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iPods: ruin of civilization?

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Before I get started, let me confess that I am a ‘Pod-person. I have two of them, in fact. And I listen to them everyday, except in the now-routine occurence of losing them for a few days at a time.

In fact I think that the ending of cultural literacy began with player pianos. Before they existed, if you wanted to hear music, you had to either learn how to play an instrument or wait for a concert to come along. This put a great value in music, since it was either difficult or rare. And so people had fewer tunes buzzing around in their heads, and each one they knew pretty thoroughly and savored.

But with player pianos, and then radio, records, CDs, etc., music got cheaper and cheaper and much more easily available. Now, in fact, it is hard to go anywhere without some sort of music playing — “backgound music,” which is a phrase to resent.

With this automation comes a loss of cultural literacy, I think. Sure, any of these devices can be used to augment one’s own cultural literacy — I try to tell myself that’s what I’m doing — but usually that’s not the purpose. It’s just to create a soundtrack to whatever else we’re doing.

What do you think?



  1. Mike says:

    ‘pop’ music has a big downside especially because that seems like what we’re forced to listen to in restaurants and grocery stores. The ability to listen to good music at any time or place, on the other hand, improves quality of life quite a bit. Even as ‘background music’. Maybe we don’t value music in the same way as we would pre-recording devices but there’s the upside of music’s ability to improve mental state. We’ve just traded a bit of intrinsic value for instrumental value.


  2. Kleiner says:

    Disclaimer: I also own an iPod. But I don’t use it all that often. Sometimes in the car through my radio. Mostly I listen while spinning on a bicycle trainer in my basement, a few times a week in the winter or while skiing alone (I know that Phil Mahre’s younger and less famous brother was killed by a snowcat listening to a walkman in the 80s, but my helmet’s ear-muff-phones allow in the ambient sounds).

    I wonder if it really does add to our “quality of life” to be able to listen to music (good or bad) at anytime or place. Pascal’s brilliant and scathing critique of our desperate need for diversion comes to mind:
    Pensee 622: “Man finds nothing so intolerable as to be in a state of complete rest, without passions, without occupation, without diversion, without effort. Then he faces his nullity, loneliness, inadequacy, dependence, helplessness, emptiness. And at once there wells up from the depths of his soul boredom, gloom, depression, chagrin, resentment, despair.”
    Pensee 70: “If our condition were truly happy we should not need to divert ourselves from thinking about it.”
    And in perhaps the most offensive, true, and startling line of the Pensees (from 136)
    “I have often said that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.”

    And of course we don’t know how. That is why the iPod has been so successful – it makes it so we never have to sit quietly in our room! If we tried we would face the ultimate horror of modern life: boredom.
    It is noteworthy that there was no such word as “boredom” in any pre-modern language. Why not? We humans always come up with words to describe our situation, feelings, and condition (even words that we can use when no other word will do, like “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” ). So we can infer that no one was bored until the modern age. Why not? Is it just that they had to work harder? I don’t think so, and neither does Pascal. The ancients were not “lost in the cosmos” – but modern man “does not know the place he should occupy” (400). And what is the cure of this distinctly modern ailment? Pascal argues that no diversion, no iPod, iPhone, computer, or technology in the world will cure the fundamental problem.


  3. Kleiner says:

    One more note, not in any way philosophical.
    A good friend is a professor of speech pathology (she works, specifically, with those with hearing issues). She is convinced that the iPod generation (say, those 25 and under?) will have an epidemic of hearing loss later in life. Invest in those hearing aid companies!
    She says that at volumes that are typical for iPod listeners, one should listen for only 15 minutes or so.


  4. Kleiner says:

    I think we could extend Huenemann’s point about the iPod’s effect on cultural literacy to other technologies. As with the iPod, people are quick to tout the potential of various technologies in increasing cultural literacy, knowledge of all sorts, communication, etc. We tell ourselves that these things are enriching us. Are they?
    While I am hardly a Luddite, I am pretty skeptical of the promise of some new technologies. And I feel pained by how much these technologies have become incorprated into my daily life. The internet comes to mind. Students tell me that it is such a great research tool, that there is so much information there, that it really helps them with their courses, and that I should get on board by podcasting my lectures, making fancy power points and putting them online, etc etc.
    But does anyone else notice that no one really reads anymore? I mean books, not blogs. And while we certainly communicate more often with email and blogs, is the communication better? Does anyone else notice that the art of conversation is almost dead?
    I must admit that I find it simply amazing that there was no email when I was in college. We are so dependent on it these days. Now, I am too young to sound too curmudgeonly, but things weren’t so bad back in those “dark ages” before the internet and cell phones. Amazingly enough, we still managed to communicate with each other. Even learned a few things with those old primitive “technologies” like books. And instead of FaceBook we had face to face conversations during office hours or over pints.
    I’m told by the techies over at FACT (the people who help faculty with technology) that if I get too seduced by this nostalgia, I will be left behind. I’ll find myself in 10, 20 years, so totally out of touch with the iGenerations that I will be irrelevant. But I must admit that a big part of me wants to push back – not give an email to students but just have office hours. I am afraid there would be a mutiny.


