iPods and the “Real World”

There have been a number of stories in the past few weeks linking a rise in violent crime rates to increased popularity of small electronic devices like the iPod. The stories are based on a study by the Urban Institute, a non-partisan Washington think tank. The study found that violent crime rose in 2005 and 2006 after falling for the previous fourteen years and that the reason may be the popularity of the iPod.

When someone is using an iPod, he is fairly oblivious to his surroundings–in fact, that obliviousness is part of the point of using the iPod. It allows the user to exist in a world apart which in turn makes him a fairly easy target. An iPod is expensive and desirable which provides the motivation for the crime. And because the iPod is small and popular, once stolen, it doesn’t stand out which means that there is a high likelihood that the perpetrator will get away with the crime. When these three factors come together–a motivation for a crime against a suitably vulnerable victim and with a low likelihood of getting caught–crime is likely to occur.

We went to Boston for a few days earlier this week and I was surprised by the ubiquity of these portable music devices. Here in Plymouth, I’m mostly used to seeing students wearing them–and most students seem to own them. I own one myself but I tend to use it only when I’m exercising. So they are very common in every day life here but mostly just among the student population. In Boston, it was a different experience. People of all types were wearing them on the subway. In fact, there were several times when I saw business men dressed in power suits wearing what looked like very large earrings. When I looked more closely, however, the earrings were ear buds for their iPods. What is it about these devices that make them so popular, especially, it seems, in urban settings?

When I was in college, I spent a semester at the University of Edinburgh. To go from Hanover, NH to Edinburgh, Scotland is a culture shock in so many ways. For me, one of the most challenging aspects was getting used to living amidst so many people in a big city. In Hanover, I would hardly ever wear my Walkman but in Edinburgh, I wore it constantly. As I walked from where I lived to the campus, I listened to mix tapes, my own personal soundtrack. I used the technology to create a private mental space in a place where I lacked a sense of physical space. The technology helped to keep the “real world” at bay so that I could deal with it in my own time and my own way. That’s what I think is going on in today’s urban areas and probably even among my students here in Plymouth who have to share their physical space with roommates. The technology allows us to not pay attention to what’s happening around us. The technology is (in Baudrillard’s words) a deterrence, a distraction that keeps us focused on something other than what’s wrong with the world and with our lives.

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