anna Notaro Says:

    The students in questions were obviously rude, or at least insensitive, they committed one of the worst sins of human communication, to make themselves unavailable (shutting ourselves out) for the communication to occur, however this is not a prerogative of the young, we all commit such sin occasionally and it is equally rude and insensitive.

    The example of the iPod solicits some reflections on the way that technology alters our perception of the world. Well before the iPod came along 11 years ago, the science fiction writer William Gibson described the Sony Walkman, its ancestor, as having done “more to change human perception than any virtual reality gadget. I can’t remember any technological experience that was quite so wonderful as being able to take music and move it through landscape and architecture.” The iPod, with its greater capacity, has altered perception even more profoundly; when the right song comes on, the world actually ‘feels’ different. Among media scholars opinions differ as to whether the main jag of using earphones is ‘escaping’ the real world or instead enhancing it…what is certain is that the music has become a “soundtrack” for the scenery. The sociologist Michael Bull, when studying the habits of fans of the Walkman, found that people liked to think of themselves “as imaginary movie stars” playing out scenes dictated by the music in their ears. Besides, the desire to listen to what we want while ‘on the move’ is nothing new, the beautiful illustration of the ‘Ur-Walkman’ (Fig.1)here shows one of the first attempts to achieve just that.

    Technology changes consciousness. For example, the invention of the railroad changed our perception of speed, as Ralph Waldo Emerson, once wrote, “What new thoughts are suggested by seeing a face of country quiet familiar in the rapid movement of the railroad car.” The impact that such changed perception has had on our culture is too obvious to stress.

    Moving to a medium the author of this blog is familiar with, photography, only confirms that our perception of the world is by no means a simple unmediated affair, technologies have always affected it in a penetrating manner. Already in 1901 Emile Zola famously stated: “In my view, you cannot claim to have really seen something until you have photographed it” and one of the first Kodak advertisements proclaimed: “No matter what your hobby may be, a Kodak will help you enjoy it the more,”
    The enjoyment deriving from the fact that unlike the lived experience, with early cameras as well as with the digital ones we are able to “highlight and curate” just the good stuff, to edit out what we don’t like of our real selves or the word we live in, it’s an incredibly seductive power. In the end cameras and all the other gadgets of digital reproductions we carry in our pockets today become ‘extensions of our minds’. Kodak might be defunct as a company but the culture (Kodakery) it created survives. (

    In fact we have all developed a version of what photographers call the ‘camera eye’, vision is like the viewfinder, always perceiving the world through the logic of the camera mechanism via framing, lighting, depth of field, focus, movement etc. to the point that the world becomes transformed into the status of the potential-photograph.
    So, to quote your prescriptive conclusion, that ‘we should live where we are, and experience what’s there’ well this has long been an impossible, futile task, besides it’s much more fun to do what we shouldn’t, sometimes.

  4. fmarmolejo Says:

    The surprising fact about the two students using their earphones while you were lecturing is that probably they were listening to their music, but also to your lecture at the same time.

  5. The white earphones do little to shield the person next to them from the music, plus there’s the drumming. At the same time the hardline approach of simply instantly throwing them out and demanding their ID card reminds me unfavourably of a particular individual who during his lectures at UL thought he was running a session at one of the grind schools he also was involved in.

    Were I the lecturer I would request that the two individuals come see me at the end of the lecture and ask them what benefit they were getting from being there and to at the very least (1) sit at the back next time, and (2) invest in DJ headphones.

    Some others might suggest a GTFO approach but with austerity all available body heat will soon be required to keep wintry lecture theatres comfortable.

  6. iainmacl Says:

    Poor souls just haven’t yet developed the ‘transferrable skill’ of looking attentive but actually being completely somewhere else in their own little world. Hopefully by the time they graduate, they’ll have acquired it and will be able to survive years of meetings without raising any suspicion at all….just like everyone else in the room, bar the speaker.

  7. kevin denny Says:

    It is incredibly rude and I would not tolerate it.

  8. Fred the dog Says:

    Mark hits the nail on the head: what is most intolerable is the effect on the other students. Personally I would have no issue with asking someone sitting next to me at a lecture to turn off the music. I’ve had to ask people to turn off the key tones on their mobiles so I won’t be distracted by their texting. But a lot of people these days, especially young people, are reluctant to confront people they don’t know. So the lecturer has a duty of care towards the people who’ve come along to listen. I would ask the student, politely, to switch off the ipod, explaining why. In the end, simply by pointing out the rudeness, you are contributing greatly to the student’s education anyway.

  9. jfryar Says:

    Some of this might be due to what I refer to as the ‘big-fish-to-little- fish-in-a-pond transition stage’ and is particularly common in first year students! They’ve spent five or six years at secondary school and have built up a reputation amongst teaching staff and their classroom peers. Suddenly they find themselves in a room with hundreds of other students and that ‘identity’ is now lost.

    Every year I watch as a sea of generic faces change within the first few weeks of term. Hair colour is the first to alter rapidly, with neon pinks and blues suddenly speckling the lecture hall. We see rapid changes in fashion – a few years ago it was tan and beige coloured chinos for male students, then multi-pocketed combats and t-shirts, then tracksuit bottoms and hooded tops. The current fashion for first year female students seems to be shorts (mostly denim) and black leggings.

    Within this constantly shifting social group, there is always a handful who seem intent on ‘defining’ themselves through behaviour that one might consider rude. It’s the too-cool-for-school image, usually by males. One might also call it the ‘Dylan Moran tortured soul’ image! This subset seems to have one raison d’etre – ‘look at me, attention, attention!!’. They’re generally quite bright and quite extrovert.

    These are the students who set up funny ringtones on their phones each week that, miraculously, go off right in the middle of a lecture to prompt the giggles from the class and the frantic looking around to see who it was. These are the students who wander in late to a lecture, sit near the front, and then rest their head on the desk as if asleep so everyone in the lecture hall can see and wonder ‘what did they get up to last night?’. They’re the ones who slide into desks, slouch in their chairs, and attempt to give off a ‘I’m above this all’ air as they stare off into space and sigh audibly. They want nothing more than for the lecturer to draw attention to their behaviour.

    I generally ignore them in the hope they’ll find an identity that isn’t quite so childish and annoying!

    • Anna Notaro Says:

      jfryar, you might reconsider the search for an identity as you describe it here as ‘childish and annoying’, identity search is a life long enterprise and such students with their colorful hair and silly ring tones are just doing what they are supposed to..I know it’s hard but we should all try and remember how it felt like to be that young..

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