Wednesday, March 14, 2012

I think, therefore iPod

Exactly a decade ago the iPod was launched by Steve Jobs (bless his heart!) to a mystified audience at Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino, California. There’s a Youtube video of Steve Jobs talking about this revolutionary contraption and his swagger suggests that he knows he found the missing link between what will be the Internet generation and the preceding analog generation.

There are two ubiquitous cultural symbols that define the last one decade and both of them are white in colour: the Google search box and the iPod’s white headphones. Spartan is the word to describe both these phenomena. On Google, it’s a complete white screen with a solitary search box bang at the middle, which suggests absolutely no distraction. An iPod’s elegant design is something similar with a large enough screen and its singature click wheel, which has all the MP3 player functions, embedded seamlessly to entice both the nihilist and sybaritic.

Here was something that could hold ginormous amounts of music (right from 4 GB to 160 GB) and a massive improvement from those bulky Heath Robinson contraptions like MP3 disc player. Here’s something that fits into a pocket and can belt out a lifetime of music (20,000 songs, which an iPod Classic can hold). My initial reaction and many others to iPod was a bafflement that was last seen when Bob Dylan chose to play electric guitar. Unlike that incident, Jobs didn’t face any opprobrium and he was well on his way to be deemed a visionary.

But iPod did cause a very significant and intangible damage to the psyche of this generation and iPod is the primary reason for the ever-shrinking attention spans of the youngsters. It might seem like a facetious argument but it does stand some water. The biggest masterstroke of the iPod is the Shuffle option. "I have seen the future," Alex Ross, music critic of The New Yorker, wrote in 2004. The setting on the iPod that lets the user flit from one random track to another is where the restlessness of this generation’s lies in. Way before the smartphones and social networking sites and Xboxes there was the Shuffle option whose implicit message is “you deserve instant gratification”.

Not only that, it even did an unmitigated damage to the music industry as well. Not so long ago the English music industry used to belt out a significant number of concept albums, NAME DROPPING AHOY, the major ones being by Who (Tommy, Quadrophenia); Jethro Tull (Aqualung, Thick As A Brick, A Passion Play); the Moody Blues (Days of Future Passed, In Search of the Lost Chord, On The Threshold of a Dream, To Our Children’s Children’s Children); Emerson Lake and Palmer (Tarkus); Yes (Tales from Topographic Oceans); Marvin Gaye (What’s Going On); Willie Nelson (Phases and Stages); Jimi Hendrix (Axis: Bold As Love); ABC (The Lexicon of Love); Van Morrison (Astral Weeks); Curtis Mayfield (Superfly), Frank Zappa (Freak Out!).

As their name suggests, concept albums have a concept that runs throughout the album and the entire disc needs to be heard in the predetermined order so as to enjoy the record to the hilt. Thanks to iPod, music lovers don’t really make it a point to listen to every track the way the artists want it to be. After all, in their expertly curated playlist, the users would prefer their Mozart followed by Linkin Park who is succeeded by Miles Davis. Thus, there has been a significant decline in the concept albums in the last one decade.

Barring The Streets’ (A Grand Don’t Come For Free), Gorillaz’s Demon Days, Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois and P J Harvey’s This Is England, the concept albums are on the wane. Leeds-based indie rock outfit Kaiser Chiefs released their latest album The Future Is Medieval online and asked users to handpick their favourite ten tracks out of the twenty on offer and decide on their own running order and even to design their own cover before downloading it for £7.50. In the age of an all-pervasive iTunes where you can purchase only the singles, the music groups cannot survive even if they circle their organs. Thus, the latest move by Kaiser Chiefs indicates that you are better off joining them if you can’t beat them.

Ricky Wilson, one of the band members, said in a wistful tone to Financial Times that, “A couple of weeks ago in India they manufactured the last typewriter. It won’t be long before that happens to CD players.”

Another long-term deleterious impact of iPod will be its compatibility with MP3 format of music. Thanks to the compressed music formats that are being peddled around we don’t even know what it feels like to listen to the music on vinyl records. iTunes, the software used to transfer music onto the iPod, is what I would call a software equivalent of China. It allows the user to download a track for as low as one cent and the user will be left with a smug feeling of having bought music legal but for utter pittance.

And of course there’s that ultimate criticism about iPod of it having killed the man’s commune with nature. We are so used to the constant buzzing in our ears that we make it a point to charge our iPods to the hilt in case of long distance train journeys. It’s just unthinkable to stare outside the window without those earphones blaring out some noise or the other. Every man might be an island but technically the iPod users (330 million at the last count) are this world’s largest archipelagos. Interacting with strangers, which in the pre-iPod era, was a joy to behold and equally distressing if they happen to be irritating. But at least we had a chance of interacting with someone interesting whom we otherwise might never meet in our lifetime. Nowadays, we are totally alienated from rest of the populace because our iPod is supposed to be the best companion possible.

Urban sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh lamented about the iPod culture in New York Times in a heartfelt manner: "In public spaces, serendipitous interaction is needed to create the 'mob mentality.' Most iPod-like devices separate citizens from one another; you can't join someone in a movement if you can't hear the participants. Congrats Mr (Steve) Jobs for impeding social change." In his brilliant article for the n+1 magazine Nikil Soval found it strangely ironic that we need to be forever wired to the iPod when in fact “there is the stereo in the home, in the car; there are concerts; there are music videos, with special channels devoted to them, on the air, nonstop”. Add to this, the music played while reading, writing, cleaning, exercising, eating, sleeping.

While I might come across as a massive party pooper or a Luddite for my unequivocal rant so far, I would like to clear the air by saying that iPod is nothing less than a revolutionary gadget. It’s not for nothing that Steve Jobs is compared with Edison. iTunes allows the rarefied listeners to access artists whom they wouldn’t otherwise get to know. ITunes is democratic and is a great fountain of music. I would rather be earmuffed to Rihanna’s caterwauls if it would help in drowning out an infant’s crying when I am traveling but then not at the expense of forgetting that silence is, after all, golden.


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