I borrowed the iPod and took it on my bike ride this morning. I have a short, vigorous ride I do nearly every day: down the hill to the Burke-Gilman, north several miles, off at 95th, then up a short, steep pitch to get back on the plateau. One last uphill past the Starbucks, and a coast home. A little over seven miles. I judge my fitness by how fast I do the uphill part, and by how mentally painful that bit is.
The loop is getting boring to me, and is turning into a chore. I know how dangerous it is to listen to music on a bicycle, but, despite the risk, I wanted to see how it changed the tedium. Too well, it turns out.
I have a strange playlist, being unused to composing these things. I installed random tracks from a dozen CDs and they fit together disharmoniously. Simon and Garfunkel. Astor Piazzolla, Mark O’Connor, James Taylor, Turtle Island, Sharon Shannon, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Filippo Gambetta, Yo Yo Ma, Martin Hayes, Frank Ferrel (yes, you have me typed now—boomer folkie).
The landscape flew by like background to a soundtrack. I knew in my mind that I was riding my bicycle, but I didn’t know in my body that I was riding my bicycle. It was like watching myself ride. I told myself to be especially alert at intersections. The odd thing was that I was so aware of telling myself this. With the music forward in my experience, I had to change my usual trajectory through space from automatic to manual. Disconcerting is the least of it.
My steep, painful hill appeared, and my body scaled it while I was elsewhere. I could detect that I was breathing hard, and that I was overheated, but intrigue and pleasure with the vocal harmony of "Rivers of Babylon" was my primary occupation. I might as well have been on my couch, listening to a CD, which is where these things are supposed to happen.
There is a clinical diagnosis for this type of experience. It’s in the Diagnostics and Standards Manual IV (code 300.6, Depersonalization Disorder). My wife treats people with it. It is alarming to me that a new, sexy technology can generate a dissociative experience so readily.
From a creative point of view, the prognosis is more distressing. My life as an artist and a professional depends on my ability to be fully present to the world, and to the sensations I am having at a given moment. It is from that place where my photographs happen. Viewing the world through an iPod consciousness obliterates that process. I worry about the larger impacts on a society that, though not so needful of that sustained focussed attention that I might require, depends upon creativity and flights of fancy for our cultural and economic well being. Are we anesthesizing ourselves into mediocrity?