Looking in on the iPod cocoon
It is now official. I am not young anymore. I guess I should have paid more attention to the signs, and perhaps it wouldn’t come as such a shock, but I didn’t and it does. My youth has expired, gone out of date like a carton of milk forgotten in the back of the fridge. When I reach for my youth to get a refreshing drink of it, the stench is unbearable. I play one game of pick-up basketball with the kids at school — these are college students and here I am calling them “kids” — and the next morning my legs feel like a mob guy tied me to a chair and beat my thighs all night with a laundry bag full of navel oranges until I finally admitted I was middle-aged.
“Middle-aged, at BEST!” the mob guy sneers, whacking me again. “SAY it!”
How can I refuse? The evidence is all around me. Aching muscles and sore joints, a craggy hairline eroded by the relentless tide of years, a pair of ears that do not reliably receive transmissions from the outside — half the voices I hear anymore are probably in my head, including the one that just told me I shouldn’t be admitting that in public. I’ve become embarrassingly sentimental about the past and shamelessly nostalgic to boot. The other day, I sat in my driveway and listened to “Dust in the Wind” by Kansas five times in a row, singing along each time, my entire consciousness suspended in air, swirling in a shaft of sunlight. “All we are is dust in the wind. Everything is dust in the wind.”
When I was 15, I thought that was as profound as anything Plato had to offer. Now that I’m“older,” I think it’s as profound as anything the Black Eyed Peas have to say. Then again, maybe everything isn’t dust in the wind. Maybe everything is fiber in the ground. Maybe it isn’t my aging body that has me feeling so old as much as it is the changing culture, and the associated changes brought about by the Internet. This is the age of Instant Everything — instant access, instant information, instant credit, instant stimulation. Everything is instant, and everything is constant. It is not that delayed gratification is no longer a virtue to which one should aspire. It is that the very concept itself is not one that anyone younger than 25 would understand. It is no longer a card on the table. Possibly if you’re Amish, but if you have a computer anywhere in your house, forget it.
Do you know how ridiculous I feel in waxing rhapsodic about the good old 1980s, when I looked forward for weeks to the release of a new album by a band I loved? I would take money out of my grocery budget to pay for it — because I lacked a credit card, you see, crazy isn’t it? — and would be at the record store the minute my last class ended, buy the album, rush back to my apartment, rip off the cellophane, remove it as carefully from the sleeve as if I were a surgeon removing someone’s gall bladder, and cue it up. I would then play both sides about four times in a row before phoning friends to compare impressions. The release of a new album by your favorite band was an EVENT, an experience not only tangible but elaborate, every step of it fraught with significance.
These days? All you have to do is use some file sharing software and download it — usually for free, and usually before it is even released in the stores — and then burn it to a blank CD you bought in bulk from Wal-Mart. Ho hum. No point in getting too excited about it. It is probably the tenth album you’ve downloaded this week.
Welcome to the iPod generation. The advance of technology has made it possible to put literally hundreds of songs on a device not much larger than a cigarette lighter. Attach headphones, and you’re all set. It is not unusual to see kids with headphones anywhere you go — the beach, restaurants, the mall, main street, even (or, alas, especially) on campus. Music isn’t a hobby anymore, or a pursuit. It is a soundtrack of their entire life, every moment of the day set to song.
And it doesn’t stop with the iPod, and not with music. The iPod is, after all, as much a symptom as a cause. The iPod is just one part of a giant technological cocoon that young people have wrapped themselves in, blocking out the rest of the world and achieving a breathtaking level of nearly perfect self-absorption. If they are not listening to the latest Black-Eyed Peas album on their iPods, they are talking to their roommates or boyfriends/girlfriends/best friends/new friends on their cell phones, narrating every step as if they were Neil Armstrong on the moon. “I am now pulling up to the drive thru. I believe I will have the large fries. Maybe a diet drink.”
Maybe a small step for Tiffani, but definitely a giant leap for mankind.
If they’re not providing commentary on every step, they are playing games on their Gameboys or laptops. Or they are checking their beepers. They are wired like marionettes, maneuvered around on their stages by Apple, or Verizon, or whoever. They don’t interact with us, and we can’t interact with them. The world outside the cocoon has no reality for them.
As someone once observed, sagely, “all we are is dust in the wind.” But now each particle wears a tiny set of headphones, and is blissfully unaware of any other particle. Enjoy your fries, Tiffani.