A private school in Australia has banned its pupils from listening to their iPods. The yuppie consumer gadget will not be permitted in class, because it encourages kids to be selfish and lonely, according to the school principal. That's the perfect preparation for the life of David Brent-style bullshit and self-deception that lies ahead of them, you'd think, but amazingly, the principal of the International Grammar School has higher hopes for her brood.
Principal Kerrie Murphy noticed that iPod-toting children were isolating themselves into a cocoon of solipsism.
"People were not tuning into other people because they're tuned into themselves," she told the Sydney Morning Herald.
Meanwhile, the school teachers' quango for the district is sitting on the fence.
"It's an emerging issue for schools," was the best a rather hopeless Geoff Newcombe could offer. He's the executive director of the Association of Independent Schools in New South Wales, and if this is the best he can do, he should retire gracefully. ('Emerging' is a very flexible word these days, and in this case it means "someone will deal with this eventually - don't shoot me!")
Banning fashion items is of course the school's historical duty, but you have to admit that Principal Murphy has a point. Apple's advertising for the iPod makes a virtue of people dancing on their own, locked up in a private world only they understand. And what can this lead to, but anti-social values later in life?
How? Because every second spent with an iPod is an opportunity lost.
Take one example. Riding back from the Sunset tonight on a busy MUNI bus, the 71 that goes through Haight, a guy got on with a tripod - a very unassuming and busy guy. The sweet girl opposite, who was with three friends, struck up a conversation with him. The bus trundled on and on, as MUNI does, but these strangers were getting on really well. And when they got off, he picked up his tripod and got off the bus with them, having found ... who knows what? This could be the best thing that ever happened to them both. They certainly appeared to have the all the faculties necessary to look after each other really well, and isn't it nice when life provides such random strokes of good fortune?
But it wouldn't have happened at all, if they'd been wearing iPods. For sure, if these iPod people might also be "Blog People", they could have gone home alone, and broadcast these near misses on their weblogs, or posted hopeful messages to the tiny classified "Close Encounters" sections of newspapers, or Craigslist. But in none of these situations would have been alive with the possibilities of you know, actually getting laid.
Which brings us to the broader point of what "openness" - a value often-toted by Internet evangelists - really means. Openness for one person can mean shutting off every one else, and all their irritating mannerisms and annoying opinions, that you don't want to hear. Freedom, in practice, is a case of how much you want to indulge someone else's ego.
What Principal Murphy seems to be saying is very straightforward.
These new technologies, these ego-centric "social minimizers", for want of a better word, like the iPod and the Blog, are really like the little sick notes that certain shy species (nerds or bookish types are two good examples) amongst us would invent to get out of some strenuous physical exercise at school. They nevertheless define and limit all the possibilities we have on offer to us. So socially, they're really rubbish - no more than expensive dongles, and only good for avoiding girls and boys we can have fun with.
The United States frets that it isn't a popular world citizen, right now. But if you need a global passport, it isn't your "bitrate" that's going to impress guests, whether you're sharing a jar of water in Zaire or in a tent in Armenia. The physical process of transferring bits, which technophiles obsess about, is of little interest in situations like this - it refers simply to a process. By contrast, music's potency to express the metaphysical, or emotions beyond language, is universally understood, wherever you go.
Principal Murphy is about to become the most pilloried "Luddite" in the world, but deep down, you know she's right. Far from being a draconian adminstrator, she's simply encouraging her pupils to get laid, and be happy.
And surely a tiny part of you really wants her to win, doesn't it?