  5. Kleiner says:

    The question concerning technology – you can probably tell from my obsession with the gas vs charcoal grill debate that this is a central area of concern for me. I am following Heidegger in this regard.
    While Heidegger insists that “the essence of technology is in no way technological”, he still seems to think (as do I) that certain particular technologies have an essential tendency to fall into “technological thinking” – an “enframing” and “challenging-forth” that makes “unreasonable demands” for “mastery” (see Heidegger’s Question Concerning Technology).

    Anyway, the question of the iPod made me think of a passage where Heidegger speaks on language and technology. Though this may seem odd, in his lecture on Parmenides Heidegger discusses the typewriter:

    “Writing, from its originating essence, is hand-writing. … In handwriting the relation of Being to man, namely the word, in inscribed in beings themselves. … Therefore when writing was withdrawn from the origin of its essence, i.e., from the hand, and was transferred to the machine, a transformation occurred in the relation of Being to man. … In the typewriter we find the irruption of the mechanism in the realm of the word. … The typewriter veils the essence of writing and of the script. It withdraws from man the essential rank of the hand …”

    You may know that Heidegger hand-wrote all of his texts (I’ve heard he had his brother Fritz type them up). But, we might ask, a pen is a technology, so where do you draw the line? Heidegger never gives an account for this (why the typewriter conceals more than the pen, why the mechanized plow conceals more than the oxen-plow, …). Technological thinking makes “unreasonable demands” – so if certain technologies always invite technological thinking, perhaps that is the (albeit vague) criteria. Anyway, he thinks there is a difference – even if he cannot articulate why. And, frankly, so do I. Cross country skis are a technology that I do not think conceals nature. But I am utterly convinced that snowmobiles do.
    Anyway, a few questions – some that walk with Heidegger and some that walk away from him – come to mind:
    1) At what point does technology ‘get in the way’? At what point does technology lead to greater forgetfulness? At what point does a technology do more to conceal (lethe) rather than reveal (alethia)?
    2) At what point does nostalgia become a kind of shallow romanticism – an inauthenticity that pines for an over-idealized past that paralyzes one from present realities?


  6. Huenemann says:

    I like the questions you/Hd raise. (And “a pen is a technology, so where do you draw the line?” is a keeper.) Let me try this: technology gets in the way when the technology becomes more than a mere tool, and becomes a big part of the goal/end. So we would like to think of email as a means of communication, a computer as a means of writing papers (etc.), an iPod as a means to enjoy and explore music. So far as that’s what’s really going on, fine.

    But sometimes the tool becomes the thing. We write emails (and blogs) because we want to be messing on the computer, and that gives us an excuse. We listen to the iPod not for the sake of music, but because it’s an exceedingly nifty gadget. To put it dramatically, we become enslaved to the devices we constructed to serve us.

    I think this enslavement can be overcome, but it takes a heckuva lot of discipline, along with experimenting with oneself in order to try to determine why you really are engaging in some activity. Here is a link to an interesting NYT article about how much unconscious motivations get us to do all sorts of stuff.


  7. Kleiner says:

    I think it is a bit more insidious than what Huenemann suggests with the tool/end distinction.
    One of the key concepts from Heidegger’s Question Concerning Technology is the “standing reserve”. When we order the world as ‘standing-reserve’ we order it in a way that it is disclosed simply in terms of its availability for current or future human use (the wind is disclosed simply as a potential source of power, the river as a source of irrigation, …). In such cases, we still might use technologies as tools (rather than as ends themselves), but we do so to a point of arrogant superfluity. No farmer plows as an end in itself – but Heidegger thinks the modern combine forces the world into standing reserve in a way oxen plows do not. The difference is that technological thinking masters the world in such a way that we view the world as undifferentiated “standing reserve” – where things lose their natural identity and our natural relation to them becomes disordered and unbalanced. This corresponds to our making “unreasonable demands”.

