Sunday, February 10, 2013

New Media - iPods and mp3 players

The readings can be found here and here.

I was once told that the iPod is a kind of drug, in that it causes the listener to achieve a state of euphoria or happiness, simply because each song is (potentially) a favourite. In other words, there are no mediocre songs on someone’s iPod. There is the potential that one will simply continue to listen to favourites throughout the day.

Michael Bull calls this kind of state a “zone of immunity,” to use Richard Sennett’s term for the place of the church in Western civilization.

“The church, in Sennett’s argument, created a zone of ‘immunity’ for the citizen, an ordered space in which the subject could feel secure. Today this zone of immunity and security is a mobile one existing between the ears of iPod users as they move through the city--enveloped in what they imagine to be their own reality, each holding Apple iPods--twenty-first century icon and acoustic metaphor for much urban life.” (Iconic Designs 108)

The interesting thing is that the design of the iPod has evolved over time. The key to the iPod's success is twofold. It is an issue of space, that one could now conceivably put their complete collection of music on something small enough to fit in their hand. It is also an issue of user interface, a way to access that music.

The scroll wheel is the key - first, the click wheel, a combination of moving parts and buttons. Next, touch sensitive, solid state, no more clicking or buttons. Finally, a combination of solid state touch sensitive and clicking for play/pause, next/back, etc. The interface becomes simpler for the user as it becomes more technologically complex.

The aesthetic design of the iPod is something which is often overlooked in terms of its allure. Many would talk about its domination in the marketplace, or the problems with its ties to specific software (iTunes). Not many discuss what I think is its main strength - its appearance. Its design is what draws me to it - its clean lines, the materials that make it up. The way it looks in the dark (the 3rd Gen iPod is what this last part is referring to).

Bull calls the iPod a “perfect marriage between aesthetics and functionality, of sound and touch--the auditory world in the palm of the hand.” (105) It comes to market at a time of increasing mobility and privatization - this is, in fact, not a new thing.

Bull seems to equate an iPod with the Gothic cathedral: “The populace invariably went into these spaces not merely to pray but to enter envelopes of sound resounding through their bodies, amplified by the great arches of the cathedral.” (106) Back to the iPod, now that people were free from the constraints of radio, those sonic envelopes “exist in the personal playlist of the iPod.” He also considers the idea of your whole music collection fitting in the palm of your hand a magical one. (107) This is interesting. This is something that was never possible in the past.

The iPod is, in fact, intoxicating: “an intoxicating mixture of music, proximity and privacy whilst on the move.” (No Dead Air 344) iPod users might use the device as a way to inhabit the spaces within which they move, a creation of a “privatised auditory bubble,” a means to control time and space through which they move.

Consider what Bull writes on the bottom of pg. 346.

As opposed to thinking that the iPod destroys community or creates isolation, Bull suggests that “music enables users to clear a space for thought, imagination and miid maintenance.” (349) For Bull, the choice of music by the listener enables a form of “biological travelling,” that the narrative of the listener’s life is recalled in the current space of travelling, thus making their journey one that is more personal.

“The world and their biography is recollected and accompanied by sound.” (349)

The world becomes “intimate, known, and possessed.” (350) - the world around them seem to work in tandem with the music (this isn’t actually happening, but it seems like it might magically be).

The city dweller is able to reorganise the sounds of the city. (352)

“the city becomes a personalised audio visual environment, yet even the sense of touch and the concomitant [naturally accompanying] relational experience of the street is transformed, invariably making the iPod user happier as they move, empowered through the street.” (352)

What do you think of Bull's idea of dancing through a crowd, instead of struggling? Does the iPod still hold such cultural cache as Bull suggested it did in 2005 and 2006?


Phil Wiebe said...

Of any brand of technology products, none has played as intimate or significant a role in my own personal life as Apple and specifically their iPod family. My earliest memories with a computer are playing Tetris on our first home computer, a Macintosh SE (I think it was the FDHD model, running System 6). Throughout the years, my graphic designer dad had a variety of Power Macintoshes, like the 8600, the beige G3, and the mirrored-drive door G4, before moving on to the aluminum Intel iMac. We even had a clamshell iBook, a Powerbook G3 'Pismo', and a neighbour gave me his old Power Mac 7300, which I filled with shareware and demos off old MacAddict CDs. Remember when computer magazines came with CDs? I'm sure they still do, but back then they were really cool. You could always expect 700 glorious megabytes packed with freeware, shareware, app demos, games, and more. The MacAddict staff would even make a monthly video and an application that let you browse all the software on the disc through a little GUI interface with music and descriptions.

