Enough of the bull doctor, it’s time to face the music

A scientist tells us people use ‘mobile music’ to keep the world at bay. Open your eyes Dr Bull, says Iain Murray, it’s the age-old custom of warding off strangers

Many years ago, it was noted that a trend in science is to learn more and more about less and less; Dr Bull is proof that this remains true today. Some time ago, he noticed, no doubt to his relief, since there are long days to fill at the University of Sussex, that what people do with music players was an area that had been neglected by other students of culture. It was a deficiency that he has since made it his life’s work to remedy.

(I would like to mention in passing another scientist who has featured in this column in times past and who is also dedicated to exploring a facet of our lives that otherwise might remain overlooked, except in the kind of places where hommes serieux are seldom found. He is Professor Stephen Gray of Nottingham Trent University who has devoted long, and no doubt arduous, days to measuring female buttocks. If you are reading this, Prof, good on you, and more power to your sturdy elbow.)

Dr Bull is not merely a diligent researcher – he has interviewed hundreds of users of mobile music and has yet to roll up his sleeves, so to speak – he is also a master of the sociologist’s special skill of circumlocution. Why use one simple word, when 20 more complex ones will suffice? Thus his published work includes “Towards an Aural Epistemology of Proximity and Distance. Mobile Technologies and their Use in Space and Society” and “Personal Stereo Use and the Aural Reconfiguration of Representational Space in New Technologies and Spatial Practices”.

His core finding, expressed in uncharacteristically simple English, is that people use headphones to “keep the world at bay and reclaim some space”.

I have no doubt that he is right. I am less sure, however, about his assertion that people are using portable music to avoid the visual clutter in their lives. Closing one’s ears is not the same as shutting one’s eyes. To understand why people wish to keep the world at bay we must look not to sociology, but to philosophy. Aristotle said that man is a social animal, Sartre said that hell is other people. So who was right? Both were. We cannot live without the company of other people, but we can live very well indeed without the company of strangers.

Over the years, indeed over the centuries, we have devised many means of keeping strangers at bay without appearing to be rude. These usually involve some sort of prop. They include hats pulled over the eyes, newspapers and books in which to bury one’s face, dogs on leads, cigars that frequently need to be re-lit, and ear-trumpets. Wrist and pocket watches, too, can be studied carefully at the approach of a stranger.

In the modern age, many people have resorted to a new and inventive ploy, which is to make themselves so hideous, through tattooing, body piercing, neglect of hygiene and so on, as to actually frighten strangers away. Peculiar, too, to our times is the tactic of producing from a pocket or bag a noxious item of convenience food, such as a reheated Cornish pastie, when it looks as though someone might be about to sit nearby on a bus or train.

Mobile phones may be put to a similar use (though these, unlike pasties, do not confer a secondary, delayed charge of repellent flatulence; we shall have to wait until the fourth generation of cellular telephony for that).

The Walkman or iPod is therefore nothing more than a modern technological addition to a long line of things with which to ward off other people. That it may have another use, viz listening to music or, if your taste does not run to the lyrical, tuneful or melodic, the works of Andrew Lloyd Webber, is by way of a bonus.

But even if his findings are neither especially new nor exciting, it would be churlish not to acknowledge the diligence with which Dr Bull pursues his specialism. Through seeking publicity, however, he may have sown the seeds of his own downfall, or at any rate made life harder for himself. For now we know that he is coming.

I do not possess either a Walkman or an iPod, but I have to confess that, should I happen to be in the neighbourhood of the University of Sussex, and should I spy from the corner of my eye the approach of a sociologist specialising in media and culture and carrying a clipboard – or rather a portable notational data-recording facilitator – I would hurry away in the opposite direction, or rather employ forward impulsive muscular locomotive evasive counter-directional remedial action. And, unless you have time on your hands, I would advise you to do the same.

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