    The “essence” of Homer’s Odyssey is covered over when a student looks up a summary on instead of reading the text. The “natural identity” of the mountain is covered over when we storm up it on ATVs. Even if the ATV is seen as a tool, it still covers over more than it reveals.
    Here is a small example of an “unreasonable demand” – and the way in which our standing reserve conceals things from us: We want garden fresh asparagus in December. And when I used this example in my Contemporary European Philosophy class last year and asked them when asparagus’s season is – no one knew. Anymore, vegetables don’t have “seasons” since we have an agri-business econonomic complex that holds all these plants in constant standing reserve. And is this lethe or aletheia?

    The iPod and internet are perfect examples of ordering the world as standing reserve, of challenging-forth the world with unreasonable demands. I want 10,000 songs available “on demand” at any time and any place for my enjoyment. Does the nature of music as disclosive art really work that way? And I want all of human knowledge accessible within a few keystrokes via the internet. Not that I need it, but I want it in standing reserve. Is that human wisdom?
    Aren’t these unreasonable demands? Is the world at your beck and call? Instead of the language of mastery, Heidegger prefers the language of “shepherding” – and as much as we “shepherd Being”, Being also shepherds us and “holds us in its sway.”


  8. Mike says:

    Shockingly enough I don’t have or use an ipod. Sarah has one that she mostly uses when she exercises or when she’s watering plants in her greenhouses. I do have a lot of music though and listen to music most of the time when I’m programming or at work. I can’t stand the ipod buds and much prefer music over normal speakers.

    The main technology that I think has been terrible for society is the car although using explosions to move ourselves around is a pretty cool idea. Especially I dislike the presumption that we all need to have one and that our communities can be organized in ways that require the use of them. Walking or biking at least puts you at more natural speeds and hopefully helps the problem of objectifying nature. A lot of the other technologies referenced have down sides but I also respect their upsides. With the car I think I would just like to be rid of it and switch to commuter trains plus walking and biking. Thinking with those limitations might force us to build our communities in less wasteful ways.

    I’m never bored when alone, only when forced to be in the company of really boring people. There are way too many cool topics always available to think about.

    Wendell Berry has interesting things to say on these issues.


  9. Kleiner says:

    Wendell Berry does have interesting things to say on these issues, and I love reading him. But I am afraid, at the end of the day, he is guilty of the shallow romanticism I reference above.

    A good friend of mine grew up on a ranch in Alberta. His folks lived a hard and solitary life, 2 miles from the nearest neighbor and in a very tough business. My friend went to university, and ended up getting his PhD in philosophy (he now teaches at the college level). But that meant selling the ranch that had been in the family for 3 generations. My friend despaired over this, and wrote Wendell Berry to ask him what he thought he should do – especially since small family ranching is just not economically viable anymore. Berry encouraged him to “diversify” and see if the ranch could be kept open by finding some gardners markets to sell wares. What kind of a solution is that? In short, Berry is brilliant and makes a tremendous contribution, but he ends up a shallow romantic – what he suggests works only for wealthy hobby farmers.

    I don’t disagree with Mike or Huenemann, different technologies have costs and benefits. And Mike is right to point out how we get trapped by our technologies, like cars. I don’t drive much (about 1500 miles a year, mostly to the Beav), but I tried this summer to go the whole 4 months on 1 tank of gas. Even though I am not very car dependent anyway and ride most places on my bike, when I really tried to abandon the car for the summer I was amazed at (a) how the infrastructure worked against me almost every step of the way and (b) how ridiculously wasteful our car-based transportation infrastrcture is.

    All that said – I think this kind of cost-benefit analysis misses the deeper critique – that it is the mode of thinking rather than the pros and cons of the particular technology that is worrisome. In other words, the question should not operate at the level of “do I spend too much time online?”, it should be asked at the level of ‘how do I relate to my world?” It is a profoundly fundamental existential question.


  10. Mike says:

    Not knowing the particulars of what Wendell Berry said it’s hard to say what I think of his response. I read him in his books as pointing out a lot of areas where society has gone wrong and how things could be better but thinking he can solve those issues by himself seems like asking too much of him. His answer does seem simplistic but I wouldn’t say that makes him overall a ‘shallow romantic’. I have another friend who is more into Berry than I am, I should see what he has to say.

