Hell Is Other iPods

The aural loneliness of the long-distance shuffler

I don’t have an iPod, but it’s only a matter of time. I can feel the pressure building up around me — the groovy TV ads, the smug folks with the telltale white headphones on the subway making me feel unhip, the proliferating choice of colors.

And yet something in me resists, and it’s not just the inner cheapskate. Something feels not quite right, and it’s not only that the iPod comes in a special red and black U2 collector’s edition.

I read an article recently in USA Today about the new “gospel of iPod,” the emergence of “the iPod nation.” Well, okay, the piece is gently parodying Apple’s conventionally hyped-up marketing and loyal, not to say fanatical, user base. (There is no zeal like the zeal of an Apple Mac user; just try asking one innocently, as I once did, if there really is any substantial difference between a Mac and a PC.) So perhaps we shouldn’t take it too seriously, but try these statements on for size:

“My friends all have [an iPod], and I just felt it was time to catch up.” Fair enough, typical teenage logic, and if not for such sentiments, where would the hula hoop or the Rubix cube ever have got?

But how about this? “The iPod has changed my life,” says Andrea Kozek, perhaps revealing a lack of robustness in her life in the first place. “When I need to block out the rest of the world, I turn it on.” And let’s face it, the one thing we really need to do is block out the rest of that pesky old world. But why not just listen to the radio, Andrea? “Do I really want to hear Britney Spears doing Bobby Brown’s ‘My Prerogative’? It wasn’t a good song in the first place,” she answers, revealing some talent for music criticism but poor taste in radio stations, which I wonder if her iPod can really resolve. (By the way, Andrea has nicknamed her iPod ‘My Precious,’ a tribute to Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.)

It’s easy to mock. So let’s continue. One choice statement explains how iPod can calm the turbulent waters of family life by resolving the thorny subject of who gets to choose the music: “We’ll all be listening to music at the same time,” says an iPod mom from Williamsburg, New York. “I’ll be connected to iTunes on my laptop, my kids will have their iPods on, and my husband likes to listen to his while he’s surfing around on eBay.” Remind me not to accept an invitation to dinner at their place, or at least to bring a good book with me.

Here’s my real objection. The iPod is an example of a beautifully designed, convenient, and desirable object that promises to make our lives better, but whose promise, on reflection, as is so often the case, turns out to reinforce the worst in our already denuded culture. In an age of atomization and social fragmentation it reinforces solipsism and places the individual and that dreaded value “choice” at the heart of experience; it suggests connection — always the implicit promise of the digital age — while enforcing separation; it encourages people to “tune out” while they’re occupying social space with others, as if the others were mere irritations; and it reduces the experience of music, which in my view is an inherently social and collaborative art and medium, to a preselected relationship with the self.

The iPod shares this severe limitation with all post-Walkman personal stereos. They personalize, indeed privatize, music, which really comes to life only when it is public, shared, and collaborative. A large part of the joy of discovering good new music is simultaneously anticipating the pleasure of sharing it with someone else. Anything else is masturbation. Overstated? Try this statement from one user: “With the iPod the Buddha is in the details. The finish and the feel are such that you want to caress it. And when you do, wonderful things happen.”

Legal scholar Cass Sunstein has a theory about the Internet that he calls “The Daily We.” The argument is that rather than broaden our access to information, ideas, and experiences, the Internet, precisely because it offers such dizzying, disorienting choice and possibility, reinforces the tendency to filter out what is unknown, stick to what you like, and congregate with others who like the same thing.

A similar argument could be made for the “iPod jukebox.” Unlike listening to (good) radio, which could infuriate and surprise you in equal measure, the iPod jukebox protects you from the shocks, both highs and lows; it offers you a safe experience that flatters, because every good track was one you chose, every familiar song reminds you of an emotion or memory: yours. Never did I think I’d find myself sounding so much like that old Frankfurt school philosopher-grump Theodor Adorno, but his argument that pop music and its predictable structure deliver back to the user a cheap thrill because he or she recognizes how it will end seems to work for the iPod.

iPodistas like to talk up the social benefits of iPod-jacking: Total strangers swap iPods for a moment to listen to each other’s selections. Well, okay. The utter hell of having to listen to strangers’ music collections while standing close to them without talking in public notwithstanding, such an idea proceeds from the premise that it is the iPod that has offered this epochal opportunity for social interaction. It was, I am given to understand, entirely possible even before the iPod to approach a stranger on the street and attempt to swap words, names, or even ideas in a form of “tuning in” known as a conversation. A celebration of the joys of iPod-jacking seems a final acceptance that the possibility of actually communicating is gone for good, and we are left with a pale facsimile: You play me yours and I’ll play you mine.

“This is all part of the shift from mass media to personalized media,” says Paul Saffo, a technology forecaster and director of the Institute of the Future. No doubt this is true, but is it, I wonder, a good thing? For all the cachet and control implied by the iPod, the laptop, the BlackBerry, the digital camera, and wi-fi, in the end what seems to be on offer are particular kinds of distraction and avoidance, and a peculiar kind of 21st-century digital loneliness.

Or am I just grumpy because no one bought me an iPod for Christmas?

Caspar Melville is executive editor ofopenDemocracy.net, an online magazine of politics and culture. Reprinted from New Humanist (March/April 2005), the bimonthly journal of the Rationalist Press Association. Subscriptions: £18/yr. (6 issues) from 1 Gower St., London, WC1N 6BR; United Kingdom; www.newhumanist.org.uk.

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