Why conservatives hate MP3 players

Conservatives don’t like personal audio players. Seventeen years ago, Allan Bloom inveighed against the Walkman, arguing that clapping on the headphones was a selfish, narcissistic manoeuver, in which teenagers sealed themselves into a “nonstop … masturbational fantasy”. This year, in “The Age of Egocasting”, conservative writer Christine Rosen argued that iPods and MP3 players had accelerated this cultural erosion even further: iPod users had devolved into such navel-gazing twits that they don’t even notice where they’re going, and miss subway stops. Personal audio players, conservatives worry, are the ultimate statement that the individual is paramount; the world around us can go screw itself, because we’re not even paying attention.

As anyone who’s followed my ceaseless, numbing anti-iPod rants would know, I’m actually pretty sympathetic to this point of view. But in today’s New York Times, there’s a wonderful counterpoint in a profile of Andreas Pavel, the guy who invented the “stereobelt” — the device that Sony eventually released as the Walkman. (That’s his picture above.) During the article, Pavel tells this story:

Mr. Pavel still remembers when and where he was the first time he tested his invention and which piece of music he chose for his experiment.

It was February 1972, he was in Switzerland with his girlfriend, and the cassette they heard playing on their headphones was “Push Push,” a collaboration between the jazz flutist Herbie Mann and the blues-rock guitarist Duane Allman.

“I was in the woods in St. Moritz, in the mountains,” he recalled. “The snow was falling down. I pressed the button, and suddenly we were floating. It was an incredible feeling, to realize that I now had the means to multiply the aesthetic potential of any situation.”

That’s precisely right. The whole point behind the personal audioplayer is that it provides a new aesthetic dimension to an already-aesthetic experience: Looking at the world around you. Conservatives fret that the white-earbud-sporting masses are simply tuning out and ignoring everything around them. But just as often, I suspect, a soundtrack actually makes you more engaged with the world around you: You notice stuff in new ways because of the emotions the music evokes. Consider it a cognitive mashup: When I walk through Times Square listening to Bedrich Smetana’s “The Moldau” one day, and Corey Hart’s “Never Surrender” the next (yeah, shut up, I know), those are rather different aesthetic experiences.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Search This Site


I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

More of Me


Recent Comments

Collision Detection: A Blog by Clive Thompson