iPod Culture and the Weight of Consumerism

Since around October, the relentless marketing machine at Apple had been hammering away at the (admittedly thin) walls of my financial restraint such that, a few weeks after Christmas, I decided I absolutely needed a new iPod–a video one. My then-current 60gb iPod, with a color screen and the ability to show photo slideshows just wouldn’t cut it anymore. So when I got back to California, I began once again a charming love-hate relationship with craigslist SF. You see, however much I knew I needed the $399 video iPod, I knew that I should be able to get it cheaper. A few days of monitoring craigslist via keyword RSS confirmed this, and I was flooded with ads for new-in-box video iPods, all between $300 and $380. Of course, a large portion of these are scams, and a larger portion are sold within 25 minutes of being posted (supply of unopened and unwanted iPods was high because of recent gift-exchange-based holidays having occurred, so the prices were pushed very low). Nevertheless, a few days and many failed deal attempts later, I found someone willing to meet me somewhere in the east bay to trade a still-shrinkwrapped 60gb video and agent18 case for a price which, when all was said and done, would save me about $100.


I took BART underneath the bay and to Walnut Creek, walked out of the turnstiles, handed over the cash, got an iPod, and got back on a return train within 2 minutes of having departed the last one. I walked straight to the Apple store in SF and exchanged my newly-purchased iPod for one from the store (I wanted a black one), sans receipt. All in all, an incredible experience. The next day, I used craigslist to sell my old iPod for a price not too far from the one at which I had purchased my new player! Brilliant.

This experience spawned two discussions I wanted to share. First, I realized how easy it is for me to become fixated on some material goal, to the extent that I am willing to spend hours and hours monitoring websites, e-mailing people, and taking trains all around the bay for it. I am one who forms habits fairly quickly, and after a few days of constantly checking craigslist, I noticed something changing in me–the iPod which was the object of my desire had passed from being a toy which I thought it would be fun to have, into something that subconsciously I truly believed I needed. I was Frodo, but instead of a burning wheel of fire in front of my eyes, there was a slick Apple-designed piece of obsidian, thumping with seductive media possibilities. Luckily, this scared me enough that I was able to take a step back and evaluate whether such a new toy was really healthy. Under the circumstances, which were that the purchase would involve little to no financial sacrifice, I decided it was OK to upgrade. My hope is that if in the future I become fixated with something less benign (say an expensive car, or a new bike, a new snowboard, or any of a million things it could occur to me to want), I will likewise feel the sort of uneasiness I experienced last week while there is still time to evaluate in a level-headed manner.

Secondly, I had ample time to think more deeply about “iPod culture” in general. It seems clear that an iPod exists to serve consumers in two ways. To begin with, it lets you control the what of your media consumption/experience. It allows you to listen to your tunes, or watch your videos. No more listening to the radio, to the clatter of the train, to the conversation of those people over there, to the sound of the birds, to the dumb thump of the rap music in that car. With the advent of video content, you are now no longer forced to watch whatever is on TV, or whatever your friend is watching, or whatever your family is watching. You have complete control over the what of your media.

You also have complete control over the when of your media consumption. The iPod fits in your pocket. You can listen to it now. You can watch videos on it now. This is probably obvious, but maybe it’s worth saying that having control over the when of your media consumption means an increase in media consumption. No one buys an iPod to listen to music less! So you can listen to music or watch videos whenever you want, and whenever that is, it is more than you listened to or watched before.

It should already be clear that the creation of such an environment is incredibly good for business. The individualization of music and video tastes leads to greater sales–we no longer need to sell to an entire household; we can sell to each member of the house! Dad likes different movies and music than daughter, so they each buy their own preferred set. The time-ubiquity of music and video also straightforwardly lends itself to business–more time spent listening to tunes means that more tunes are required and therefore purchased. Apple and the other digital content providers are well situated to make a killing off of us (and they have been doing so).

So far everything that I’ve said has been value-neutral…but is there anything to seriously praise and/or criticize about this digital media lifestyle? On the one hand, I am extremely glad to be able to control what sorts of media I consume. My tastes in music have not usually been particularly mainstream, and so having the option to listen to music I like instead of what is on the radio is quite nice. Likewise, my appetite for new music, for efficiently searching and finding new artists and sounds, is greatly helped by being able to listen to music for just about 100% of my waking day. I can rise from my bed and throw iTunes into a party shuffle that lasts for the full 8 hours of the workday. If I drive anywhere, I can plug my iPod into the audio-in jack in my car stereo. If I walk or run anywhere, I can do it while listening to a randomly-generated set of songs chosen from any of my scores of smart playlists. Moreover, I could rinse/wash/repeat every day for 4 months without hearing the same song twice. In sum, it is quite easy to become a music consumption machine–pop in a song, manufacture a feeling or memory, and output a time-dependent value judgment. Art literally flows through my body more often than not!