    The ‘fundamental existential question’ is I agree different and valuable. If you decide on an optimal mode of relating to the world without taking practical considerations (especially other people’s wants and needs) into account though, I think you end up a ‘shallow romantic’. It also can potentially lead to isolation and despair since so few care enough to relate at that level.

    Just noticed that I missed the possibility the question needs to be asked and not necessarily answered but asked repeatedly.


  11. matslacker says:

    A good discussion. I appreciate Kleiner’s musings on the technology problem. A note of disagreement, though, re his assessment of Wendell Berry:

    As Berry has aged, I also have found his later writings somewhat romanticized. But I disagree that Kleiner’s friends’ first-hand experience with Berry itself makes Berry a romantic. After all, it was a bit presumptuous for your friend to think that Berry, thousands of miles away and in a separate economy (and country!) would simply be able to solve his dilemma. It belies the complexity of most human situations–not least the plight of small farmers in the modern economy.

    I also have friends who visited Berry searching for sage advice–one found some, another didn’t. But that aside–and this is my main point–it’s just not true that what Berry preaches works only for ‘wealthy hobby farmers’. What of the Amish? And all the CSA (community supported agriculture) enterprises that have popped up around the country in the past 20 years or so? My wife worked for a while on an organic CSA farm in Utah; the full-time, not-wealthy farmer had been inspired by Berry.

    As I’ve heard it told, Berry is something of a grandfather figure for the sustainable farming/CSA movement. True, you can get to the end of his wisdom and find him lacking in this or that regard (as, to repeat, I’ve done increasingly when reading his more recent work). But who reads people that way anyway? I mean, who reads people looking for Christ figures to save them? His wisdom and passion still serve as a good burr under my saddle–one which I hope to continue to be bothered by. That is to say, while I might find him romantic in some regards, he’s far beyond me in others. As is the case with most other people I read, meet, and interact with.

    Sorry, Kleiner, for the rant. I think it came because I once heard an evangelical pastor discount Berry for being an impractical dreamer–but when pressed, the pastor had to admit that he hadn’t read a word of Berry’s work for himself. This was a nice catharsis.

    Go BC!


  12. Kleiner says:

    No apologies necessary matlsacker. I love a good rant. (Are you a Boston College alum?)

    First let me reiterate that I really like Berry, and I think he gets a great number of things right. I’ve read almost everything he has written, and for a long time was profoundly influenced by him. I have close friends who have struggled and worked in organic sustainable ag. Like you, I read him now as (and I love how you put this) a welcome burr in my saddle whose critique is dead on, even if he lacks visionary solutions. As you can see from my comments on technology, I am desperately trying to find some moderated middle position between being a romantic Luddite and a techie. It is far from easy, so no gripe against Berry for not getting it all right.

    Anyway, by no means did I mean to imply that Berry is a shallow romantic simply because he offered my buddy less than helpful advice. Nor do I and my friend view him as some kind of salvific figure. The request to Berry for advice was more of a “put up or shut up” thing for my buddy – could Berry actually give his romanticized views any legs when push comes to shove and you have a difficult economic ranching climate for a small family farm?

    So I think – based on his writings, not just on his letter (which was generously substantial, he wrote a 7 page handwritten letter to him) – that he does end up, much of the time, being an impractical dreamer or sage to wealthy hobby farmers. There are exceptions, the sustainable organic food market comes to mind. But that niche market that has allowed those CSAs to survive (and occasionally thrive) has enough income potential that I’m afraid it will soon be gobbled up by major agri-business.
    The Amish are an interesting case. Are they nostalgic or authentic? I am inclined to say authentic, because it is a complete culture. But for some of my neo-hippie friends from college (several of whom delayed grad school to live in organic farming communes), I think it smacks of nostalgia.

    By the way, I am obviously quite sympathetic with Heidegger. But there are many who think he is simply a shallow romantic. And, worse, that his shallow romanticism led him to a much too cozy relationship with National Socialism.


  13. Mike says:

    matslacker is working on his phd in theological education (i think) at BC. He’s heading off on vacation for a while so I doubt he’ll get back to posting here for a while.


