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The iPod Economy
October 13, 2011 Extended Order

Reflect for a moment on the wonders of the iPod, or really any digital audio device. On a single device, you can completely store and personalize all of your music, audio-book, podcast and other audio files. It can go virtually anywhere you go, whether you are hiking in the High Peaks or driving through the Nevada deserts. It responds to your every wish at the touch of a button – indeed it allows you to customize so much that you can have a playlist for every mood you might have, every event you can conceive of, and so on. You can, at the touch of a button, sync it with virtually any music or book every produced and have it onto your machine in a matter of seconds. You do not have to listen to a single commercial, you are not forced to listen to any song, lecture, podcast, or book to the end. You can dump bad “stations” and add new ones on a whim. You can share your preferences with third parties and have a better music/listening experience developed for you (e.g. Pandora). You can beam the iPod signal wirelessly to a small speaker, a massive stereo, your car, or right into your ears.

And so on.

Now consider what your listening experience was like prior to the iPod. You are at the mercy of disc jockeys on a handful of radio stations that may or may not come in clearly. You could only enjoy your favorite songs or shows or lectures when the radio station deemed it appropriate, and only in a location where you could have that radio station beamed in. I’d also argue that over 75% of the material played on your favorite station was at best uninteresting to you, and perhaps really problematic for you. Radio stations used to (and still do) brag about “coming up, a whole FIVE songs in a row uninterrupted!” and so on. The commercials are incessant, annoying, repetitive and boring. And when you did not like one station, you spin the dial to rinse and repeat the exercise on another. I am sure you still know someone in your family who has a radio station “trigger finger” whereupon a 20 minute drive to school turns out to be nothing more than an utterly annoying and unsatisfying machine gunning through every radio station in the city before you either turn the radio off, or listen to the day’s traffic and weather for the umpteenth time while sitting in the middle of that traffic jam you wished you could avoid.

No metaphor is perfect. But the world of the iPod is the world market enthusiasts encourage, promote and seek. The world preceding the iPod, the one-size-fits-all, no choice, no personalization, no “radio responsibility,” is the world that others are advocating for when they seek greater government control in all aspects of their lives. They may even advertise their preference as superior because it is “free.” But it’s not free, in practice or in theory. And it’s not a world I think many people wish to live in. Ask anyone who is enamored with the glory of government intervention what they think about the iPod world as compared to the stifling experience that preceded it and I would venture a bet that scarcely any would wish to return to that world. So, if we adore the freedom, choice, customization, quality and innovation of an iPod, then why can we not appreciate that widely? Do you really get pleasure forcing me to listen to this day after day after day after day?

"5" Comments
  1. I get your metaphor, but I really do like my local radio station. They play newly released songs that I do not have on my ipod. They offer some really sweet prizes and they inform you of local deals at various bars and restaurants. So it’s not all bad like you make it out to be. But I will add- I’m perfectly free to turn off the radio without some people with guns showing up at my door.

  2. Sliding sideways just a bit: The IPod and other similar devices are just the latest inventions that serve to create our own personal environment. Humans in the advanced areas of the world are able to now construct their surroundings in such a manner as to nearly perfectly satisfy their own personal preferences. One can listen to exactly the music one wishes to hear, even though it may have been performed years ago and miles away. The surrounding temperature and humidity can be regulated for maximum personal comfort. Objectionable odors can be eliminated. Visual stimuli around one can conform to an individual’s desires. Humans, at least in the West, have replaced a haphazard, chaotic life experience with one that largely meets their own pre-conceived notions. If I fly round-trip from Chicago to San Francisco, does that mean that I’ve been to Nebraska twice? If I ride through Harlem in a limousine, with Edvard Grieg playing on my IPod, have I sampled the American black experience? Sitting at the air-conditioned bar at Sky Harbor in Phoenix on a summer afternoon, am I sampling part of Arizona?

    Luis Bunuel said that life without memory is meaningless. I would add that life without experience also has no meaning. While it’s human nature to desire comfort, security and entertainment, perhaps above all other things, what is life when that goal is attained? If one can construct all the features of one’s environment to suit a predetermined plan, then life has no more novelty or interest than it might have for a chicken or a termite.

  3. So if we allow each individual to customize what government now provides – say education, health care, social security, social services, national defense – and let’s just say you could do that, what happens to the cost of any or all of these things. It reminds of the story about the man that comes home at the end of the day and finds the house in total disarray. He goes into the den and his wife is sitting with a glass of wine and a magazine. He looks at her incredulously and asks what’s going on. Her reply goes something like, “Remember yesterday when you came home and asked what I did all day? Well, today I didn’t do it.”

  4. If only I could get my ITunes music library organized. That will have to wait until Christmas when my digitally savvy daughter returns.

    Does anybody remember the “portable” Compaq computers that weighed thirty pounds and did Lotus 1-2-3? Or, more recently, that nifty laptop you lugged around the airport?

    Beyond music, one can use one’s phone to check traffic on the way to the airport (someone else driving), check out the Rizzo blog, read the Journal, and get an electronic boarding pass, and if you are not the boss, be in constant contact with him, unless you turn the phone off.

  5. I’m going to veer off-course a little, but I think this leads to another important discussion, and I’d like to see you post on it further. I was a music major (along with political science unfortunately), and I have often wondered about the government’s role should be (if any) in preserving art we consider to “great” or “significant.”

    I own an ipod, and I bring it everywhere. I carefully organize my music, and, as you suggest, I always have the perfect song ready for the perfect mood, etc. It really is an extension of myself. That being said, I also appreciate classical public radio, and I think these stations have an artistic significance that far outweighs most of what is commercially viable today. Some of my richest experiences listening to recorded music have been on public stations, such as Rochester’s WXXI 91.5 FM. Now it is unlikely that a commercial station like 91.5 could survive in an open market here in Rochester (though I could be wrong). I’ll be the first to acknowledge that a station like 91.5 is completely contrary to free market ideas, and this is at least somewhat unsettling. If it were up to me, I would want the RPO to sell out every show, and I would want all of the Eastman School’s great student concerts to be packed full. By praising 91.5 I don’t mean to praise government itself. Quite the contrary, I wish government support were not necessary to keep such a wonderful station afloat.

    Additionally, all of the radio stations I find most irritating are the ones which are commercially operated. Most radio stations these days have very little to offer. Your comment about that music being “at best uninteresting to you, and perhaps really problematic for you” is right on target.

    Generally speaking, many of the works we now regard as masterpieces were not commercially successful at the time of their premieres. Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony was booed back in 1805. Throughout most of music history there has been some outside force preserving and promoting works deemed to be artistically significant. Through the Middles Ages and the Baroque Era, it was the church. Today governments have taken on that role to some extent.

    Now I am certainly not someone who wants government to intrude into most aspects of my life, but I am wondering out loud what its role should be when it comes to art. Art is something that is a piece of expression, not simply a consumer product, and often does not easily fit within the laws of supply and demand.

    Of course, the ipod is an invention that is nothing short of genius, and the opportunities it allows are truly revolutionary. But public radio allows me to hear music, both new and old, that I would not otherwise be exposed to. Like I said, I would love to see you post more on this, because I’ve become convinced that there are no easy answers to this question.

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