Over the past year, whether I was in New York, Chicago, San Francisco or Cincinnati, there was always the unmistakable sight of white earbuds. Walking in the morning across Madison Ave, getting on the El headed downtown, or out for a run along the Ohio river: White earbuds dangling.

I was heading in to the office. Naturally I had my earbuds in and I was probably listening to a podcast. As I walked downstairs to the train, I passed  two older, visibly homeless men asking for money 100 yards apart. You become immune to these requests so quickly. At times you don’t even notice or process them anymore — you just unconsciously know to keep walking. This was an especially freezing cold March day Chicago and I wanted to get on the train as soon as possible. When underground, I checked my phone and saw the train was still a few minutes away. With time to spare, I took in my surroundings and registered no less than five folks who also had their white earbuds in. For some reason, my mind also went back to the homeless men I had just passed by minutes before.

That’s when the thought formed: Had we become an earbuds society?

It was the division that was the clearest to me. Apple, a company whose products I love, stood out as a clear example. You have millions of people who flock to Apple stores, buy the latest in technology: laptops, phones, tablets. Admittedly, it’s a diverse group. Apple fanboys(girls) are everyone from those who camp out for hours to be first to the more casual buyer who waits.

These items that can cost thousands of dollars. They’re amazing devices and I find extreme utility in them. So I’m not calling out any intrinsic issues with them or saying there’s anything wrong with Apple or buying their stuff. My larger point is their roles as a representative of the division between vastly divergent economic lives.

There are a ton of other signs for who belongs to what “economic class” — Audi or Honda?, Coach purse?, designer jeans?, Patagonia jacket?. The white earbuds, might be the most subtle, but also maybe its clearest manifestation. It’s not an overt display of wealth, it’s an ordinary one. It’s the stuff that you don’t even realize — the things you take for granted — that are often the clearest basis for division.

So, one, the white earbuds are the subtle representation of the split in society. You are either a part of the group that can (fairly) casually drop a few hundred dollars to join or you aren’t.

The second thought was more resonant. The earbuds represented the barriers we put up to avoid engaging and really looking into what’s going on around us.

It’s easier to walk by someone in need if you can pretend you don’t see or hear them. White earbuds allow us to stay in the perfectly manicured iPhone universe  and tune out all else.

It’s a lot easier for us to do this because the road forks very quickly. A homeless guy asking for money is lazy, looking to buy alcohol, and avoids working — someone who has spent his life shirking his responsibility to himself and society. He’s that. Or… A homeless guy asking for money is a military veteran, who had a sick spouse that led to an eviction, bankruptcy, the loss of a job, the path to battling alcoholism, and every day tries and fails to get back on his feet. Or has a mental illness (maybe PTSD, maybe schizophrenia, etc) that led to estrangement from family, the inability to hold down a job and the downward spiral. The stories I’ve heard go on and on.

The thing is, I don’t know which of these is the dominant case. Maybe the archetype of the lazy, good-for-nothing homeless represents 80%. Or maybe it’s that of the veteran in shitty circumstances that’s 80%. My point is the road forks very quickly. From seeing him begging for money– and us walking by– or to actually stopping and giving them money (or food, whatever) and letting them enter our consciousness. We wish to prevent that fork, whether consciously or not, and white earbuds are our invaluable ally.

So, two, the white earbuds are our daily subtle helper to stay within our worlds and prevent the lives and circumstances of others from affecting our paths.

I don’t have a pronouncement, a solution, or a recommendation. I’m not judging or lecturing anyone. I am a member of the white earbuds society. With all the talk of the Occupy Wall Street & the 99% and 1%, I guess 10 months ago I was wondering if the division is far more distributed a ~80% 20%. Is it really just all about the “super-rich” or is the much broader antipathy of me and my peer-group also responsible for the absurd state of everything?

I believe we have a white earbuds society. And almost a year after I first had this thought, I could see it in my nieces and nephews. In the iPhones they had, the presents they got for Christmas. A new generation growing up with white earbuds.

I feel guilty. Not for being part of this white earbud society. I’m not sure where that slippery slope ends and so any guilt at living a very comfortable life is pretty much outside of my daily consciousness. But I do struggle with the latter point of the barrier and its resulting separation. That everything that this comfort and privilege that I have (earned?) also forms a barrier and prevents me from having empathy and understanding what is going on in the world around me. That my daily thoughts and reactions are shaped in the absence of others’ lives. Naturally, my experiences from the past few years shapes this fear in a big way. One of my biggest concerns is instability . I see unsustainable in everything: in the use of natural resources, in economic imbalances of currency and trade, and on a micro-basis in our individual societies. The white earbud construct helped highlight one such source of this division and the impact of it. And, maybe, one source of why such large sources of instability/inequity* can exist and grow.

White earbuds. Their presence divides us. Both in who has them and in how they keep our worlds separate.

*”Extreme inequity = instability/unsustainable” in my book.

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