  14. Harris says:

    Three mini-rants:

    1. On the question of culture and cultural literacy: we all realize that culture is organic and ever-changing. Point is, the iPod IS part of our culture. Furthermore, for many iPod users Mozart and Bach are NOT. Fall Out Boy and 50 Cent are what is being downloaded and listened to on portable devices. So, perhaps, iPod users are very literate about their own culture. I guess I might be making the same point that Charlie started with, but the iPod itself isn’t the cause, it’s the symptom.

    2. Nonetheless, I wonder what the constant sensory input does to our brains. Anybody know any neuroscientists who have looked into this? Aside from being unable to find a quite place or to endure boredom, how does constantly listening to something change the structure of our neural networks? This doesn’t have to be a better or worse question, but it might mean better at some things and worse at others.

    3. I lost a lot of respect for Wendell Berry when I read something where he praised the Southern Agrarians — paraphrase “the Agrarians were right.” [Sorry, I have no citation.] There are, of course, some things the Agrarians advocated that have value, but so much of their philosophy was wrapped up in preserving the charming institutions of Southern society (like Slavery) that it’s hard to call them anything but “shallow romantics.” They weren’t right!

    So, the question has covered everything from iPods to slavery. Wow!


  15. Kleiner says:

    I just read about a recent poll which indicated that 1 in 4 American adults did not read a single book last year. I find that simply amazing.

    We philosophers tend to be flummoxed by the lack of interest in our discipline. In a way this has always been the case — most every philosopher I can think of spent at least some time talking about why philosophy is worthwhile. That said, I think things are worse now.

    But maybe it is not just a ‘philosophy problem’, rather it is a broader cultural problem. People just don’t read anymore. This might hurt philosophy in particular, since the study of philosophy requires a lot of reading, almost all of which is quite difficult. Whatever the reason, I have a very difficult time getting my students to read (there are welcome exceptions). I have to admit that I just don’t get it. When I was an undergrad I wanted to read everything (still do).

    Anyway, I am sure this is related to the iPod in some way or another. There are just too many other things to do, and so many of them provide a kind of immediate satisfaction. Reading, in that sense, is a profoundly counter-cultural activity. It makes you slow down, it has a delayed satisfaction (I think this is especially true of philosophical reading), it makes you *gasp* think.

    So, tell your friends: “Be a rebel — read.”


  16. Let’s just say I’m agnostic about the “nobody reads anymore” lament for a couple of reasons. It’s easy to find lots of young people who say they don’t read because they are listening to music or surfing the web, but is the number of people who read regularly (as a percentage of the total population) any different now than it has been in the past? That’s the problem I perceive with articles and polls that report 1 in 4 American adults didn’t read last year…but what about the year before and the year before? I’d like some longitudinal data. If we go back far enough, I can pretty much guarantee you that a greater percentage of the total population reads now, certainly more than in the 19th century, for example. I’d be willing to bet that the numbers of adult readers in, say, 1950 and today are not that much different.

    The other thing that contradicts the decline of reading is book sales data. There are an awful lot of books being sold in the U.S. and throughout the world. Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Borders all show increased revenue over the years ( Even though I’m bad about buying books and not reading them myself, I would suggest that most people don’t waste money on an activity that they don’t pursue. The Bowker Annual, by the way, suggests that the number of philosophy/psychology books published annually has remained pretty constant in recent years.

    Finally, let’s add to this argument that people have said for a century now, as each new technology appeared (radio, film, television, internet), that it spelled doom for reading. Yet, there are more books and magazines then ever. I’m sure there is some relationship between technology and the leisure activities of adults, but I wouldn’t put much credence in a newspaper poll that says we’re all illiterate.


  17. Huenemann says:

    These are some interesting and compelling observations, Steve. There probably are more book sales than ever, and my bet is that the average biography is longer than ever (due to the invention of word-processors; no one would write a 900-page biography of Truman’s sister’s maid if they had to handwrite the thing!). And maybe my perception that cultural illiteracy is growing is in fact linked to this phenomenon. Suppose that, a century ago, anyone who read ‘high culture’ type stuff was very well educated — elite, even. Now, with a greater prevalence of reading, ‘high culture’ has, in effect, been somewhat dumbed down in the interest of larger and larger book sales. Malcolm Gladwell passes for an acute observer of society, and so on. (I am entertained by Gladwell’s work, but let’s admit he’s no George Herbert Mead.) So there is greater readership, but a lower level of sophisticated discussion of culture.

    See how I can reframe my thesis to meet any conflicting data?!