I had a subscription to MacAddict for about 3 years, from 2004 to 2007, till all of the cool editors quit and it got rebranded as Mac|Life. In those years, I lived, breathed, and ate Apple. I read and reread every issue (I still have all of them in a box somewhere), I bought Owen Linzmayer's Apple Confidential 2.0, I watched Keynotes, read ThinkSecret, and was generally a Mac evangelist a la Guy Kawasaki to all the mindless drones convinced of the PC's superiority. Seriously, didn't they know anything about processor clock cycles and UI usability?

Part of my ardent Mac zealotry was informed by the fact that, when I fully embraced it as the pinnacle of computing, Apple was in a tough place. Not as bad as the pre-Jobs years, but I think their market share was below 5%. Macs were expensive tools for professional creative types (audio engineers, graphic designers, film editors, etc.), connoisseurs, the Apple faithful, and the occasional person who just happened to end up with one. What I didn't know back then was that Apple had a dark horse in its stable; the first time I saw an ad for the iPod (in the September 2002 edition of MacAddict, probably read in October 2003), I thought "Neat, but what's the point?" Little did I know that in the coming years the iPod and the iTunes Music Store were going to propel Apple to such great heights. I did become an early adopter, though: after my first job, I spent the money I earned on a 20GB 4th generation (clickwheel) iPod in 2004. After the hard drive broke two years later, I bought a 30GB 5th generation which also suffered a broken hard drive two years later, which was followed by a 16GB 2nd generation iPod Touch. By that time Apple was using flash memory so that one is still alive and kicking. I haven't felt the need to get a new iPod since. My entire musical experience since adolescence has been informed and made possible by the iPod.

Phil Wiebe said...

The iPod is a kind of drug, but its effects are not limited just to euphoria; as said, by Bull, matching mood is crucial - an iPod can be your stimulant, depressant, analgesic, or hallucinogen.

I think the most resounding idea in Bull's article is that of "biographical narrative" through music (349). Every song on your iPod is a song that matters to you, and every song that matters has memories attached to it. All of my favourites put me in a certain place or time, and listening to them brings back the feelings that came with them. As a listener said, "I feel as though life is a movie and is playing especially for me" (348). Music in the iPod era helps listeners recontextualize their life in another 'medium' - understanding their own narratives through film and sound.

The evolution of the iPod managed to grab ahold of the public consciousness in a way that (until the iPhone era) no technology product could - people actually got excited about growing storage sizes (computed in terms of songs rather than boring old gigabytes), smaller form factors, and even new color cases or accessories. However, I think the iPod's "killer app" was its interface - Apple's main goal was to design an MP3 player with an intuitive UI and control interface and the overwhelming positive public reception was the proof of success.

Besides usability, I would agree that the aesthetics of the iPod were the other key component of its success. People wanted something that was easy to use and looked attractive; with these attributes, the iPod became not just a practical object but an object of desire. In a correlation with the reimagining of life as film through the iPod, consider Zizek on the nature of film: "Cinema is the ultimate pervert art. It doesn't give you what you desire - it tells you how to desire." The iPod doesn't give us what we desire (control over time and space) but allows us to exercise control over some time and space. And its marketing may have been the first to emphasize the 'magic' of possessing a device that made the previously impossible possible.

Insofar as the iPod can isolate listeners from external tension, reduce the relevance of conflict, and subvert the commute from a boring or unpleasant stretch of time to a pleasurable excuse to do nothing but listen to music, the idea of dancing through a crowd is accurate.

Today, though, the relevance of specifically the iPod is gone. The same cultural significance is accorded to personal electronic devices, but it has largely been transferred to the smart phone and tablet which have absorbed all of the MP3 player's salient features except for the potential for miniscule size. Apple still has the icon monopoly with the iPhone and iPad, but the iPod is on its way out.

Nicholas Greco said...

I probably had a MacAddict subscription at the same time that you did. Unfortunately my parents never had a Macintosh at home, though we were pretty early with a Windows computer (never had Internet at home, though).

As an aside, my claim to fame with coolness was using WordPerfect for years and years. I would still, though Pages works quite fine for me (I wrote my dissertation on it, so it certainly is "good enough").

Keynote watching was my hobby. At one point, I collected all of the keynotes, but no longer. I do still have all of the official keynote releases through iTunes, the earliest being from 2007, I think.

This was a great read for me (both because of my interests, and also, you continue to do well with your writing).

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