Sunday, 17 August 2008

Mind Out! That Child Might Be Wearing An Ipod

When I was growing up there used to be a sign on the back of ice cream vans with a hand held up saying 'Mind Out! That Child May Be Deaf'. The implication was for speeding motorists that a child coming away from an ice cream van might not hear their engine and so be hit by them. In fact I do not think the child needed to be deaf to be put into this kind of risk. Generally too many people speed in residential areas and also children who have just got a treat are usually so focused on it that a meteorite could be crashing on to their school and they would not notice. There was a very good radio advertisement a couple of years back which outlined this principle. It played the sounds heard by a young child, an elderly person and then a teenager approaching a road. Of course those who you might think most at risk, the child and senior citizen were aware of the traffic, the teenager on their mobile phone walked right into it. This is why, if I could have found the basis for it I would have done one warning about the use of ipods and other MP3 players.

I know this problem has been around ever since they invented the personal stereo, as far back as the Walkman in 1980. People being cut off from the outside world (though often the people around them were very aware of what they were listening to) was a problem then. However, I think the reason why it has got worse is because the ear pieces now disappear entirely into the ear (rather than sit on the outside bedded on a piece of foam) and also that the person's sight is also occupied. With an ipod the user constantly seems to be tweaking with the settings or reading the tiny text on the screen and if they actually put their ipod away they pick up their mobile phone and start texting someone or flicking through photos on it. What you end up with is someone who is in a bubble in which their two main senses: sight and hearing are detached from everything around them. They are more cut off, I believe, than a deaf or blind person ever was.

I have encountered personal problems with this. My mother is going deaf, which is unsurprising, given that she is 70, but she has hearing aids and we make sure we speak slowly and clearly and look at her when we speak. For herself she takes care when she is out and about, knowing that she might get caught out by something approaching out of her line of sight that these days she might not hear. So, there is a working relationship between the (partially) deaf person, those around her and the environment through which she moves. Contrast this with the woman in my house who now seems to be plugged into her ipod from the moment she awakes. I can appreciate that rather than trying to interact with the world she might want to cut herself off from it. I have no problem with people disappearing into their music. This has been common even before music was recorded and grew in the 1970s when home hi-fis reached good quality and people would lounge back and wear those huge headphones. However, they were tied to a location and if they wanted anything they got up and found you. With the mobile technology, there is no indication if the person is plugged in or not. Unless they are listening to it so loud that you can hear it too, you have no indication of what volume they have it at. Consequently the woman in my house, who is in her mid-30s, bellows through the house like an elderly person would have done thirty years ago. You have to go up to her and tap her to get her attention as you would with a deaf person you wanted to have a sign language conversation with. In addition, being cut off so much makes her highly impatient. When she shouts out a request she cannot hear the response such as 'Coming', 'Just a moment' or 'I'm in the toilet' or whatever so she assumes no-one is responding to her request at all and just shouts more. Unlike with deafness she can switch this thing off so if a few minutes later you go to her and speak loudly, she goes 'No need to shout', again raising tensions in a house.

I am sure this is replicated across the world. I suppose it is more challenging dealing with a mature person as you somehow expect a teenager not to respond or not to hear you. With someone older you tend to think, that if they want to interract with you then they will make the effort to equip themselves to do that. We end up with one-sided conversations in which she asks me something and then does not hear or mis-hears the response. At best I can get her to remove one ear piece, but I find that incredibly rude because then I feel only part of her attention is on what I am saying, especially galling as it is generally when she is asking me to do something. The ipods are almost welded to people, and as with mobile phones, to suggest they might put them down or take them off or even turn them off seems like a personal offence as if you asked them to remove their underpants or bra. The 'other' world provided by these devices is clearly more vital than the current one they are physically in (and do not get me started on people receiving text messages or phone calls during meals).

Even more hazardous is when these people go out on the streets. In contrast to real deaf people, they seem to make no effort to compensate for their impaired senses by being more attentive to what is going on around them. I drive through a number of towns that have universities, some of them have two and if I spot any students on the pavement I slow up as they are likely to simply wander out, especially at traffic lights or crossings, assuming that everyone else is going to stop to let them pass like some sacred animal. I turned into a side road leading to a car park the other day and an ipod wearing student using their mobile was walking in the middle of this side road and was totally oblivious to me being behind them. I had to proceed at their slow walking pace until we reached the broader area of the car park (and where has this fashion for walking on the road rather than the pavement suddenly come from? Is it due to fear of being mugged on the pavement; ironically cyclists of all ages seem habitually to go on the pavement, as noted in 'The Guardian' a couple of weeks ago a woman was aghast at the suggestion she cycle on the road; how topsy-turvy is this country becoming). Even coming out of shops, you often find your way blocked by someone just standing there oblivious to anyone around them. If you dare touch them to ask them to move, well of course that brings down a wall of invective on you, so in the UK we hover in that ineffective hesitant way until the chance comes up and the person moves on. How can city centres function with this sort of behaviour.

As you know, I am the first to complain about bad driving. However, safe driving can only work if all users of the road and pavement do their best to be alert of what is going on around them. Many pedestrians are deliberately detaching themselves from the real world for one more removed. However important the next track on your playlist is or responding to that text, it is less important than preventing yourself becoming another road casualty. We will not even get on to the issues of politeness and not being an obstacle when around town, just think about keeping yourself and others alive.

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