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.