Sunday, April 15, 2007

The ‘I’ in the iPod

If one were asked to imagine how many consumer products are so exciting that they deserve books written on them, the answer would be difficult to come by.

The Sony Walkman? The Mac machine? The Mercedes Benz? A few possible contenders but are you sure?

You may not be but if you’d asked Steven Levy, Newsweek’s Senior Editor, he wouldn’t be uncertain in his choice. He would go for the iPod which he calls the “Perfect Thing.”

And not for nothing. That is the title of his book on the iPod: The Perfect Thing: How the iPod Shuffles Commerce, Culture, and Coolness (published by Simon & Schuster, Inc. 2006).

Though Farhad Manjoo, the Salon staff writer, calls it “a title that seems to skip past the boundaries of mere affection and into a land of wild-eyed cultish idolatry,” Levy’s tome on the tiny contraption provides interesting perspectives into the ways it has affected our lives.

Launched in October 2001, the iPod has become “the signature artifact (sic!) of our young century, selling more than 60 million units in its first five years.”

Impressive! And why wouldn’t it be as it seems that everyone—from George Bush in the White House to Dick Cheney in the war room to the Pope in the Vatican and down to the bloke sitting next to you in the MRT—has one.

Want more stats to impress you? Here it is. According to a 2005 survey, the iPod is more popular on American college campuses than beer. Anybody for an ad on the iPod vs. the Tiger Beer?

The post-iPod world

The post-iPod world, according to Levy, is split in two: “Those locked into iPod reveries and those griping about how they have lost contact with the cooler part of the world.”

Levy talks about the “iPod wars” in New York’s subways—“ musical sumo matches where two iPod wearers spontaneously confront each other, thrusting the screen in each other's faces with a song cue.”

Though we haven’t seen such musical machismo on Singapore’s public transports, we have surely encountered hordes of music lovers plugged away from reality with their iPods on our buses and trains.

If one were to believe Levy, one could deconstruct a person’s character by looking at his iPod playlist. “Playlist is character,” he says. Dick Cheney's iPod features the Carpenters and the Pope's has Beethoven, Chopin and podcasts from Vatican Radio. What do you make of it? Play your own shrink and wallow in the mud of “musical voyeurism”.

The iPod has not just made us musical vouyers, it has changed the way music is being made, distributed and consumed. The à la carte option in the iTunes store has changed the age-old linear experience of listening to music. Now people can buy only the good songs, and cherry-pick the music they listen to. That makes us a “skip-forward generation" in Levy’s parlance.

Not just that. Manjoo has noted how music portability of iPod like devices has changed -- for the worse -- the way engineers record music. Record labels now use a very low dynamic range when they're mastering new albums because they want to ensure that people can hear new songs in noisy settings.

However, apart from music, the iPod’s contribution to Podcasting cannot be underestimated—the process of uploading and downloading content was empowered by Apple’s player. The phenomenon is significant as, in the understating of Indian communications expert, Indrajit Banerjee, it contributes to the globalization of the local.

The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman talked about it in a podcast on globalization: “…You are seeing now the power of this flat world platform for more and more individuals to upload — upload their own culture, their own story, their own music, their own styles — through blogging, through podcasting. And they’re going to be huge forces of homogenization in this flat world.”

A device for portable cocooning?

On the downside, Levy has admitted that the iPod is far from perfect: its skin is scuffable, its digital rights management is all too-confining. That is about its obvious shortcomings. What about its impact on our social lives?

In the personal sphere, the iPod has perhaps made us more alienated from each other.

Levy says that we are forming technological bubbles around us—a phenomenon termed as "mobile privatization" by sociologist Raymond Williams in 1974. The iPod has been advancing the “movement of portable cocooning that's been underway for decades”.

He further notes that when the breakthrough device in personal audio, Sony's Walkman, came in 1979, it provided us two things: escape, as it shut out the world to us, and enhancement, as it transformed our world into a soundtrack, reshaping our “perception of the crappy world around” us.

Levy believes that the iPod takes this phenomenon a huge step further: “Because it holds so much of one's music and can play back the songs with near-infinite variety, its addictiveness far exceeds that of the Walkman. Because it is more compact, it goes more places, with more ease.”

But this portable cocooning is a general truth about the Internet age. Thomas Friedman has said that technology is dividing us as much as uniting us.

Linda Stone, the technologist who once labelled the disease of the Internet age “continuous partial attention” — two people doing six things, devoting only partial attention to each one, has remarked that we’re so accessible, we’re inaccessible. “We can’t find the off switch on our devices or on ourselves. ... We want to wear an iPod as much to listen to our own playlists as to block out the rest of the world and protect ourselves from all that noise,” she said. “We are everywhere — except where we actually are physically.”

NOTHING WRONG WITH THAT. In a globalised world where chaos, connectivity and communications are the buzz words, shutting out the rest of the world for a couple of hours a day brings some sanity to this panic planet.

Thank you for that, iPod.