The isolation of the iPod people

Tara Brabazon is alarmed by people’s growing removal from analogue life, where people are engaged with their mobile screens rather than with each other

April 3, 2008

Why do we celebrate the mobility of voices through phones, the mobility of music on an iPod and the transfer of money via the internet, yet ridicule and fear the movement of “foreigners”? With Prince Harry blaming “the foreign press” for truncating his tour of duty in Afghanistan and tabloids attacking “Polish plumbers” and the “Eastern (voting) Bloc” in the Eurovision Song Contest, outsiders seem to rip a filament from the fabric of national consciousness. While “we” control the movement of money and music, the movement of people attempts to weave unwieldy “foreign” ideas and perspectives into British history and identity. It is much easier to label and judge than to listen and think.

Unlike the 1990s, which was the decade searching for an idea, the 2000s has found something even better. An iDea has been traded for an iPod, revelling in party shuffles, podcasting and even the iPhone. As a design object, the original iPod is immaculate in its stark whiteness. The gently textured wheel scrolls through a lifetime’s soundtrack of love, loss, pain and pleasure. Bringing forward the convenience of a Walkman, it embodies the intoxicating combination of music and mobility.

Now that this object has not only entered the marketplace but popular culture, it is the ideal moment to think about the consequences of its permeation through our lives. It is an important topic, as the iPhone is following its older digital brother into ubiquity. The digitisation of lifestyle seems complete. At this moment of blooming pods dominating streets, trains and shops, it is important to consider social losses alongside the convenience of this pod packaging our lives.

The iPod immerses the listener in a private world, cut away from the community-building nature of popular music that has been a characteristic through much of its history. So much of rock ’n’ roll was fired by a shared experience of rhythm, dancing, sweating and singing. The iPod is different, slicing the geography and history away from sound. Even albums are lost as the single finds new life in innovative mixes, excised from the original running order. It is a personal soundtrack, not a collective sonic experience.

While the Walkman triggered a similar isolation, the shift from analogue cassettes – of a finite length – to the endless permutations of the party shuffle has meant that the digitised soundtrack can be a perpetual companion through life without changing the sides of a tape or inserting a new disc.

I realised the consequences of this transformation in early 2005 when I travelled an unfamiliar train route from Luton to London. It was an unusual trip for me, but the commuters for whom this was their normal journey revealed some startling behaviour. Most were locked in the steel shell of the train for two hours a day to get to work, and another two hours to return home. Almost all were wearing iPods. I was struck by their faces – staring into space beyond the train’s window. Locked in the routine of work, locked into their party shuffle, they were not thinking about how hours of their lives were being lost each day. Instead, as an individual, they suffered through a bizarre working ritual, facilitated – or medicated – by their iPod.

For those of us who teach for a living, we are managing the consequences of this lifestyle technology in our classrooms. Through the semester, I have been spending time watching these young consumers working (with) their pods and phones. They arrive at the lecture theatre with their ear buds in place, (thankfully) removing them for the lecture, and then slotting them straight back into their skull at the end of the session.

The immersion of these students in their pods has created a fascinating social effect. We have a whole generation that looks down at their digital platform, rather than up to hear and see the analogue environment. This is a downward-facing digispace when personal connectivity means more than concentration. I remain fascinated by the political and social cost of this mediation through sound and screen. What will be the consequences in building communities and consciousness, let alone knowledge and social justice, by living in an individualised, atomised, customised, consumerist world?

The difficulty is that empowered institutions (the workplace, schools and universities) become fixated on particular technological applications and undermine the skills and literacies involved in using others. We have all seen a group of Baby Boomer men w-a-a-y too impressed by their PowerPoint slides. The setting up of the projector has become a bizarre new masculine masonesque ritual. No weird hats or funny handshakes are involved. Instead, there is the tumultuous fanfare or extremely loud cough to ensure that everyone is watching the ritualistic insertion of the memory stick into the lecture theatre’s control panel. They then look up – not to the heavens – but to see the gentle blue of the projector shimmer to life. Such evangelical commitments to a software application have meant that technology in the home continues to be less important and less studied than technology in the workplace.

The iPod and mobile phones have domesticated digitisation and changed the role and function of the World Wide Web and the internet. Popular music is incredibly important to this history of domestic technology. In fact, the speed at which digitisation has entered daily lives is due to mobile phone ringtones, MP3 players generally and the iPod in particular.

Our question as educators is how this disconnection from the analogue present will transform the reading, writing and thinking practices and processes of our students. If a song is boring, then the iPod scrolls through it. If a person is boring, then their text message can be deleted. Moving through difficult material – developing new skills and literacies that may challenge the truths of our lives rather than facilitating our sonic satiation and personal pleasure – is a rare experience in our present. The losses in this lifestyle capitalism are yet to be reconciled with the expectations of scholarship.

The first moment when I realised the gulf in expectations between the digitally convergent lifestyle of Generation Y and my analogue integration as a Generation Xer was in a university tutorial. We were discussing changing theories of literacy. Kate, an effervescent and funny woman, asked me a serious question about how much reading is required at university. I repeated what my first history professor told me in the 1980s: reading six books a week should be standard for students. Poor Kate looked at me – stunned and silent. Then she asked: “Do you read the same book over and over again, or different ones?” She then confirmed that she had read one novel six times. Did that count?

Not really, Kate. This is the iPodification of reading that we as teachers, students and librarians should discuss. Maybe – just maybe – the technological platforms that are appropriate for leisure will hurt education. Maybe – just maybe – the PowerPoint rituals that are appropriate for marketing briefings will destroy the dynamism of public speaking. The notion that it is important to be challenged by “foreign” ideas in their complexity, difficulty and texture may be beyond the range of the party shuffle. It is easier to listen to our personal greatest hits, talk to people with accents just like our own and read only what we know we can read. Life is easier that way.

Tara Brabazon is professor of media studies at the University of Brighton.

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