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The Anarchist and the iPod

Yearning for the unpredictable, Malcolm Macdonald suggests sacrilege...or at least leaving the iPod at home once in a while...

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by Malcolm, for outsideleft.com
originally published: March, 2007
I see on the modern landscape something that troubles me, what seems to be an impulse to rid our personal worlds of happenstance...

No doubt a lot of people find themselves on occasion, as I do, pinched between the values of the world they came from and the one they live in now. My early world was elsewhere; raised an expatriate in Mexico, Spain and Portugal, I went to native schools, learned the languages and came to love the local people for their great decency and kindness. I grew up shaped by the idealism of the radical left, in particular anarchism, a social vision I believed reflected nature and a philosophy that seemed to invest man with both the responsibility and character to sort out his own lot in this life. Today I live in America. I work at a desk, fixing other people's writing, have a small family, a house, a modest car, two dogs, two cats and generally a lot for which I am really very thankful.

Along the road from there to here, I have come to believe many new things and discarded others as no longer relevant or useful. Certain basic precepts have stuck with me, though, chief among these the idea of our life on this earth as a kind of splendid chaos, a tumble of colors, passion, sorrows and dawnings that are richer and more genuine for lying largely outside of our design.

But I see on the modern landscape something that troubles me, what seems to be an impulse to rid our personal worlds of happenstance, to ensure - - through a variety of controls - - a level of constancy in which the unpredictable equates with the undesirable. Today, thanks to myriad explosions in personal technologies, we have the ability to 'manage' almost every moment of our time through an array of portable communication, information and entertainment devices. This has led in turn to an almost frenzied obsession to "give time value." We have Blackberries that enable us to work when we're not at work; hand-free phones so we can multi-task even in our more private moments; and of course iPods (I have one) and the like to spare us the intrusion of other people's conversation or the sunny emptiness of an afternoon in the park.

I've this notion it all started with the car. If you think about it, a car's interior is designed to give you not only a sense of comfort but also a sense of control, with everything available - - and changeable - - at the touch of a button. The whole thing rests on a seductive suggestion of mastery, of the road, of life, etc., though anyone who's ever lost control of a car for even a second knows what a dangerous illusion that is.

The impulse to fill every moment with purpose is not just a personal choice. It can and does lead to public dangers that many of us navigate daily, i.e., the idiot on the road who's too busy talking on the phone to pay much attention to driving. Such distractions are bad enough, but what troubles me even more is what I think we're actually missing in our electronic oblivion.a fleeting image out a train window, the subtle change of tone in a child's question. Then there's this: Recently someone asked me why I don't have my iPod playing "my" music all the time. Well a few months ago I was on the road somewhere, listening to the radio and a piece of music I'd never heard before. It was sublime, and when I got where I was going, I stayed in the car another 15 minutes to hear it to the end, at which point tears welled up in my eyes. If I'd been listening to 'my' music, I'd never have heard that piece. In fact, I'd rarely hear anything I didn't already know.

Think about this for a moment. With your world on pre-sets, you're effectively eliminating the unexpected. So how and when do you come into contact with things you haven't already heard? What happens to the new? Maybe this sort of self-insulation is innocuous, but then again maybe it has consequences.like less tolerance of the unfamiliar, unchallenged conviction in the value of our own tastes, diminished opportunity for social interaction and/or interaction only with like-minded others. And though I've no great appetite for drama, I worry just a little for our souls and their place in a world that sees silence as something to re-purpose, time as something to allocate, chance as risk to mitigate. For if randomness has always unsettled us, it is also in the realm of the unpredictable that we invest all our hopes and dreams, and in the uncertainty of the moment that we can sometimes rise to the heroic and noble, moved to illogical sacrifices that define at once our uniqueness and our general humanity.

Now the cell phone, the Blackberry, the iPod don't threaten any of this; they're only distractions. But the compulsion to constant distraction, now technologically easier than ever, worries me, along with an attendant concept of time and even life as some sort of "playlist" to be arranged and managed. There is a larger reality out there, and trying to calibrate it to personal comfort levels is both repugnant and tragic.The world isn't an ordered or fair place; it is filled with horrors that we turn away from at our own shame and peril. And life isn't a tidy business; there is love within us that is glorious and sad, sweeter for its fragility and its sometimes premature end. We are messy creatures by and large, imperfect and at our best just so.

We live in a delicate state of grace on this earth, a balance defined on one side by the comfort we take in all that we know, and on the other by how we deal with all that we cannot know. It works somehow, I think because we find hard honesty in the finite, perhaps comfort in shared vulnerabilities. The unknown, the unforeseeable define whole segments of the human psyche and character; to recognize their place is only to recognize our own.

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