Friday, December 19, 2008

Earbuds, the Shuffle, and thousands & thousands of songs: the iPod's impact on culture

The question of whether technological devices structure the nature of society, or are merely a representation of pre-existing societal forces, is one that is fraught with ambiguity and complications. Those very same aspects of culture that seem to be amplified by society’s embrace of a certain technological device were often present in a less prevalent form at that device’s creation. In the case of the iPod, we have the added issue of intending to examine the culture we are immersed in, and discussing a specific device that almost no one of my generation hasn’t at least tried out. For many of us, use of the iPod has become completely naturalized. The ubiquity of headphone-wearing, the ease of access to a vast library of song, and the schizophrenic mode of listening defined by the shuffle function, have all become such common aspects of our experience of music that we have stopped thinking about them. Each of these cultural trends existed before the iPod—and each of them has been significantly impacted by it. I intend to discuss each of these topics in turn, tracking their development independent of the iPod, then looking at how their use by the iPod has affected them, and culture in turn.

1. Headphones & Earbuds

One trend of modern urban society that we can decidedly say was not birthed by the iPod itself is the ubiquity of headphones in public places, especially commute situations. But, we can assert with equal assurance that the look and flavor of the ‘headphone revolution’ has been indicated by the iPod. In fact, I should have probably used the phrase ‘earbud revolution’ a moment ago, as the sight of the white, Apple-issued earbuds is a sure sign that the wearer is listening to an iPod—and about ninety percent of headphones worn in public are earbuds. (Figure estimated from my own experience as a daily public transit traveler.) The mid-80s popularity of the Sony Walkman first detached headphones from their cultural position as the exclusive province of the audiophile subculture. Headphones had long been used professionally, of course, but had only been used in the amateur realm by those interested in deeper immersion into the music, or the technical intricacies of recording (and by a drug-influenced subset of same). This use took place in the home, and headphones were much bigger and designed to provide a direct and accurate representation of the music without the distortion inherent in amplification and the physical fact of your ears’ distance from the source of the sound. But the Walkman took headphone usage out of the home, while vastly reducing both their size and the quality of sound they were capable of producing.

With the introduction of the Sony Discman in the 90s, headphone use continued to grow, and quality was brought into the low-end of the market due to consumer desire to hear CDs with more clarity than they had heard their old cassette tapes. The earbud style of headphone, too, had been experimented with before the advent of the iPod, but there is no doubt that their intense popularity in the last several years is due to their being packaged with each new iPod sale. The recognizability of the white earbud was one of many brilliant marketing tools Apple used in the launch of their product. Since the iPod is designed to be easily tucked away and hidden on your person, the conspicuousness of your consumption of it is questionable. However, as I look out at a sea of white earbuds on the BART train in the morning commute, I have no doubt about how many iPods are currently in use in my immediate community.

I doubt I am the first to point out the social disconnect that follows from a large segment of the population isolating themselves in personal sound environments. People passing each other on the street are much less likely to say hello, or even smile at each other, if they are closed off behind headphones. They are probably less likely to react to an emergency, or the non-urgent needs of the people around them. It also seems to me that by wearing headphones we are enacting less participation in the public realm, in the shared social experience, than those who are using all five of their senses to take in the particular space and time they happen to find themselves in that moment. I don’t mean to suggest that these basically negative effects are absolutes. I have observed people wearing headphones being courteous to those around them—indeed, paying extra attention to their surroundings and to the needs of those in their immediate environments, because they knew they were handicapping themselves from the social situation in some way. When I am wearing headphones myself I often try to maintain some level of contact and connection with the world.

In “The Aural Walk,” Iain Chambers discusses the impact of the Walkman on culture. Insofar as the iPod is a contemporary equivalent of Sony’s 80’s innovation, his comments are rather useful. He writes that, “the Walkman has offered access to a portable soundtrack that… is, above all, an intensely private experience. However, such a refusal of public exchange and apparent regression to individual solitude also involves an unsuspected series of extensions. With the Walkman there is simultaneously a concentration of the auditory environment and an extension of our individual bodies.” (99) So when we are wearing our headphones in the public realm, we are immersing ourselves in a private space, but not closing our physical bodies off from the world. On the contrary, we are bringing our private selves into the public realm by existing as one inside the other—“concentration of the auditory environment and an extension of our individual bodies.” Chambers is arguing that the essential nature of listening to music through headphones in public is not cutting yourself off from the world, but pushing a new, personal vision into it: “For the meaning of the Walkman does not necessarily lie in itself… but in the extension of perceptive potential. …the apparent vacuity of the Walkman opens up the prospect of a passage in which we discover… those other cities that exist inside the city.” (99) A private—even secret—world is made visible to us as we encase ourselves in headphones and begin to see with new ears.

