Infinite Loop 31: Digital Disconnect: How an iPod Upset My Whole World

I gingerly walk down the step, almost tripping. I feel as though I am losing my balance. I feel a rush a wind and I look up, what is it? A car drove by. I would have never seen it coming. Then suddenly my cat, on a leash with me on the porch, makes a sudden move, she peeks over the bushes, almost standing on her hind legs. I don’t know what she’s looking at. She chases flies and hears them upstairs while she is downstairs – I most definitely do not hear them when downstairs. She has some keener senses than me. So I look up. A dog! A boy is walking him, ignoring the local leash law. “Hey I have a cat here,” I said, probably so loud the whole block could hear me, I do not know. “You need to put that dog on a leash.” “OK” he said and went on his way putting that dog into the legally necessary leash. I fall back in my chair in on the porch. If it had not been for my cat I would have jumped out of my skin when that dog came around the corner.

I make sure that my iTunes ear buds are crammed as deep as they can go into my ears. I reach for my pen and a tablet, and the book I am currently reading, taking notes. I am going back and rereading some of the classics of my profession; I am restudying some of the major works I have not touched in a while due to teaching and life’s responsibilities. The current fare? Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason.” Yeah, I am sure that makes you, my reader, all excited. But I am an academic philosopher and believe that one of the best ways to do my craft well is to spend time with others who have done it very well indeed. So I am reading Kant’s three ‘Critiques’ again. I have a commentary by my side. I pick it up and lay on it my lap and carefully place my ruler under the last sentence I just read before being interrupted by the dog incident. I continue.

But that feeling of imbalance is still with me. I feel topsy-turvey even. Is this what Christ felt like walking on water? Oh, wait, he already knew what it would be like because he knows all things – no surprises there. But I am mortal, so I am surprised everyday. I just feel detached in some way. I can’t quite put my finger on it. It just seems that objects around me are more “out there” tonight than they have been for a while; everything looks farther away from me for some very strange reason. “It must be my reading selection affecting me,” I think to myself. After all, I am sitting here, trying to reflect on my own self-reflection, trying to visualize the necessary conditions of cognition by separating everything empirical from what I sense and looking to see if any a prior principles remain, as Kant tells us to do. (Please note: To read philosophy well you must assume the author’s stance, as it were, becoming the author to understand why these thoughts were plausible to him at the time of writing; only then will you understand him him, and so only then can you critique him well and fairly.)


Kant said we have access to appearances, but not to the “things-in-themselves.” We are forever an instant away from reality because it is mediated by how our mind organizes and shapes perception, and he knew, as we all do, that there is no logically necessary connection between the way the mind presents perceptions to us and the object that caused those perceptions in the first place – all perception could be misperception. It is, I tell my students, like wearing rubber gloves and feeling satin and then canvas – we feel we are not getting all the information we could get if we did not have the gloves on. They sort of impose themselves between us and our object like an unwelcomed guest at a party.

Anyway… Back to the iPod…

“OK” I say to myself, and I lift up the iPod to see what’s playing. Bach’s keyboard concertos. Good. The music (vibration) is going directly into my ears through the ear buds. I start taking notes of what I am reading, but for some reason the pen feels awkward in my hand. I lift it up and look at it. It’s okay, it’s “all there” as it were. I brush the awkward sensation off like a fly.

We bought a new iPod while in Chicago a while back. We HAD to buy an iPod! We were visiting the new Apple Store on Miracle Mile – a beautiful store. It was the marriage of my favorite city and my favorite computer, per my last article. My wife had an older 5 GB iPod that went dead. I bought a 10 GB one when the new ones came out. I like the slim-line and the no moving parts bit. I liked the calendar and notes. I mean for me, for ME, that’s about all I use my Palm V for anyway, for I walk around most of the time not knowing what day it is or what time it is. I have also been wanting a Firewire hard drive to move things – ok, data, if you must be exact – around from one computer to another.

We are a two person three computer family. You do the math – someone has an extra computer. Kind of. We have created a kind of Détente in the household. I have an iBook, my wife got the G4 after I got the iBook. And in December I bought a 17 inch iMac which is the “community” machine in the house – we both can use it, have our ‘accounts’ on it, but our real personalities are on our own computers, the G4 for her and the iBook for me. So as not to become actually and completely schizophrenic from talking like this, we are in the market for another portable and then the household will be completely happy: Each of us will have a desktop and a portable. It would be computer Heaven in this house. No more of my wife and I grabbing our respected “sides” of the iBook and yanking like Medievalist torturers limbing some poor chap with four horses.

Anyway, Back to the iPods, Which I was Talking About…

I bought a 10 GB new one. My wife’s 5 GB old one went crazy. So we bought a 30 GB while in Chicago so that my wife would get the 10 GB iPod. Got it? I swear, she’d dress just like me too is we were the same size as me, she gets so many hand-me-downs. But she is fine with it. She at least understands that the computing power sitting on our desks or on our laps will never be fully used by us, even at 800 MHz. We are not shooting movies over here you know. Anyway – those darn iPods have a way of slipping out of my attention – we are now a two iPod family and since there are only two of us the machine to human mathematics is equinumerous. So we are happy as far as iPods go anyway.

