How recorded music might limit social action

iPod headphones are ubiquitous on college campuses and many other places. What effect such devices and more broadly, recorded music, might have on modern society is explored in this essay that includes references to sociologists Sudhir Venkatesh and Pierre Bourdieu:

Two years ago, at the nadir of the financial crisis, the urban sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh wondered aloud in the New York Times why no mass protests had arisen against what was clearly a criminal coup by the banks. Where were the pitchforks, the tar, the feathers? Where, more importantly, were the crowds? Venkatesh’s answer was the iPod: “In public spaces, serendipitous interaction is needed to create the ‘mob mentality.’ Most iPod-like devices separate citizens from one another; you can’t join someone in a movement if you can’t hear the participants. Congrats Mr. Jobs for impeding social change.” Venkatesh’s suggestion was glib, tossed off—yet it was also a rare reminder, from the quasi-left, of how urban life has been changed by recording technologies.

Later in the essay, Bourdieu is presented as the anti-Adorno, the sociologist who argued that music doesn’t help prompt revolutionary action but rather is indicative (and helps reinforce) class differences:

In the mid-1960s, [Bourdieu] conducted a giant survey of French musical tastes, and what do you know? The haute bourgeoisie loved The Well-Tempered Clavier; the upwardly mobile got high on “jazzy” classics like “Rhapsody in Blue”; while the working class dug what the higher reaches thought of as schmaltzy trash, the “Blue Danube” waltz and Petula Clark. Bourdieu drew the conclusion that judgments of taste reinforce forms of social inequality, as individuals imagine themselves to possess superior or inferior spirit and perceptiveness, when really they just like what their class inheritance has taught them to. Distinction appeared in English in 1984, cresting the high tide of the culture wars about to hit the universities. Adorno had felt that advanced art-music was doing the work of revolution. Are you kidding, Herr Professor? might have been Bourdieu’s response. And thus was Adorno dethroned, all his passionate arguments about history as expressed in musical form recast as moves in the game of taste, while his dismissal of jazz became practically the most famous cultural mistake of the 20th century.

This is an interesting analysis. Sociologists of culture have been very interested in music in recent decades. One line of research has insights into “omnivore” behavior, those high-status people who claim to like all sorts of music. (See an example of this sort of analysis here.)

But this essay seems to tap into a larger debate about technologies beyond just recorded music: do computers, laptops, iPods, cell phones and smart phones, Facebook memberships, and other digital technologies serve to keep us separated from each other or do they enhance and deepen human relationships?

The “selfish elite” own iPads

New technology from Apple always seems to stir up a lot of attention. MyType, a consumer research company, studied both the owners of iPads and the new gadget’s critics (20,000 people total):

iPad owners tend to be wealthy, sophisticated, highly educated and disproportionately interested in business and finance, while they scored terribly in the areas of altruism and kindness. In other words, “selfish elites.”

They are six times more likely to be “wealthy, well-educated, power-hungry, over-achieving, sophisticated, unkind and non-altruistic 30-50 year olds,” MyType’s Tim Koelkebeck told

96 percent those most likely to criticize the iPad, on the other hand, don’t even own one, although as geeks, they were slightly more likely to do so than the average population — and far more likely to have an opinion about the device one way or the other (updated). This group tends to be “self-directed young people who look down on conformity and are interested in videogames, computers, electronics, science and the internet,” said Koelkebeck.

A strong reminder that technology is not just a tool; it is often a status symbol. I remember having a discussion with some students about what it meant to have and display an Apple laptop in class. Students were quite aware that they were sending some sort of message about themselves in their computer choice.

It is also worth remembering that Apple once held its own non-comformist identity as they took on big, bad Microsoft. Today, Apple’s products such as the iPod, iPhone, and iPad are the height of cool but those who have them may be considered comformist.