Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

The Billie Jean generation

Posted by metaphorical on 16 March 2007

I wrote last week about risk compensation, part of the broader phenomenon, as KTK was quick to point out, of ““moral hazard.” I thought of risk compensation this morning on the subway ride to work. A woman was listening to her iPod. REALLY LOUDLY. The sound of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” came through, tinny, but at a volume not that different from what I would want in my own ears.

What I found unusual was that her earbuds were the ones that come with the iPod. Normally, they keep the sound very well contained, or so I’ve noticed on subways and airplanes. She must have had the volume up way high.

She’s Just A Girl Who Claims That I Am The One
But The Kid Is Not My Son
She Says I Am The One….

I stood at the end of the 6 train car, my back to the doors that lead between cars. She was seated about four feet from me, holding her iPod with both hands, bouncing gently, a middle-aged Hispanic woman with a black coat, a wool skirt, and high boots. Outside, snow was accumulating gently on car windshields. New York’s final snowstorm of the year was slowly building to a flight-canceling crescendo, but our train was a dry, noisy oasis. Wheels rumbled over the tracks, the brakes squealed as we slowed down for stops, and Michael spun and shouted on.

She Says I Am The One, But The Kid Is Not My Son
She Says I Am The One, But The Kid Is Not My Son…

She’s going to go deaf, I thought. She’s apparently halfway there already, or else she wouldn’t have had the volume so loud to begin with. Didn’t her parents warn her that loud music would damage her ears?

But then I had the thought that this was the hallmark of our generation, hers and mine. We ignored those warnings completely, and I suspect we were the first generation to do so. Why was that? And that’s when I thought of risk compensation.

We were the first generation to take scientific and technological progress completely for granted. We were the first children who didn’t have to worry about polio and scarlet fever (which killed my mother’s only sister). New diseases were conquered yearly, and even cancer would surely be cured by the time we were old enough to possibly get it.

We’ve started to discard body parts, getting new eye lenses or shaving the old ones down. I myself put off lasik, first confused by the progression of new technologies, then deciding that I needed to wait until lots of other people went first. “Once there’s 10 million people with it, if there’s any problems, there will be a billion-dollar-market to be made in solving the problems,” I thought. Now I don’t get it simply because I’m a chickenshit for whom vision is so important I’m not willing to risk even a slight chance of a catastrophic outcome. I also don’t listen to loud music, and have excellent hearing. But most people I know my age have simply gone for it—lasik and loud music both. “JUST GO FOR IT” is a pretty good slogan for us.

For my generation, products get so much better so quickly that we just throw out the old ones. We repurchased our record collections once for CDs, and now we were doing it again for the iPod. My fellow subway rider had probably paid for “Billie Jean” three times.

Waste and consumption and the expectation that our problems would be solved by the time we needed to worry about them amounted to a form of risk compensation. Instead of lifespans shooting into the triple-digits, we live more and more dissolute lives, and life expectancy has leveled off in the high 70s. More and more of us survive cancer and even AIDS, but one third of us have or will have diabetes. We stop smoking but put trans-fats in everything and find other ways as well to have heart attacks in our 40s.

And sure enough, hearing-aid technology is getting better and better, just in time for millions of baby boomers and post-boomers who’ve been blasting the Rolling Stones into their years for four decades now. The reason the world sometimes doesn’t seem to have improved much since I was a child is we keep spending the improvements on ever more sedentary, product-filled lives of immediate gratification.

Perhaps if times get tough, we’ll all buckle down and get to work, like Scarlett in Gone With The Wind. Until then, though, we’re like something straight out of the opening scene, dressing for a frivolous ball, expecting to be waited on hand and foot, or just sitting back as a $400 stereo we can hold in our hands blasts our eardrums into repairable oblivion.

‘Cause We Danced On The Floor In The Round
So Take My Strong Advice, Just Remember To Always Think Twice
(Do Think Twice)


6 Responses to “The Billie Jean generation”

  1. Yes, Grandpa. Those damn kids. Go back to sleep, now.

  2. digglahhh said

    I thought you were a Carlin fan? This being a revelation and being a Carlin fan (and a boomer) is a mutually exclusive confluence.

    You know what’s cool about the loud music though? Whenever I get onto the train and I see people with their Ipods (I still don’t have one), I always play the guessing game. What’s the chance that the demure forty-something woman across from me is listening to Iron Maiden?… The loud music gives closure to those musings.

    The best would be if you got the whole train ride with people keeping their music to themselves, but right before they got off, they blasted it so that you could find out how close you came to guessing what that person was listening to.

    ABBA’s greatest hits?… Damn, Bukowski on tape- not even close!

  3. Yeah, KTK, except that I’m the damned kid in the example. Sure, I keep the volume low, but I have my own ways of presuming that future problems can be solved by surgeons and other plumbers (e.g., rock climbing).

  4. Jen said

    I’m amazed. I’ve owned two iPods and blew the earbuds out within a few weeks. I could never stand the rattling and buzzing sounds after that, and replaced them. Either Apple’s newer earbuds have been improved to tolerate higher volume or she’s lost so much hearing she can’t stand the distortion.

    I’m fairly sure I do have mild hearing loss, but I’m also fairly sure it’s from working with loud parrots in an enclosed space.

    On waste: lately I’ve been thinking about trash a lot, and how much we throw out. I wonder if future generations will face such resource depletion that they’ll have to start mining our landfills. It still amazes me that we deal with trash by putting it in the ground and burying it—we’re not doing much better than my cats in that regard.

  5. Jen said

    The above should read “can’t hear the distortion.” I’m the one that can’t stand it. I need an editor.

  6. ClaireDePlume said

    Ahhhhhhh…. the 80’s a la subway. Billie Jean may say you’re the one,

    The subways traveled in these parts are silent. People peer unspoken and vacantly into space, or hide behind pages of a book or a newspaper. The rails sing their own song and I listen intently, the strains of an aria rising into the empty spaces, deep like a chorus of tenors with their tribute to the magic of my own imagination. The tempo changes with every lull and every acceleration, and if you listen very carefully, you can hear their song….

    And then the train’ wheels grind a signal that it’s the end of the line. Off we march to the elevators and into the light of day and I look at my fellow subway mates and smile secretly to myself.

    ‘Ears looking at you.’

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