January 6, 2005

U of C iPod addicts lost for week in recent snow: "We didn't know."

There is a shadowy and insidious force lurking throughout America, a force so powerful and ubiquitous that it has found its way into the lifestyles of an increasing number of "average" Americans. This force threatens the very foundations of our society and can easily be declared the Greatest Threat to Democracy. What is it to which I refer? It is that token of cool, the iPod.

Democracy, properly seen, is a way of life. It is not simply an occasional election or political campaign. It is a way of living that depends on forming connections with others in one's community. This takes many shapes but can include working together for common goals, whether this means raising money for your local library or coaching a children's basketball team. It also depends on social interaction such as going to church or joining a knitting group. What it requires most of all is that we get to know those around us as individuals, not as an agglomeration of faceless and nameless beings, but as people each with their own tale to tell and contribution to make to our lives. These interactions create social space in which public business can be conducted and lives improved.

The word "democracy" is rooted in the Greek words for "people" and "power." The first word is "people" not "persons," two words that are similar yet drastically different. "Persons" implies individuals working separately, while "people" implies a group of individuals united by something common. The connection between "people" and "power" is not accidental, as power is derived from joint, not individual, action. Aristotle famously wrote in his Politics that "He who has no need for society is either a beast or a god." By the very nature of our humanity, we are impelled together into a corporate body, "the people," from which we derive the power to control our common destinies. This body is only as strong as the links which unite it internally and these internal links are formed and strengthened when we reach out to our fellow citizens and see them for who they are and what they can contribute to our society.

But we've reached a point where we are pushing ourselves further and further apart. Representative of this is that great danger to democracy, iPod nation. You can put this device on your head and remove yourself from any need ever to interact with those who surround you, only stopping occasionally to talk to those whom you know from brief non-iPod moments. We determine the course of our lives without regard for others. The Student Care Center, in its fall newsletter, even noted that "Truly, there are times when an iPod is the only thing that makes life worth living." All this might be fine—locking ourselves into our own worlds with iPods—if our society did not require us to interact with people around us. Since, however, strong social interaction is a necessity of democratic livelihood, iPods obstruct those interactions that are vital to the health of our society.

Living in a democracy is a rare privilege. But as Peter Parker's sage Uncle Ben noted in the movie version of Spider-man, "With great power comes great responsibility." Danielle Allen, professor of Classics (and much else), urges us, as citizens in a democratic society, to "talk to strangers" so that social space might be created in the knowledge of other's existence. It may not be necessary to strike up a conversation with every person you meet on the CTA (although it is not an outrageous idea) but it is necessary to see those we do not know as unique individuals, which we are unable to do when we retreat into our own, compartmentalized world.

As more and more of us choose to retreat into a private space, our public space, in which the power of the people is exercised, shrinks and retreats. Aristotle also wrote that "man is a political animal" by which he meant that all of us are, by our nature, in need of social interaction. It is not only dangerous but also ludicrous to believe that we have no need of each other. Our democracy is rooted in public space created by frequent and committed social interactions among people who see each other as unique individuals. The way of life that the iPod represents—solitary, withdrawn, and closed threatens this very bedrock of our society.