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MUNI Blues

March 21, 2007

Riding the San Francisco Municipal Railway (or MUNI as the local bus, light rail, and tram network is known) has long been considered the kind of cultural experience that most people in this city would rather avoid, like Chinese opera or cream pie-eating competitions.

When I ride MUNI, which I do pretty much every day, one of my favorite ways to pass the time is to count the number of headphone cords I can see dangling from passengers' ears.

The headphone count provides a useful barometer of the extent to which people interact with each other in public spaces and the pervasiveness of modern technologies.

When I first started monitoring headphone counts way back in 2000 when I arrived in San Francisco, numbers were very low. I'd see maybe one or two sets on MUNI at most. More often, people would sit in the back of the bus and broadcast music from boom boxes, treating everyone to their favorite Snoop Dogg and Tupac tracks.

But with advent of the iPod in 2001, my MUNI earphone count game has changed radically. According to Apple Inc's latest financial results, total iPod sales reached 88,701,000 units as of January 2007. So it's no surprise that these days, I cannot ride a bus without losing count of the strings of white spaghetti dangling from passengers' ears. It frequently takes me an entire journey to figure out what proportion of riders are tuning in and zoning out. By my calculations, 30 - 40% of MUNI's custtomers now wear headphones.

On the positive side, the radical increase in headphone wearing has led to the virtual extinction of the boom box bus rider (though some teenagers still broadcast music from the puny speakers on their cellphones which makes you want to confiscate the objects like an angry school teacher.) And of course, listening to music or catching up on a podcast about one's favorite hobby or the news is a useful and pleasant thing to be able to do in transit.

But the negative effects of the mass headphone wearing outdo the positive. For one thing, people have the volume up on their MP3 players so high (perhaps because the white headphones that Apple provides with the device are so cheap and useless) that it's common to hear several different strains of tinny music coming at you at once from different sources. This noise pollution is even worse than listening to a single, purposeful boom box sometimes. For another, the headphone wearers are so immersed in their own private worlds that you cannot get them to move down or let you pass when the bus is crowded. Conversation, of course, is impossible, with any headphone wearer.

The iPod and its ilk have become so ubiquitous on MUNI that the Police Department has issued a yellow flyer of "iPod Safety Tips" warning passengers about the potential theft of their portable digital music players. MP3 player wearers are easy targets because they're not paying attention to their surroundings. According to the flyer, thieves are targeting white headphones more than other kinds as this color is most frequently associated with the most coveted of all MP3 players - the iPod. It's not just the device that thieves are interested in. Apparently they're going after the information stored on the devices too. With iPods now acting as storage drives for personal information such as phone numbers, calendar dates and passwords, the potential for identity theft is high.

Despite the risks, I think the headphone count will continue to increase. It'll be interesting when Apple starts shipping its new iPhone device in the summer. Thefts will be off the charts, and no one will be listening to the woman in the back corner, quietly muttering "43 passengers, 42 sets of headphones" to herself with a sigh.



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