Hell is other iPods
Caspar Melville on the 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 ads on TV, the smug folks with the tell-tale white headphones on the Tube making me feel unhip, the proliferating choice of colours. To make my purchasing decision easier Apple, the creators of the iPod, have just released the Shuffle, a smaller, cheaper iPod which brings the price down to my kind of range. It's cute and sleek, it's 'the size of a stick of gum' and, has enough memory to fit 240 songs, if I can find 240 songs I want to listen to.
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. There's something smug about it; it's cute and it knows it. I go to the website and find that the iPod Shuffle "goes with everything sleek and beautiful, [it] makes a tuneful fashion statement. Just throw the included lanyard around your neck and take a walk. Or run. Or ride and those signature white earbud headphones tell the world you love to listen." The Shuffle then, like so much in our look-at-me culture, is not just for what it's for - listening to music - it's to tell others about yourself, without going to the bother of talking to them.
Reading on through the promotional bumf you find that the iPod is versatile: you can listen "in the car. On the treadmill. At the office." The office? Makes you wonder what kind of jobs these people have. The treadmill? Are they being ironic?
I do a little research and find an article from 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 one, I just felt it was time to catch up." Fair enough, typical teenage logic, and if not for such sentiments where would the hoola-hoop, Rubix cube or S Club 7 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 Lord of the Rings).
It's easy to mock. So let's continue. One choice quote 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, NY. " 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, which promises to make our lives better, but whose promise on reflection, as so often, turns out to reinforce the worst in our already denuded culture. In an age of atomisation and social fragmentation it reinforces solipsism, 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 the 'tuning out' of people while occupying social space with them, as if others were mere irritations, and it reduces the experience of music which is, at least in my view (I realise I might be in the minority here), an inherently social and collaborative art and medium, to a preselected relationship with the self.
This severe limitation is one that the iPod shares with all post-Walkman personal stereos. They personalise, indeed, privatise music, which only really comes to life 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 quote 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 which 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, disorientating choice and possibility, reinforces the tendency to filter out what is unknown, stick to what you like, congregate with others who like the same thing, weed out or avoid anything uncomfortable or unknown - in short, protect yourself from the challenges and difficulties of a diverse world, and construct a daily newspaper of the self.
A similar argument could be made for the 'iPod jukebox'. Unlike listening to (good) radio - the late, great John Peel comes to mind - which could infuriate and surprise you in equal measure, the iPod jukebox protects you from the shocks, both highs and lows - offers you a safe experience which 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 Theodore Adorno, but his argument that pop music delivers back to the user a cheap thrill because they recognise how it will end (because its structure is predictable) seems to work for the iPod.
What I find intriguing are the many ways in which Apple is trying to make sure the iPod does not appear to be predictable, isolating, boring. The Shuffle itself is an attempt to inject some unpredictability into the original notion of choice. Even though they've always had a shuffle mode, the first iPods were all about programming - you could decide what you wanted and in what order. The Shuffle shuffles, randomly. Suddenly, as the slogan goes, 'life is unpredictable'. But it can still only play what you put in it.
As for isolation, iPodistas 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 a stranger's music collection 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 with them 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 for actually communicating are 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 personalised media," says Paul Saffo from 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 and the Shuffle, the laptop and the Blackberry, the digital camera and wi-fi, in the end what seem 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?
Note: Portions of the user testimonies are taken from the USA Today article 'In iPod America, legions in tune' by Marco dell Cava 2/1/2005. Caspar Melville is editor of New Humanist. Someone did buy him an iPod for Christmas, but he stick by what he says here, nonetheless.