“In the manifest refusal of sociability the Walkman nevertheless reaffirms participation in a shared environment.” (99) Replace the “Walkman” in Chambers’ sentence with “iPod,” then look, again, out onto that sea of white earbuds in the ears of so many of your fellow commuters. Age, ethnicity, even social class, seem to be null issues: anybody might have an iPod. The “shared environment” is, it seems, simply modernity itself. We are all breathing the same air, occupying the same space, living publicly, yet we are doing something private—“the inner secret it brazenly displays in public (what is s/he listening to?)” as Chambers puts it. (100) This seems to indicate that far from being a practice of isolating yourself from the world and closing yourself off from it, by doing something so private in public you are rather opening yourself out to it.

2. my iTunes library has 11,505 songs

The mp3 digital file format gained more and more popularity as the 90s drew to a close. The ‘digital downloading’ epidemic spread far and wide, until there was rarely a citizen of the culture that hadn’t heard of Napster and formed an opinion on its legality, ethics, and (probably even) logistics. People began to talk about how much music they had on their computer instead of how many CDs they owned. Then, when the price of CD burners began to drop, CDs were more and more often homemade mixes, rather than factory produced sale items—just as cassette tapes had been in the recent past. Before digital downloading (the free, illegal kind), having a few hundred CDs, cassettes, or albums was a big deal. The monetary investment alone was huge, which lead to discriminating buying practices, and thus ‘collections’ of music. Where three hundred CDs would have been a whole lot of music before, those CDs represented around 3000-4500 songs. Even an older iPod can hold more than twice that much, which has lead to a practice of music accumulation unmatched in previous generations. Music is being gathered, stored, and traded at extraordinary levels. Digesting a whole album’s worth of music isn’t bothered with that much anymore. Pop singles—and the whole culture of disposability, replaceability, and short attention spans that come with them—are reasserting their dominance in that early-60s AM radio way. It’s my opinion that soon the ease of availability of all recorded music, the massive amounts of it being newly recorded, and the even more massive storage capacities coming in the near future, will all lead to a reversal of the swagger and collector mentality currently associated with the ‘my hard drive has 600456 songs’ phenomenon. Perhaps we’ll stop talking about how much music we own, in a consumer sense, and just start talking about which songs and bands we like again.

If we turn to Chambers again, we can see that his discussion of the Walkman predicted a shift of this kind, a shift in the cultural mindset: "The Walkman encourages us to think inside [a] new organisation of time and space. …The technology of space has been supplemented and increasingly eroded by the technology of time: the ‘real time,’ the ‘nanoseconds’ of computer chips and monitor blips, of transitory information on a screen, of sounds snatched in the headphones. It leads to a further dimension. “Speed suddenly returns to become a primitive force beyond the measure of both time and space.” (100) I would argue that the iPod has only intensified this phenomenon. It once again takes a pre-existing cultural condition and magnifies it. Music used to literally take up space: to own it meant to store it in the physical sense. The only storage space necessary for a music collection now is that of the harddrive—what it really takes up is time. Filling up an iPod is easy; listening to all that music is the hard part. The speed that Chambers talks about is always exponentially speeding up, the “technology of time” ever more dominant, the new model iPod always able to store even more music. At some point that number will become so large as to render itself meaningless. All the music will be accessible, and it will be the level of attention that we afford a song that will cause us to count it among ‘our music.’


In his piece “The Future of Music: Credo,” John Cage uses the phrase “organization of sound” to describe a new, modern variation on “music.” (26) I would extend Cage’s idea of including noise and other sound-detritus of the modern world within a musical composition to include everything that a listener experiences concurrent to the act of listening. As many have pointed out, we no longer listen to music as an activity of its own anymore. We use it to supplement life. The iPod allows us to become our own ‘organizers of sound,’ composers of our own modern symphonies. It is an important tool of liberation against media hegemony that allows the individual to consume whatever cultural products he or she desires. Quite contrary to the “nervous” condition of “aberration and drama” that R. Murray Schafer intended when he coined the term “schizophonia,” I embrace the fact that “[s]ounds have been torn from their natural sockets and given an amplified and independent existence.” (34) In his 1973 piece “The Musical Environment,” Schafer writes that “the quadraphonic sound system… provides for the complete portability of acoustic space”—apparently bemoaning this fact. (34) The iPod has obviously upped the ante in acoustic portability considerably, and I believe this is a cause for nothing but celebration for all of the potential ‘organizers of sound’ who were once merely ‘listeners.’

3. Shuffle, personified

Perhaps the strangest aspect of the iPod’s shuffle function is an act of technopomorphism, or the imbuing of human qualities on a machine. I have often heard a new iPod user excitedly testifying about shuffle’s ability to play exactly what they want to hear at the right moment, or about shuffle’s bold choices in musical juxtaposition, as if the shuffle function were a living, breathing DJ who was gauging your reactions and making artistic choices. Of course, it’s all random. Or, rather, it’s all a mathematical algorithm applied in such a manner as to imply chance randomness.