  18. Kleiner says:

    I googled for the initial poll, and could not find the exact article. But I did find several sites talking about it, so I can provide some “longitudinal data.”
    – Book sales have remained flat for the last 5 years, and the expectation by one “industry analyst” was that they would remain “listless” in the near future. So, at least according to this “industry analyst”, while it may be the case that revenue is up at major bookstores (I don’t know if that is true), it is not because they are selling more books.
    – A 2004 study by the National Endowment for the Arts found that the number of people who had read at least one book a year had gone down by 4% over 10 years.

    So, I think there is some evidence that we are reading less.

    That said, of course people read more now than they did in the 19th century, or anytime before that. Obviously the availability of inexpensive books has greatly increased literacy. The question, perhaps, is this: is cultural literacy rising at the same rate as the availability of books? Since more and more books are available but, according to my data above, fewer and fewer people are reading them, we can conclude that cultural literacy is going down.

    Adding to this is Huenemann’s point about how “sophisticated” the readership is. Walk around Borders – the explosion of books does not correspond to an explosion in quality. Most of the books read last year were “popular fiction” and “religious” books. I am afraid that means a lot of crappy romance novels and still more crappy religious writing (the “Faith for Dummies” book Huenemann mentioned). While the number of philosophy and psychology books published might be constant, I see far too many “Philosophy and Buffy the Vampire Slayer” books on the Borders shelf. Here is a bit of personal experience – I would guess that fewer than 10% of philosophy majors I have had in my classes have read Plato’s Republic in its entirety (by the way, I have asked). They’d rather talk about the Matrix.


  19. Kleiner says:

    Your honor, I would like to submit ‘Exibit A’ in the case regarding the decline of cultural literacy.

    I wish the host had responded with this:

    “What you’ve just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.”


  20. I am both glad to finally get around to posting on this topic (music is a very close thing to me) and enraged to not have the time to say much! I think Vince makes an excellent point involving the lost intimacy from the disconnect. Youth wish to remove themselves from contact as much as possible, yet still possess the insecurity that in some bizarre form drives a person to seek social construct, whether it is from the need for enlightenment or the need for protection. This is why so many kids will wear ipods during a car trip, but will sit all day playing World of Warcraft and dressing like Matrix characters. They yearn for a conversation without encountering the source, without ever seeing The Face, perhaps because they do not wish to be judged ‘Guilty!’. I too watched far too much tv during my years growing up, and spent far too much time worrying about the fabricated lives of rpg characters imprinted on a videogame disc. I never listen to that loser Marylin Manson anymore, but he was quite astute in stating that most kids listen to dreary, or overtly noisy, or any other sort of music because they will not be judged, belittled, taunted, or in a strange way, cared for. I read an interview in Lords of Chaos where Isahn, the satanist leader of the band Emperor, stated that he hated christianity because it “has no morals, it judges nothing, it stands up for nothing, and lets mediocre go wild.” Many may not agree, but he raises a point of standards that coincides with my judgement of ipods. While this isn’t ALWAYS the case, I see so many kids who just plug in, hit shuffle, and listen to whatever decimates their eardrums. They call this being “openminded” but to me it signifies that they have no way of discerning quality music, and therefore perhaps quality literature, philosophy, argument, art, ideas from one another. They could listen to either Bach or that horrible Falloutboy song(and let this be the only time these are mentioned together!) and would notice nothing, sense nothing, ‘feel’ nothing. The music has in a fatalistic way been stripped of its value until it is nothing more than a pulsing sound that occupies space. The music itself becomes a mere accessory, nothing of cultural or personal value, which I think is certainly a sign of our national collapse, despite prosperity(remember Rome!). I think the loss of intimacy falls in line with this problem as being a loss of the dynamic. We can still absorb the works of Nietzsche, Heiddeger, Descartes, and Lovecraft as memory, but what of their meaning, of contemplation, of understanding? When we chip away from the conversation we lose this capacity, because it is often through conversation, perhaps through lecture or through comrades, that we gain this understanding. To paraphrase Harrison, you should never read alone, but the spirit of the disconnect, most conveniently showcased by ipods, is doing just that. Our experiences become one dimensional, and so do we, and we lose our ability to work as a unit of civilization, as a community.
    Sorry for the long post. Now I await for Dr. Heueneman to tear me to shreds.


