Why I hate ipods

As I was walking to work today, I was not listening to an ipod. I never do. In part, I do not use one for reasons of safety. Korean pavements can be dangerous places. Motorbike riders use the pavement as much as the main road, and it is vital that one has all the senses tuned to what’s going on. As well as motorbikes, one hears conversations and shouting, haggling and laughing, and all the other sounds that make up day-to-day life.

Today, my ears picked up on a plaintive melody from a cello soloist. There was so much other sound, from air conditioner heat sinks and the like, that I didn’t devote much thought to it at first. But the melody did not stop as I walked along the street. To walk more that a hundred metres, listening to the same sound, without the volume of the sound varying and without being able to identify the source is a peculiar experience. Listening to the conversation of a fellow walker is easily understood, as is the increasing din when approaching something far off but very loud. But a continuing piece of music, as other sounds rise and fade away, is eerily unusual.

Quickly, I realised that all of the televisions, which can be heard on the street from every shop, were on the same channel. It’s not normal for every set on a road to be on the same show. I was reminded of getting off a coach and walking through the streets of Bangkok on September 11th 2001 and wondering why there were crowds of people outside every cafe, staring in the same direction towards the TVs. My first thought, alarmist coward that I am, was that Pyongyang had done something outrageous and that the melancholic cello was to make the four minute warning somehow easier to absorb. However, the cello solo was part of former president Roh Moo-hyun’s funeral, which I think is occupying the thoughts of Koreans even more that the North’s current sabre-rattling.

A few steps later, I was back in everyday Korea, as a tune from the Wondergirls blared out from some shop’s TV. I couldn’t help asking myself why people deprive themselves of the sounds of the world. Wearing headphones and having complete control over what one hears is like looking at waxed, silicone enhanced and Photoshop-ed pornography during sex.

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