Shuffle functions existed on the six or twelve (or however-many) disc changers that became popular near the end of the CDs reign as the most popular delivery format for recorded music. But because only that limited amount of albums could be mixed together at any given time, the ‘choices’ that the shuffle could make were much more closely based on the decisions of the user. Those particular CDs were loaded into the machine before the shuffle button was pushed. With an iPod, all of the music in the library was, of course, at one point chosen by the user and loaded into the iPod, but the library is exponentially bigger, so the shuffle function has much more material with which to create the illusion of randomness.

Within this large capacity to create the illusion of randomness, the iPod can often give the impression that it has moods. This is another common remark made by the recent iPod convert. They’ll say their iPod shuffle was “in a quiet mood today” or is “really into the Cure lately,” the commonalities between the songs played being imbued by the listener with the emotional resonance or rational decision making of a human being. But is the shuffle actually taking away agency and the possibility of artistic construction through the musical choices we make—making us give away our capacity to be ‘organizers of sound’? Chambers wrote that the Walkman was “the ultimate musical means in mediating the ambient. For it permits the possibility… of imposing your soundscape on the aural environment and thereby domesticating the external world: for a moment it can be all be brought under the STOP/START, FAST FORWARD, PAUSE, and REWIND buttons.” (100) If we give up the freewill associated with all of these functions, and allow the shuffle to dictate to us what we will listen to, are we giving something up? Do we stop ‘imposing our soundscapes on the aural environment,’ instead settling for a soundscape composed for us by the function of a machine which, despite our best efforts to convince ourselves otherwise, has no personality and does not base its choices on aesthetics?


There’s no doubt that the iPod has made a significant impact on culture. It also seems certain that the iPod is not the origin of the trends it illuminates and solidifies in culture, but merely synergized extant technological functions into a highly convenient and marketable package. Its popularity intensified and made more widespread such cultural affectations as public headphone usage, massive song-file accumulation, and ‘the shuffle.’



Works cited.

Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music. ed.: Christoph Cox and Daniel Warner. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group. 2007.
Cage, John. “The Future of Music: Credo,” pgs. 25-28.
Chambers, Iain. “The Aural Walk,” pgs. 98-101.
Schafer, R. Murray. “The Music of the Environment,” pgs. 29-39.


Thanks to Dr. Steve Savage of SFSU in whose class "Music, Ideas & Culture" I was prompted to respond to the question "How has the iPod impacted culture?"

3 comments:

Ed Howard said...

That's a great essay Ed. I resisted the iPod myself for quite some time, due to many of the factors you cite. My primary concern with it was the diminishment of the complete album as a work of art in itself; as someone who especially listens to a lot of experimental and avant-garde music, I found it hard to imagine how I could use it without severely disrupting both my listening habits and the integrity of the albums I listened to.

Obviously, I now have an iPod, though I only use it in my car, which has a jack that allows me to play it through the car's stereo system. I hate those little iPod ear bud headphones, they either fall out of my ears continually or else I have to push them in so tightly that it's uncomfortable. At home, if I listen to music I still generally stick to full albums and concrete media -- especially vinyl, since I have not ripped my records into digital formats.

But at the times when I am using the iPod, I love the shuffle feature; I think it is the single function that makes the device truly worth having. I think of it much like a radio station where I enjoy every song, and in that sense it's not such a radical innovation after all. In fact, there are radio stations now that don't actually have human DJs but instead simply play pre-programmed song lists. Radio DJs have long exerted the same control over what we listen to as the iPod can now have through its shuffle function, except that very seldom do the tastes of a particular DJ or station and a particular listener line up perfectly. The iPod, even if it's not playing exactly what I would've picked myself at any given moment, is at least playing something that I have loaded into it, something I do like. It's a great replacement for the radio, a comparison I like much better than the Walkman.

Ed Hardy, Jr. said...

Thanks for your comments, Ed. The analogy of the iPod being like a radio station that only plays songs you like is one I have often made in private conversation, and after reading it in your response I slapped myself on the forehead. Why didn't I consider the metaphor of the radio in the essay, even after claiming that the age of digital downloading his caused us to revert back to a 60s AM radio, singles-driven style of listening. That's a an excellent angle for another draft...

For the record, I haven't listened to my iPod--or any music through headphones--in months. My friends and I have all pooled our vinyl into one collection housed at our production office. I listen to records there; at home, I stick to my iTunes library (the size of which is accurately cited in the title to the second part of the essay.)

Thanks again for your thought-provoking comments, Ed.

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