Modern Age ‘Dome of Silence’

Ever since Mike Wilkes played me an MP3 in 1997 (or was in ’98?) I knew it was going to change the way I played music forever. Within two hours of having been introduced to the MP3 format I had read everything I could find on-line, purchased MusicMatch Jukebox (the only one of several rippers I tried that night that worked with my Asus CD drive) and I was ripping my CD collection to hard disk. When I ran out of drive space I ordered the parts to build a storage server with my first RAID. Even though I was one of those geeks who ordered one of the first ISO 9660 reading MP3 playing portable CD players off of Think Geek, I thought that the niche MP3 players that were available would never catch on with the masses. They were big, clunky, and had a certain level of geek skill required to load them with music. Every week or so Slashdot ran an article about a new portable MP3 player, but few ever made it to market. Geeks are a bad market to pitch. They crave more than they can afford and they want features that do not sell well to the folks at WallyWorld. (Although, is it too geeky to want a player that you can mount as a hard drive and just drag over files? Creative blew it in that regards.)

Apple brought MP3 to the masses, with the ease of use of the iPod and the abilities of iTunes. The design is simple, functional and elegant. It is a geek toy given a makeover so it appeals to the masses. The User Interface is minimalisticly slick and the device itself is sexy. There is no doubt that the iPod is a cool piece of technology.

It is the current ultimate tool of ‘Think Different’ individuality. No longer do you have to complain that there are no radio stations in your area that you like, you carry your own library of music and play lists. Your music, your quirky tastes; all privately listened to in your own musical paradise. With your iPod you carry your own personal auditory Universe.

This is, in my opinion, the iPod’s social failing. Part of being in your own Universe is walling others out. The iPod builds an audio wall between the wearer and their surroundings. In regards to normal human senses, audio is only superceded by visual in the amount of information it provides about a person’s environment. The primary form of personal communication employed by humans is vocal, and is pretty much negated when someone is wearing an iPod. Even with the audio turned low, earbuds and headphones interfere with hearing your surroundings. Then there are the cases of the people on BART whose music was hearable ten feet away; no point in trying to verbally communicate with them. Even in non-public environments, like in the office, I find that people wearing their ‘personal music systems’ are oblivious to greetings, questions, and sometimes even their phone ringing. In effect, they are cut off from their surroundings. I find myself not even making an effort to say hello to friends if I see those tell-tale white buds in their ears.

The iPod* celebrates Individuality while erecting barriers to Community, whether that Community is home, work or walking down the street. Community is something that I think our ‘modern’ culture lacks in significant ways, and I believe every bit of erosion hurts.

Has that stopped me from using my iPod? Not completely; but, I do moderate how I use it. I try not to use it at work, unless I have a need to shut out others (like project deadlines). I turn mine off as soon as I enter Peet’s Coffe, rather than waiting until I get to the counter. Like any tool, it can be used for good and for bad.

How are you using yours?


* I don’t mean to pick on the iPod here. There were personal MP3 players before the iPod, and there will be more to come. Apple and the iPod made geeky MP3 files cool, and I think that in the not too distant future iPod will be as generic as Coke and Xerox in regards to similar products. It is in this way that I use iPod to inconsistently describe a class of devices.