Andrew Sullivan has this dead-on, faintly chilling observation about our increasing social atomization (or, in his quaint British spelling, "atomisation").
I must note a corollary to the zombi-fication of street life inflicted by the iPod: The malaise of Shuffle. It's hard for me to admit this, because for years—and I can't imagine I'm alone in this—I yearned for exactly what the iPod and iTunes have delivered: complete random access to my entire music collection. As I watched friends buy bigger and bigger CD changers and dutifully load their collections into them, seldom if ever retrieving the discs and returning them to their cases, I thought: That's just an elaborate, inefficient form of data storage. What if we could load all our music into one central player?
That day has dawned, and I have in my employment a ghost DJ, Mr. Shuffle, who rifles through my music files like an auditory I Ching. I've even occasionally done iPod "divinations": What does a random selection of five songs say about my day? I stopped doing that the day I got "He's in the Jailhouse Now," "Gloomy Sunday," and "Suicide Is Painless" in quick succession.
But I increasingly find myself feeling adrift in a sea of music, not content to enjoy each song by song but somehow always conscious of the vastness of the possibilities… and it exhausts me down in some intangible way. Now that I've removed my own choice from the equation, I occasionally have wonderful discoveries of tunes I'd forgotten about and would never think to pull off the shelf, so to speak; more often, though, I'm distracted and dissatisfied and wishing the DJ would play something else, then something else, then… When someone asks me what I've been listening to lately, I no longer have a ready answer. I don't have those phases where I play one record over and over until I know every note in my bones; I bought Elvis Costello's new record—when was it?—and just loaded it directly into the iPod, more eager to add the new files to the library than to hear the music. I've heard maybe a third of it since, and maybe one day I'll have heard the whole thing.
This doesn't seem healthy. Yes, I've economized my CD storage space and helped to stock the shelves of local used record stores. But the trade-off is that, now that my whole collection is gathered in one cigarette pack-sized white box, it feels heavier than ever.