I started using my iPod mostly as a hard drive. But there was one other thing I did with it. My car stereo has an AUX line in. So all I have to do is get a male-male cord and just like that I am playing my iPod through my car stereo. Thank goodness too. I have had CDs who just could not make it out of the car alive after surviving the extreme (cold and hot) Midwestern temperatures we have here. Heck, it was 104 degrees here today! I made the mistake a few years ago of buying a CD holder with PLASTIC envelopes for the CDs. Do you know what happens to plastic envelopes on CDs in cars when the thermometer reaches 102 degrees? That’s right, they mate. The plastic melts and sticks to the CDs. Taking out the CDs is a lot, I imagine, like an orthopedic surgeon taking out loose bodies of bone when he ‘scopes’ a knee. Not good for the CDs. Not good for anyone. But I have found that if you are careful, and lucky, you can take a CD that has plastic melted all over it, put in the CD tray, the Mac recognizes it and it pops onto your desktop. Then you just grab the sound files and drag them to the desktop and you have saved the music’s soul though its body is lost. There is, in a way, a disembodied afterlife for those CDs.

(Just a note: Navigating an iPod’s menus while driving is NOT a safe thing to do. Friends don’t let friends drive fidgeting with their iPods. I have heard of some dashboard mounts though.)

Back to the iPods Again…

I use it most for transferring files between computers and playing music in the car, saving the souls of CDs. I loved it! Migrating files from the iBook to iMac was a breeze. And sometimes it even told me what day it is. I could have all kinds of music in the car with only a small, tiny little iPod. No more CD deaths. The problem now though is that I forget the controls are on the iPod not the stereo in the dashboard. I turn the volume down and it doesn’t go down. I look at it until I recall that the iPod is the AUX thingy again, the controls are there. I start weaving around traffic. God I am scatter-brained!! But this brings me to my point, the point I started the article with…

I feel unbalanced. I reach out with my arms so as to reach for a banister when going up stairs. I feel removed from the world tonight out here on the porch. Something is interfering with the totality and unity of my sensual cognitions. I feel caught within myself separated from the external world, trying to reattach to it, like Kant or even worse Descartes’ egocentric dilemma!

Last time, in my previous article, I questioned the wisdom of cutting off one of my senses with an iPod. It’s very strange. When I put on the earplugs of my iPod, I feel disconnected from reality. I have in essence taken away one of my senses: hearing. And I am beginning to realize how much I use it when I am interacting with the world. I did not see the dog coming except the cat’s cue to me. Unless I felt the wind blow by me I didn’t see the car coming. Did you read that? I said: I didn’t SEE the car coming because I did not HEAR it. When I hear something I turn and look, after all. I depend on hearing a lot more than I thought I did after it was taken away by my iPod. There are a lot of auditory cues I am missing in my environment and it makes me feel awkward. I did not realize how much I relied on my hearing.

When we were in the Apple Store there was a girl there with an iPod in her pocket and headphones on. “THAT is what I want,” I thought to myself. I don’t particularly like these ear buds, they are a hassle, man, with the covers falling off and being too big to cram in my ears… and so on. I NEED headphones I thought. Yet, how could that girl, I wondered, have those headphones on and walk up and down Michigan Avenue with the crazy taxis and throngs of people? Does she run into people? Walk on red lights? Trip over things? She must rely more on sight than usual and take cues from what other people are doing, like stopping at a crosswalk, like I took the cue from the cat. She must have just gotten used to it I guess. She must have habituated and compensated for the lack of hearing I thought. I don’t know.

But good grief, tonight I was missing dogs and cars because I had my ears plugged up. I looked down at the book I am readings and sudedenly – Kant had it! That’s what’s going on. I do feel trapped in a world of appearances: sensations themselves mediate my perception, and so perception is not directly caused by the object of my perception, and if it is not directly caused by the object of my perception then I do not have direct access to the object of my perception, and if I don’t have direct access to the object of my perception the object of my perception might be different from the sensation of the object that caused it, and if my sensation of the object that caused it might be different from the object then I might not be able to have knowledge of the object that caused my perception, and if I am not able to have knowledge of the object that caused my perception (if there is such a thing), then I end up a skeptic, or a solipsist, lost in a sea of confusing zapping and zooming sensations racing around me. Oh God! Maybe I will just get used to it? Train myself like that girl at the Apple Store.. And in the car, I can’t hear sirens or horns or trains… I need to get another job – this philosophy stuff is driving me nuts. Yet it’s all I know how to do? What am I going to do, wait tables? But at least I might have tripped over a philosophical argument for not talking on a cell phone while driving!


It’s like looking at starlight from a star that has long since died but the light is just reaching us – it looks like a star is there, but the star is dead, long gone – appearance is one thing and reality is completely different; in my present case, though on an infinitely smaller scale, it took time for those sensations to cause my perception and the object could have changed by then, or they themselves were changed by the trip from the object to my pupils. But where would we draw the line as far as what is the ‘right’ distance from an object to be able to perceive it properly?

I have to stop thinking about these things…

Okay, okay, I’m alright. Let me sit down. I better lay off the Kant for a day or so. I had the same problem with Berkeley, and don’t get me started on the phenomenologists! Philosophy just makes you stand against the world in a very odd manner, but as a professional I have gotten used to it, I think. Or is it this whole ‘digital lifestyle’ thing that is getting to me? This digital life has all kinds of implications for me and the way I live my life. iPhoto, iMovie… well, you see what senses these might unsettle. Thank goodness I have a digital hub for the lifestyle, my iMac, that I can use as an anchor to reality, I hope; much like Descartes has God help him out of his egocentric dilemma. Or maybe I should lay off the iPod until I get used to losing one of my senses and I can start using visual, and other, cues. Man… I’ll just have to…

…think about it.

David K. Schultz

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