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Everyone has seen how young children behave when they get a gift that they really want that thrills them beyond words. They squeal with delight and sputter with excitement, carry on like crazy people, and generally behave as if the most wonderful thing that they could ever imagine happening to them actually happened. This is precisely how my 17 year old son, Chuck behaved when he recently received a birthday present from his father of an iPod Touch. His eyes got as big as saucers, his jaw nearly unhinged when it dropped to his chest, he did a little hop, which is the teenage equivalent of jumping up and down, and he started making incoherent noises that sounded alarmingly like he was hyperventilating. I think he may have actually squealed a little, although he would never admit it. Thus was the power of the cutting edge of music listening technology. When he attempted to express his extreme pleasure he babbled like a lunatic and appeared to completely lose the ability to form a coherent sentence. It was astounding.
I am a person who finds technology fascinating so I have no serious problem with it on a philosophical level. Admittedly, the iPod is an amazing bit of engineering which is capable of performing feats of near magical wonder. The fact that it exists at all is mind boggling, especially since I can recall getting a portable transistor radio when I was a child and thinking that it was the most totally cool thing I had ever seen. The fact that technology advanced from my little AM transistor to the iPod in less than half a century is pretty incredible. Chuck demonstrated it for me and showed me all the stunning things it could do and I was duly impressed. It wasn't until later that I started to hate the thing.
Let me be more specific. I don't actually hate the iPod. The iPod is just a machine, like a toaster or a hair dryer. It is entirely benign and completely without the ability to cause me anger or distress. I don't hate the iPod – I hate how it has intruded upon my existence.
From the moment Chuck held it in his hand it has taken hold of him like some kind of alien symbiont. He takes it with him everywhere, even just room to room, and it never leaves his person. Even if it is not visible to the naked eye, it is there, tucked into an inside pocket or some other dark place. And if those nasty little white headphones are not plugged into his ears they are lying around his neck ready to jump into his head at a moment's notice. He has them in while doing homework, working on the computer, sitting next to me on the couch or in the car, walking, and even while doing the dishes. I can never tell from any distance if he is wearing them or not so I sometimes speak to him at length without realizing that he isn't hearing a word I say. Not that he didn't ignore me occasionally in the pre-iPod days, but he was a lot more discriminating about his selective hearing. He always used to hear me when I told him that it was time for dinner. I do what I can to get his attention. The first time I say his name I do it in a normal voice, just in case he doesn't have those stupid little white nanite headphones stuck in his ears. If I get no response I raise my voice to an unfortunate, but still civilized level. If that doesn't work I bellow like a blast furnace. If even that gets no response, I screech with all the power of a 300 lb Wagnerian soprano singing the Flight of the Valkyries. I won't lie to you, it annoys me. It annoys me a lot. It annoys me enough to make me hate something and since the choice is either my teenage son or the iPod, I'm going with the iPod. I didn't give birth to the stupid thing and I can hate it if I want to.
Chuck attempts to lure me to the iPod dark side by showing me all the wonderful things it can do. It has lots of 'apps'. Apps for this and apps for that, here an app there an app everywhere an app, app, and as far as I can tell a lot of them seem silly and a ridiculous waste of money. Evidently, if you can imagine it, no matter how utterly absurd and childish, there is an app for it. Except for the one thing I asked about. Is there, I wondered, an app for the temperature? Can you hold out your iPod, push a button, and have it tell you how cold it is?
“Why?,” Chuck asked me.
“Because,” I said, “that strikes me as something that would be extremely useful.”
He reluctantly researched the possibility of an iPod as a thermometer and came up empty. You can't use it to tell you how cold it is, you can't use it as a compass to help you if you are lost in the woods, it doesn't have an 'app' for anything that will help me to get Chuck to do what he needs to do or get him to focus on what he should be doing to keep him on the path to a happy and successful future, so what does it do for me other than give me a headache and damaged vocal chords? Nothing. So I just plan to go right ahead and hate the iPod unless it suddenly starts making me happy. Is there an app for that?
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