Tuesday, May 19, 2009

iPod Nation

As they say in France: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

It turns out that this year marks the 30th aniversary of the invention of the Sony Walkman, what A. N. Wilson terms "the gadget that helped break Britain." That's right, 30 years ago we saw the forbear of the now-ubiquitous iPod, which made it possible for all of us to mindlessly "tune out" the mindless distractions of the rest of the world. Anyone who bothers to interact with other human beings these days is surely familiar with the characteristic white-ear-plugged-being that we now recognize as the hipster. Only now, the iPod nation is not (merely) limited to wannabe hipsters anymore, as almost anyone and everyone (including my otherwise-technophobic mother) owns some version of this super-individuating device. Personal MP3 players have made it possible to avoid all kinds of human interaction these days, hemming us into a kind of well-orchestrated solipsistic universe from which, in all honesty, many of us have no intention of leaving. What's funny about the iPod nation, of course, is that despite its apparent homogeneity, its constituents view themselves as radically individuated, what with all their individual "playlists" and such. And both sides of this seeming paradox are equally true: it is the case (as pictured above) that everyone looks the same when plugged-in to the iPod, but it is also true that what the iPod is feeding into the ears of this allegedly homogeneous population is radically heterogeneous. The iPod makes us all different, together.

I'm a deeply committed (and passionately opinionated) lover of music myself, and I have no complaints about the proliferation of iPodders. In my mind, it's as good as having a proliferation of avid readers. That is, what we have here are a people committed to and convicted by their own standards of taste and meaning, and who have demonstrated that commitment in an actual investment in the products of those tastes and meanings. For all of the complaints about the iPod nation, of which there are many, I think there are a lot of benefits as well. If you're a true music-lover, you have surely enjoyed (like me) the many and varied improvements in musical taste and sophistication that iPods have enabled. I suppose it's possible that iPods have also decreased our general conversation/interaction with one another, but they have enabled interaction/conversation with a much wider audience than was previously possible. (One of the podcasts on my iPod is Philosophy Bites, which not only connects me with ideas and persons that interest me, but also those who are of professional interest to me.) So, I say, stop griping abou the iPod nation. What we have now is more sophisticated music lovers, more informed intellectuals, more people exposed to the thoughts and imaginations and creations of more people over a greater (time and space) distance.

It is, in my view, the first truly "cosmopolitan" device. Far be it from me to blindly advocate individuating devices (which, as a rule, I view as a part of the Neoliberal Conspiracy), but the merits of iPods don't get as much press as its demerits, in my view.

Long live the iPod nation!


Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...


stevem thomas said...

I guess I should go buy one then, since I can't find fault with anything you've said, except for your very exaggerated final claim that it is the FIRST cosmopolitan device. Um... what about books? newspapers? radio?

Of course the problem with cosmopolitan devices is that they always have to be bought.

christophresh said...

I'm not sure Ipods decrease human interaction much. How much interaction do most of us have with strangers anyhow? It does seriously decrease interaction with one's non-human environs, though. You can only pay so much attention at once: attention to music is taking away from attention to the city itself.
Which results in never being surprised by your city, which no matter which place you live, is full of surprises.
(I find the same thing happens if I ride my bike always, instead of sometimes walking: the city is a blur by bike.)
I think the decisive difference is that Ipods beg to be played on shuffle, which with a musical library in the thousands, is a dizzying, entirely heterogeneous selection. Instead of an album of country followed by an album of hip-hop, you get 180 seconds of hip-hop followed by 220 of country, etc...
Obviously, that is good and bad: we have a greater variety, and so a greater comparative knowledge of genres. But, we also lack any specialization, so to speak, in music. How deeply do you know/enjoy hip-hop, say, if you only sit alongside it in microbursts?