  21. Huenemann says:

    Dear me — I don’t have this reputation, do I? It seems to me that Mr. blood-n-ashes is mostly right: media today allows for a lot of escapism, and even more fragmentation among and within individuals. In fact – I think I’m proud to say — I’ve given up wearing my iPod on walks across campus simply because it actually seems rude to distance myself from others by doing so. Who says philosophy doesn’t change lives?!


  22. Good sir, I did not mean to worry you. I simply had the pleasure of watching Dr. Kleiner and Dr. Sherlock obliterate people in my into and social ethics classes, so I always prepare for the worst, but I suppose that is just the sign of a poor argument! Then again, I do not wish to follow Descartes by stating my arguments are superior to anything the human mind can construct.

    Something that relates to the disconnect is what Kleiner pointed out early on. Technology has made the media so portable, to easy to acquire that almost no thought is put into it anymore. Since no one really has to play an instrument to ‘make music’ anymore, with the advent of computer programming, it seems to have become a crutch and an excuse to not take music, or art, seriously. While most composers probably cannot play their best work, they still understand the process of sound, of musical language and of ‘listening’ as Heidegger might say. Now anyone can talk over random chords and it will sell, or at least be downloaded like crazy, not because it is quality but because it is ‘cute’ ‘punk’ or ‘has a great beat!’ As a result the discipline and skill that even drove musical eugenics for centuries has fallen, and even the strong art of the few is swallowed up by trash. However, the ipod isn’t entirely to blame, since the attitude of ‘its all music man!’ has been around for quite some time, and exacerbated during the Napster trials.
    Speaking of walking without headphones, I would prefer to have great music over the mindless chatter of the kiddie horde, but I would even more prefer to hear the wind, the trees, the bell chimes of Old Main. It is the romantic in me, but I enjoy letting my senses absorb the world around and compute the ambiance. It is an old human survival skill, to detect surroundings and the environment, that in some has evolved to a transcendent beauty, but for most has vanished or become annoying. To survive is to listen, to take in, to pay attention, and the iGeneration seems to have suspended that or tried to push it away, perhaps because they want the one dimensional connection, and to pay attention is to be forced to join in, to respond, to truly interact rather than dominate.
    In fact this reminds me of the electronic ab flexer machine that I saw a commercial for. The people want the positive and attractive results, all the control, without the effort or sacrificing, without ‘earning’ it.


  23. Kleiner says:

    I like how BloodandAshes has framed the issue as a failure to be “attuned” to the natural world and ourselves which comes from being constantly “plugged in”. This failure to “listen” and to “think” (I would argue that those two things are synonomous in the later Heideggerian notion of attunement) has had catastrophic social and personal consequences. And there is now a term for the iGeneration’s technological retreat from nature, Richard Louv coined the term “nature-defificit disorder”. You can read about it in his book “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder”

    Here is a review:


  24. […] I argued recently with a couple of philosophy faculty at my school about the assertion that nobody reads anymore. Seems there is a feeding frenzy of this idea lately. Dennis Dillon from the University of Texas […]


  25. Kleiner says:

    Your are right, there is plenty of hyperbole here. I use the hyperbole sometimes, but not to the end that you suggest. I am not trying to give up on people, I am just worried about my students and my culture. I agree with your final sentiments on your blog post – we have work to do! So if your argument is that the hyperbole is overblown, then you are right. But if your argument is that there is no problem, then I think you have your head in the sand. (I think, by the way, that you are suggesting the more reasonable former, not the less reasonable latter position).

    If you look back at the original post from Huenemann, the concern was with a loss of “cultural literacy”. As the conversation developed, reading came up (or the lack of reading) as one possible cause of this growing cultural illiteracy (along with the general “automation” of our lives).

    Anyway, let me backtrack to that point. I don’t have any fancy studies to back up my position, this is just my sense of things. Most of my students are culturally illiterate. They have not read, or even been exposed to, most of the great books that make up our tradition. They look at me blankly when I mention Homer, Chaucer, even Twain. I asked one of my classes just the other day how many had read one of Shakespeare’s tragedies. The answer: less than 15% of the class. I find this shocking (how could they have graduated high school?) and depressing.

    There are, I would think, a whole host of causes for this phenomenon of estrangement from our tradition. A fascination with the new (and the attending sneer about anything old). A culture of individualism and “originality” that always asks for how individuals “feel” rather than how others might have thought. We could go on and on. But I think it is naive to think that a diminishment of reading (whether it be newspapers, novels, or philosophy) does not have something to do with it. I don’t think this is a good thing, but isn’t it obvious that reading is being edged out by other media (television, iPod, web, etc)?

