Media players can be barriers to reality
Personal mobile media players are the latest in a line of revolutionary consumer devices that come with significant social trade-offs.
That's the term-paper way of saying some people with iPods are total jerks. Ear bud duds. MP3 creeps. iPunks.
Until a few days ago, I'd have been hard pressed to accept this. However, after a recent vacation experience, I'm now convinced that when Western civilization falls, half of us won't bother pulling Maroon 5's latest hit out of our ears to notice.
But first, a media-player "mea culpa." Like many who own one of the 120 million iPods in circulation, I find my mobile media bubble to be indispensable, like the bowl of water SpongeBob straps on his head when he ventures onto dry land (for those who don't get this reference, "SpongeBob SquarePants" Season 1 is available for download on iTunes for $29.95).
And unlike Sony's Walkmans and Discmans of the 1980s (fashion choices that drew more attention than a Hannah Montana autograph session at Toys "R" Us), iPods are as ubiquitous as baseball caps or sunglasses.
Thus, there is now no better social shorthand for "leave me alone" than a pair of headphones. Once I lost my iPod but found just wearing the ear buds on the bus deterred that chatty guy who wears nothing but a bathrobe and a neck brace (not on his neck, incidentally).
But alas, the weak-willed can overdose on anything, as I discovered during a scenic bus trip on Maui with a dozen other paid passengers. It seems some swim so vigorously in their own world that they can break the dam and engulf the rest of us in a flash flood of crazy.
As our driver was negotiating hairpin turns, a 40-ish woman hummed, apparently unconsciously, to whatever tunes bounced between her ears.
At first, people giggled gently. One nudged her in a friendly way. But unlike in a crowded movie theater, the rules of social confrontation are much more nuanced in a prolonged safari where the only exit leads to a sheer 1,400-foot drop to a rocky, black-sand beach.
Eventually, the driver said her off-key refrains were becoming a dangerous distraction, so someone else nudged her in a slightly less friendly way.
"What?!" she said at double the required volume, her player visibly not on pause.
"You're annoying the driver," said a cohort, who clearly was not eager to have the term "bus plunge" in his obituary. What followed was a reply that stirred in me levels of indignation I never thought possible.
"I can't help it!" she said.
She can't help it. She can't help it? She can't HELP IT?!
"Take the headphones out of your ears," another brave compatriot instructed.
In the following hours, the hums died down, though not completely. Regardless, the vistas and waterfalls began to pass unnoticed as I tried instead to take in this woman's grand chasm of self-absorption that fueled four simple words, said with pure conviction: "I can't help it."
We're all doomed. The end is near. I just hope I have enough episodes of "SpongeBob" downloaded to keep my mind off it.