I see an alarming number of people shambling around in public with their attention glued to some piece of personal electronics. Everywhere I go, I see people with cell phones pressed to the sides of their heads, or iPod earplugs stuffed up their ears. I have no problem with cell phones or iPods – don’t misunderstand. I have a cell phone, and fuck, if Dr. House has an iPod, they can’t be all bad, right? What bothers me is how dependent the users of these devices are on them. Don’t think so? Try this little experiment: next time a friend of yours gets a call on their cell phone while at your house in the middle of a conversation, hang the fucking thing up for them and ask for their keys so you can deposit it in their car for them. My bet is your friend flips out like Leo Bloom without his fucking blue blanket.
There are only ten people in my history class. When Mr. Gift lets us take a five or ten minute break in the middle of class, two or three of my classmates will stand up immediately and have their cell phone open and be pushing buttons before they’ve even had time to reach the hallway. The girl who sits across the aisle from me will invariably flip open her phone and sit there playing with it in total silence for the duration of the break. The same phenomenon afflicts my sociology class, and in that class there’s also a guy who walks in every day with iPod wires dangling from his ears. Last week, Professor Sheffield dismissed us for a fifteen minute break and the dude shoved those earphones in so fast that when she asked him a question mere seconds later, he didn’t hear a word she said. People bitch all the time about how video games or reality TV or popular music are contributing to the demise of modern culture – and hey, no argument here. But this trend of unremitting cell phone and iPod use strikes me as even more dangerous, and the reasons why are numerous.
Carrying on a cell phone conversation in front of other people is rude (practice this useful phrase at home: “I’ll call you the fuck back later”). Forgetting to turn off your phone in a movie theater is obnoxious. A shopping mall full of people watching the little LCD screen in their hand instead of where the fuck they’re walking indicates a much more critical problem. People with even a small amount of disposable income now have the option to be entertained every waking second of their day. Nothing is bad about this, in moderation. On my cell phone, I have downloaded a trivia game. I play it in the truck after I drop my Granny off at the grocery store, while I’m waiting for her to come out. When Granny comes out with the groceries, I put down the goddamn phone. Lots of people have apparently made the opposite decision, and spend time at home, at work, and out in public, interacting with their personal electronic device rather than with their environment. Why don’t I go into the grocery store with my Granny, you ask? Well – and not that it’s any of your fucking business – I used to; I only slowed her down.
There’s another issue here that deals exclusively with digital music players like the iPod, and that is the issue of how much control an artist has over how his or her work is presented. Sure, on a DVD of a movie you can always jump to your favorite scene, and with an album on CD you can skip over the shitty tracks you don’t like on an otherwise kickass record (“Dancing in the Dark,” anyone?), but you’ve always got the complete work right there, as the artist intended. Now, with iPod-style music players, users can download individual songs, add them to a potentially massive digital library, and listen to them at any time, in any order, totally without the context of the original album. It’s an entirely different animal from ripping tracks from your CDs and burning your own mixes – most iPod users download single songs without even once hearing the rest of the album. This bodes ill for two reasons: one, it sucks for the musician, who used to have 40 minutes to an hour to present a deliberately chosen selection of songs in a meaningful order, and now has maybe five minutes to work with; two, it joins seemingly everything else in modern media in contributing to the shortening of attention spans. I read an article online recently that stated the average adult’s attention span is about twenty minutes. Compared to the average American child or teenager, I’d call that a pretty generous estimate. Wait ‘til these little fuckers grow up – it’ll be twenty seconds.
You all see where this is going. In 2012, a massive asteroid will be only minutes away from smashing into the earth. We will not see it coming, because by that time everyone will be so enthralled by their iPods and cell phones that no one will look up. “Look at what? The sky? I just downloaded Super Mario 3 on my Razr. What’s up there – clouds? Big fucking deal.” The asteroid will smash into our planet, ending human civilization as we know it forever. It will be just like Armageddon, only actions will have consequences, and the soundtrack will consist of the constant, unbearable, inescapable howling of the damned, instead of Aerosmith. So, okay, the soundtrack will be better, but everything else will be much, much worse – everyone gets that, right?