When Christopher Morris’ photo essay on President Bush was published in TIME magazine in mid-January, a storm of controversy ensued. Hours after the pictures were published, Internet forums were abuzz as vitriolic barbs flew back and forth across cyberspace. But liberals and conservatives weren’t lashing out at each other over Iraq or budget cuts. In one shot, Dubya holds an iPod.

“That’s it, I’m selling my iPod,” one liberal posted on the techie Weblog “Engadget.”

Yet it was a Bush supporter who posted perhaps the most withering response of all: “Kerry probably uses a Dell DJ.”

Clearly the iPod is shaping our world in a way the Walkman never could. But just how the harmless-looking little gadget is altering life is a source of considerable debate. Andrew Sullivan vilified the iPod in The New York Times — blaming it for the death of society and calling the collective body of iPod owners “the sect of little white box worshippers” — whereas Steven Levy called the iPod “an indispensable part of one’s life” in “Newsweek.” So which is it: Is the iPod a Pandora’s box destined to bring about the downfall of modern civilization, or is it as harmless and pure as its virginal white casing suggests?

A common complaint about the iPod is that it is a visible marker of socioeconomic status, dividing the world into two camps: the iPod-owning elite and those who possess more plebian CD players. At $299, iPods aren’t cheap, and in order to use an iPod one must also own a computer.

“It’s sort of a status symbol when you see people walking around with those headphones,” said one Yale sophomore who asked to remain anonymous. “I always feel slightly inferior when I pull out my black headphones.”

It’s a two-way street though. Jose Ramirez ’07 said he resents the aura of elitism owning an iPod confers on him.

“The medium that you choose to listen to your music puts you into one of two categories,” Ramirez explained. “The new, hip and cool generation of music listeners using iPods, and those that prefer the more traditional CD. I often hear people who don’t own iPods say, ‘Oh, so you bought an iPod’ in a very condescending fashion.”

Another aspersion frequently cast on the iPod is its tendency to isolate its owner from the ambient world. Sullivan called this effect the “iPod cocoon.” Even the iPod’s biggest fans admit that listening to music on a train or while walking limits social interaction. While this effect may be viewed as a helpful tool for tuning out panhandlers and environmental lobbyists, gone is the possibility of chance conversations with strangers. One Australian private school even banned students from bringing their iPods to school, fearing that the devices would interfere with the development of the children’s social skills.

And it gets worse. Artist Mark Splinter pointed out a natural offshoot of this isolation rather bluntly in his images of iPod screens which, instead of track names, display the phrase “iPodding seriously damages your chances of getting laid.”

Furthermore, those iconic, status-conferring “earbuds” make iPod owners conspicuous targets for muggers. New York University reportedly warned its students to choose different headphones, and The Times of London ran an article featuring a similar note last year.

Socially divisive, insulating and hazardous to the health. So what led 22 million Americans to buy these nasty little packages of pestilence? Kelly Doyle-Mace, a sophomore at the University of Georgia, said she loves having all of her music at her fingertips, allowing her to choose an artist to match her mood at any given moment. Like many iPod lovers, she said music deepens the experience of walking through the world, rather than detracting from it. She is willing to sacrifice some degree of social interaction to achieve this effect.

“I can’t live without walking around campus listening to music,” she said.

There are also those who claim that the iPod does more to unite people than it does to divide them. Two of those people are Lisa and Jonny Rocket, the founders of Playlist, a community of sorts for devotees of the iPod. Once a month, Playlist hosts iPod DJ nights at a London bar. On these nights, the guests are the entertainment. Everyone is invited to compile 15-minute set lists on their iPods — either music they’ve created or simply songs they enjoy — and plug the iPods into the speaker system and play their selections. The range of music that comes out of the speakers is impressive, from 80s dance hits to synth-laden digital jazz. But even more diverse than the music are the members, Lisa said. Anyone and everyone shows up at Playlist events: cross-dressing goths, the occasional pregnant lesbian and, of course, average Londoners just looking to kick back after a day at the office. Lisa said the iPod acts to bring people together.

“Some people talk about iPods being an isolating thing … here you’ve got a setup where individuals use a personal technology and make it a social event,” Jonny said.

He said he wants to return music to its roots as a “tribal dance,” and through Playlist he has been largely successful. He cited a moment from the first iPod DJ night Playlist ever hosted, when a man from Norfolk had the strange idea of playing a theme song from a 1980s British television quiz show called “Minder.” The tune was a hit.

“It united everyone on the dance floor at once,” Jonny recalled. “People were leaping over the bar to join in. This was exactly the chaos we thought the club would be.”

Playlist is spreading. An iPod DJ night has already been held in Philadelphia, and iPod-philes have expressed interest in hosting similar events in Berlin, Beijing and New York. It may not be enough to convince Andrew Sullivan that the iPod won’t usher in the next Dark Age, or enough to prevent an entire generation from growing up to be socially inept introverts. But judging from Apple’s rocketing sales and the ever-expanding array of iPod paraphernalia available to help the masses feed their habit, the people have decided that they’d pick The Clash over a good conversation every time.