    My point would just be this: cultural literacy is important, and we won’t have a culturally literate population unless almost everyone starts to read more. I mean more both in terms of higher quantity but also higher quality (why does the Da Vinci Code, as exciting as it was, pass for substantive theological reflection?). At least some of time our students spend on the web is reading, but aren’t they mostly just reading crap there?

    So this is not an attack on reading – it is a call for the cultural necessity of raising both the quantity and quality of the books we read.

    And this is not an attack on libraries. (Disclaimer, I know next to nothing about library science). That said, I often wonder if libraries are really attending to this problem. In my humble opinion, libraries these days seem far more concerned with having the latest and greatest technologies than with really growing an interest in reading. (Educators often make this same mistake, thinking that a fancier power point presentation makes their class better). In our USU library, the first thing you see when you walk in is not a book, it is a computer, and the computer labs are trafficked far more than the reading rooms. The upstairs reading lounge is almost always empty. The same is true of the Logan library, video and other electronic media are front and center.

    I am not blaming libraries (though I don’t think they are blameless either). We all have a hand in creating the problem, and in working toward a solution. Secondary ed curriculum need to be totally overhauled. Profs need to assign reading and come up with better ways of encouraging it. Parents need to model reading in the home. Profs and librarians need to teach students the largely lost traditional research skills (searching and reading traditional journals, etc).


  26. I will do some backtracking as well: a large percentage of our population is culturally illiterate. That is, they know little about and do not understand the history and traditions that make up our culture. This is likely a situation that has always been true, but it is likely getting worse in recent years as well.
    By the way, I think any hope of maintaining and promoting cultural literacy has to be both bookish and technophilic. Technology is not going to “set us free,” as it were, but neither is genuflecting before great books. I’m thinking of a Roland Barthes readerly versus writerly kind of thing here. People have to feel engaged in the production of their our culture. It can’t be something that is spoon fed to them: Mmmm, tastes good! And it’s good for you too!


  27. Kleiner says:

    I agree, a balance needs to be struck. That said, I tend to think that we move too quickly to their “production”. I have to work very hard to get my students to stop and stay a while with a text. Ingest it, reflect on it, understand it – before you go on sharing your opinion.


  28. Anonymous says:


    I must disagree with the idea that cultural illiteracy is the natural condition of human society. My wife and I lived in Germany for a few years. Our Germany neighbors and friends were well read and well informed. Our American obsession with low culture of pleasure encourages technology to focus on self-pleasure. Our society’s focus on wealth demands a sacrifice of time for greed’s sake. Both leaves little room for a well-rounded education and sitting around in Beer Gardens discussing philosophy and international politics.

    Very few Americans know that the Federal Chancellor of the Germany is Angela Merkel … a woman. Nearly every German is aware of the candidates for the US president let alone who the current president is. That isn’t because the US is so important. The typical German also knows who the important leaders are in France, England, Italy, Russia, Japan, etc, etc, etc.

    The difference? They are a culture that prizes education and culture. They WANT to understand the difference between Kant and Kierkegaard, Bach and Brahms, Hawking and Heisenberg, Dickens and Dostoevsky, Hillary and Huckabee. They make continuing education cheap and available (Volksschule) to allow adults to study culture, history, philosophy, languages, etc. Our continuing education options are expensive and they focus on money-earning technological talents. We prize money and pleasure.

    We are a greedy pleasure bound people. Why?


  29. Kevin says:

    I thought I wanted I iPod. Then I saw how expensive they are. WAY, WAY out of my budget. So I figured, it doesn’t need to be an iPod…it could be any kind of mp3 player. But I didn’t really know how much I would use it and did I really want to pay $30-$40 for something that would just end up on my shelf. So I borrowed an iRiver one from a friend who has 7 or 8 of them. Right away, I was put off with the fact I had to install software in order to be able to transfer files to it. But, fine. If that’s what I must do. So I loaded it up. 2 gigs full of songs. And it just sat there. And sat there. And sat there. I had the thing for 2 months and had never touched it after loading the songs onto it. I just don’t have the kind of lifestyle that has room for an iPod (or similar device). The only time I would ever conceivably use it is when I’m in my car driving. But, I have a CD player in my car already. And I’m not about to spend however much money to make my car mp3 capable.

    It’s just not for me.


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