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Oliver Sacks is a psychiatrist and neurologist best known for his collections of case histories from the far borderlands of neurological experience, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a[…]

The benefits and dangers of iPod listening.

Oliver Sacks:   The world has changed so much in the last 10 years.

This is very beautifully bought out in a Philip Roth novel, “Exit Ghost,” where Roth’s alter ego, who has been living in the country, comes back into New York City in 2004 and he finds that everyone has on iPods, is on cellphones, and that society as he knew it, the human interaction, has more or less disappeared.

Everyone is engrossed in these things which are almost analogous to hallucinations. They’re hearing music. They’re hearing voices. They’re talking.

Three things about iPods. Listen, first, I have an iPod myself. I have all Bach on my iPod. I have the equivalent of 157 CDs on my iPod. As a Bach lover, it’s a fantastic privilege to have all Bach in something the size of a matchbox.

However, I don’t listen to it in the street. I don’t listen to it when I’m driving the car. I don’t listen to it when I ride my bicycle, because I need my attention for reality.

I’m frightened at the degree of engrossment which people can have with iPods. And I think they should almost be forbidden to cyclists and pedestrians.

I also wonder whether to separate music from context. Music arose in a communal way. People would sing together, dance together. There would be concerts. There would be churches. There would be living performers.

I think music can become too abstract and too divorced from context if one only listens to an iPod.

It’s wonderful that iPods can give so much, but I’m also concerned that they may take people away from musical environments and contexts in which they should have music.  I’m a little worried about the isolating and abstracting and also dangerously engrossing qualities of iPods.


Recorded on: Sep 4, 2008