Essay: iPod, therefore iAm?

Everyone desires to be loved or at least tolerated. People want to be different yet still belong to a community (however small it might be). But when society embraces technology to accomplish this basic need there should be cause for concern. The advent of the internet and new technology connects the globe in so many ways, but it has also lulled people into an artificial sense of purpose and meaning. Andrew Sullivan’s article in The Times titled “Society is dead, we have retreated into the iWorld” touches on the reality of self-imposed isolation as he ponders the iPod culture.

For those who are unfamiliar with iAnything, a brief summary is required. Back in the spring of 1998, Apple Computers announced the arrival of its first Bondi blue iMac. It was a new personal computer, which featured an all-in-one design (combining monitor and CPU) with an aesthetically pleasing package. Prior to that all personal computers were institutional gray boxes requiring a power strip for all the hardware. Apple offered a revolutionary machine that eventually paved its corporate path into the entertainment industry.

Enter iPod in October 2001—a portable digital audio player to replace the Sony Walkman and Discman. The iPod is basically a battery powered external hard drive with earphones, which enables you to listen to over hundreds of MP3 audio selections as you walk, ride, run, sit, skate or recline.

Andrew Sullivan, former editor of The New Republic, admits he owns and uses an iPod. He writes, “I joined the cult a few years ago: the sect of the little white box worshippers. What was once an occasional musical diversion became a compulsive obsession. Now I have my iTunes in my iMac for my iPod in my iWorld. It’s Narcissus heaven: we’ve finally put the ‘i’ into Me.” Is the iPod phenomena Narcissus? In many ways it seems practical for those radio surfers whom switch to the next FM station when they don’t enjoy a certain song, commercial or idea. Maybe it’s more personal branding or expression of individuality or merely a status symbol.

iPod’s technology replaces what used to be called “dub tapes” which, simply put, was your own personal 90-minute soundtrack extracted from a mountain of audiocassettes. Yes, that was the period of technological history between 8-Tracks and CDs.

During my high school years, I used to dub my own cassette tapes with all my favorite music. I had one cassette with mixes of Motley Crüe, Whitesnake and Def Leppard. Another cassette might have songs by Paul Simmon, U2 and The Chietains. And yet another would have samplings of The Oak Ridge Boys and Johnny Cash. A plastic grocery bag housed at least a half dozen 90-minute dubbed cassettes representing my own personal soundtrack. What drove that desire to require a personal soundtrack? Maybe it was the need to be relevant, cool or at least accepted? The irony of wanting acceptance and demanding individuality resides in all of us.

My music tastes have expanded (if not matured somewhat) since those high school days. But to withdraw into our own insulated iWorld seems reclusive – almost cowardly. Andrew Sullivan goes on to write; “You get your news from your favourite blogs, the ones that won’t challenge your view of the world. You tune into a satellite radio service that also aims directly at a small market — for new age fanatics, liberal talk or Christian rock.”

Not only personal iPod soundtracks but now technology has empowered anyone with internet access the option of personal internet publishing thanks to Web logs (commonly called “blogs”). Over 6 million blogs seem to harbor the same desperate need to be heard, coddled and yet still reside in a small favorable cyber community. Joy McCarnan, author of karagraphy.com, states; “The mentality… that irks me most about the blogosphere lately has been ‘I have a blog; therefore I am.’ I am somebody. I am a deep thinker. I am loved… life finally has purpose, and — by necessity! It’s a given! — I will be remembered. And it can degenerate into elitism. ‘Us few, not you.’ “

The elitism Joy McCarnan describes concerns me most — sort of new technology bigotry similar to racism. Elitism by its very nature leads to isolation and misrepresentation. Ms. McCarnan strikes at the very heart of the issue. Will iPods bring purpose and meaning to life? Does blogging mean you are loved?

Andrew Sullivan continues, “Technology has given us a universe entirely for ourselves — where the serendipity of meeting a new stranger, hearing a piece of music we would never choose for ourselves or an opinion that might force us to change our mind about something are all effectively banished.”

Should we fear new technology? No. Technology, like garden tools, should be used properly and not abused. You wouldn’t use a spade to open a bottle of wine, would you? Of course not. The “little white box worshippers” maybe seeking control over what they chose to hear as a means to define their existence. The end result is that they become a lonely, empty person with piped in tunes to lull them into consumerist passivity.

I am not one of the 22 million iPod owners. Not that I’m opposed to the idea. And it’s not that I’m expressing Neo-Luddite tendencies. I do periodically listen to internet radio stations like listener supported modern alternative rock station Radio Wazee (www.wazee.org) where I can hear “Relearn Love” by Scott Stapps, “Gorillaz On My Mind” by Redman And Gorillaz, “Boulevard Of Broken Dreams” by Green Day and Nirvana’s “Heart–Shaped Box.” My local favorite internet radio station is 88.7 WNCW where they play everything from Buddy Holly’s “That’ll Be The Day” to REM’s “Final Straw” to Townes Van Zandt’s “Black Widow Spider.” The reason why I enjoy iTuning these Web radio stations is because I am introduced to new artists that I normally wouldn’t hear outside my scope of friends and influences.

Likewise, the serendipitous meeting of strangers on the bus or downtown fills me with a greater awareness of others around me. I begin to understand my neighborhood and community. So, I listen and learn that there is more to this world than an insulated iPod existence. Mankind deserves more than another hip, cool status symbol.

Maybe it’s time to cut the digital umbilical cord. Go Neo for a couple days or weeks – unplugged from the iMatrix. Remove the white pods budding from your earlobes and listen to the bark of the neighbor’s German shepherd. What is she telling you? Is she warning you of a trespassing squirrel? Hear the bus passing en route to the transit station? It must be 4 P.M. The bus always passes by the house on the hour. If missing out on iPod, iShuffle or iLife makes me uncool, then I’m okay with that. The meaning and purpose of life does not come from an iPod box or a Web log. Nor should I be defined by experiencing iPod coolness (or lack there of) or blogging personal observations. The world in all its grit and glory is too big to ignore and life is too short to retreat to a cyber void.

(c) Matthew Mulder. All rights reserved.

First published in the April 2005 issue of The Indie

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