Over the past year, whether I was in New York, Chicago, San Francisco or Cincinnati, there was always one unmistakable sight. White earbuds. Walking in the morning across Madison Ave, getting on the El headed downtown, or out for a run along the Ohio river. White earbuds dangling.
I was heading in to the office. Naturally with my earbuds in. Listening to a podcast or some music. Before I walked downstairs to the train, I walked by two older visibly homeless men asking for money 100 yards apart. You become immune to these requests so quickly. At times you don’t even notice or, if noticed, you don’t even process them anymore — you just unconsciously know to keep walking. On this particular day, last March, it was freezing cold in Chicago. I wanted to get on the train as soon as possible and so I moved along quickly. When I was underground, I checked my phone and saw the train was still a few minutes away. I looked around and saw no less than five folks who also had their white earbuds in. I thought back to the homeless guys I had quickly walked by minutes before.
Then the thought first hit me. Had we become an earbuds society?
It was the division that was the clearest to me. Apple, a company whose products I love, stood out as a clear example. You have millions of people who flock to Apple stores, buy the latest in technology: laptops, phones, tablets. Admittedly, it’s a diverse group. Apple fanboys(girls) are everyone from those who camp out for hours to be the first to buy to the more casual buyer who waits a few months.
These are items that can cost in the thousands of dollars (MacBook’s and iPhone’s with data plans). They’re amazing devices and I find extreme utility in them (I’ve used them for my professional productivity for the past four years). So I’m not calling out any intrinsic issues with them or saying there’s anything wrong with Apple or buying their stuff. My larger point is their roles as a representative of the division between vastly divergent economic lives.
There are a ton of other signs for who belongs to what “economic class” — Audi or Honda?, Coach purse?, designer jeans?, Patagonia jacket?. The most subtle to me, the white earbuds, also in feels like its clearest manifestation. Perhaps because it isn’t an overt display of wealth. It’s not flashy. It’s arguably just a utilitarian device that most who own don’t think twice about. But that’s why it’s the perfect representative. It’s the stuff that you don’t even realize– that you take for granted– that’s often the clearest basis for division.
So, one, the white earbuds are the subtle representation of the split in society. You are either a part of the group that can (fairly) casually drop a few hundred dollars to join or you aren’t.
The second thought was the more resonant one. The earbuds represented the barriers that we put up to avoid engaging and really looking into what’s going on around us.
It’s easier to walk by someone in need on the street if you can pretend you don’t see or hear them. White earbuds allow us to stay in the perfectly manicured universe of our iPhone tuning out all else.
It’s a lot easier for us to do this because the road forks very quickly. A homeless guy asking for money is lazy, looking to buy alcohol, to avoid working — someone who has spent his life shirking his responsibility to himself and society. He’s that. Or… A homeless guy asking for money is a military veteran, who had a sick spouse that led to an eviction, bankruptcy, the loss of a job, the path to battling alcoholism, and every day tries and fails to get back on his feet. Or has a mental illness (innate or from the war like PTSD) that led to estrangement from family, the inability to hold down a job and the downward spiral. The stories I’ve heard go on and on.
The thing is, I don’t know which of these is the case. Maybe the archetype of the lazy, good-for-nothing homeless represents 80%. Or maybe it’s that of the veteran in shitty circumstances that’s 80%. Either way, I’ll save that discussion for another writing. My point is the road forks very quickly. From seeing him begging for money– and us walking by– or to actually stopping and giving them money (or food, whatever) and letting them enter our consciousness. We wish to prevent that fork, whether consciously or not, and white earbuds are our invaluable ally.
So, two, the white earbuds are the subtle way in which on a daily basis we stay within our worlds and the lives and circumstances of others are prevented from seeping into and affecting our paths.
I don’t have a pronouncement here. A solution. A recommendation. I am also not judging or lecturing anyone else. I am a member of the white earbuds society. With all the talk of the Occupy Wall Street & the 99% and 1%, I guess 10 months ago I was wondering if the division is far more distributed a ~80% 20%. Maybe my numbers are way off, but not my point. Is it really just all about the “super-rich” or is the much broader antipathy of people like me (and most of the folks I know) also responsible for the absurd state of everything?
I believe we have a white earbuds society. And almost a year after I first had this thought, I could see it in my nieces and nephews. In the iPhones they had, the presents they got for Christmas. A new generation growing up with white earbuds.
I feel guilty. Not for being part of this white earbud society. I’m not sure where that slippery slope ends and so any guilt at living a very comfortable life is pretty much outside of my daily consciousness. But I do struggle with the latter point of the barrier and the daily separation. That everything that this comfort and privilege that I have (earned?) also forms a barrier and prevents me from having empathy and understanding what is going on in the world around me. That my daily thoughts and reactions are shaped in the absence of others’ lives. Naturally, my experiences from the past few years shapes this fear in a big way. One of my biggest concerns is instability . I see unsustainable in everything: in the use of natural resources, in economic imbalances of currency and trade, and on a micro-basis in our individual societies. The white earbud construct helped highlight one such source of this division and the impact of it. And, maybe, one source of why such large sources of instability/inequity* can exist and grow.
White earbuds. Their presence divides us. Both in who has them and in how they keep our worlds separate.
*”Extreme inequity = instability/unsustainable” in my book.