On the other hand, one wonders if there are any unhealthy side effects to all of this. In fact, it seems like both the what and when aspects of the iPod lifestyle can have negative results. Let’s tackle the when aspect first–it’s simpler. Basically, when you are listening to music or watching a movie on your iPod, you are eo ipso not listening to or watching something else, namely what is going on around you. Perhaps human senses were designed to be continually titillated by manufactured and produced sights and sounds. But perhaps they were not. What are we missing while consuming media? For some people, maybe not much–in truth, maybe it helps some escape from otherwise dreary family situations. But one thing is certain, which is that it precludes silence. It therefore precludes the kind of silence that our culture studiously avoids, which is the kind wherein you cannot get away from the questions you haven’t been asking yourself (but need to). For many of us, the constant presence of music might be nothing more than a numbing agent designed to frighten away an insistent silence that we have been putting off for so long we’re embarrassed even to recognize its existence.

Beyond silence, headphones also shut out other kinds of music, not produced in studios by important men in ties while watching 18-year old company-made superstars gyrating in front of unimpressed microphones. I am, of course, referring to the noises found outside of our iPod-induced isolations. Birds, wind, rain, the voices of a crowd, footsteps, and all the rest. Headphones function both ways, too: they don’t just keep other things away from you; in addition, they keep you away from those other things. They can be effectively a wall, which is precisely why so many people wear them so visibly.

Now, to the what. iPods allow me to listen to what I want, alone. I don’t have to consult anyone else to see if she is OK with my choice of song or video. To see why this is important, I need to introduce the concept of responsibility for consumption. Humans are made to consume certain things in certain ways. Food is an obvious example–humans need to consume food, and it is good that they do so. However, as various eating disorders show us, there are healthy and not-so-healthy ways to engage in this project of food consumption. To the extent that our own (and only our own) choices lead to health or illness, it seems right to say that we have a responsibility for those choices. In the case of food, this responsibility is cashed out in terms of responsibility to our body. Exercise is also a responsibility we have in the same area. None of this is surprising.

What I want to claim is that media consumption (and here I would distinguish “media” from “art” ) bears similar responsibilities to food consumption, in that these are all things which we take into our bodies (or minds), and which affect us in certain ways according to their particularities. Hot dogs are different than apples. Handel is different than Britney Spears. More than that bare difference, I want to argue a value difference in media, analogous to a health difference in food. I wish it were the case that there were no “bad media”, but unfortunately there is. In the same way that some foods are unhealthy and/or addictive, some media can affect us negatively or engender addictive behavior (pornography being the classic example, and new forms of it joining the audio realm–the addictiveness proven by a trip to Odeo’s Top 40).

So, every time we decide to consume a piece of media, we have a certain responsibility to ourselves, just like when we are eating. For the most part, this responsibility stays hidden in the background, and we don’t have to worry about it–our natural inclinations take care of us just fine. But in unique situations, such a responsibility can become a very palpable burden. With the proliferation of media via the internet, and the classic gatekeepers of media art (the record labels, the video studios) not being able to staunch the flow of new independent artists willing to self-promote, we are completely surrounded on all sides by songs and movies clamoring for our attention, screaming for the privilege of being on our iPods. Since in iPod culture we make all our own media choices, this means that we are left all alone to deal with this onslaught. The responsibility to consume healthily now becomes harder, as we have to choose hundreds of times a day whether this is good music or bad, whether I like it or not, whether I should watch it or not, and so on. Eventually, these choices paralyze us, and we are left looking at a device which promised to give us just what we want, but no longer having the ability even to know what that is! I can’t count the times I’ve spent upwards of 10 minutes scrolling through my iTunes library because every time I see an album I’d like to listen to, I can’t be sure that it’s really the “best” to hear at the moment.

Ultimately, this is just another facet of the modern, consumeristic, capitalist lifestyle where the market is flooded with dozens of basically-identical products, the marketing behind each of which aims to convince us just how different they really are. We go to the grocery store and see a hundred different kinds of cereal, and we are immediately besieged; which of these cereals is the best? Which is the best value? Which is healthiest? Which tastes best? Sometimes you feel like leaving the store because you just can’t handle that kind of pressure. And it is exactly that pressure which threatens to hover over us as we carry our iPods to work and on our afternoon jogs.

None of that is to say that the personal media player is evil or even slightly bad. I merely want to emphasize how, in our current cultural context, an iPod comes with more than a $400 price tag–it actually comes with a surprisingly large set of responsibilities, both to oneself and to the world. Or maybe it’s not so surprising–with any technical or economic advance comes an increase in power and possibility, along with a concomitant increase in responsibility. Apple’s marketing is really great at portraying the possibilities their media players can grant us, but we cannot trust them to know, or to tell us, what sorts of responsibilities might go hand in hand with the power they provide–the power of instant, on-demand, and infinitely customizable media. I hope I’ve been able to illuminate both edges of that sword.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go watch a few episodes of Firefly on my new video iPod. Or wait…should I watch Arrested Development?

Author: Jonathan Lipps

Jonathan is a Director of Engineering at Sauce Labs, leading a team of open source developers to improve the web and mobile testing ecosystem. He has worked as a programmer in tech startups for over a decade, but is also passionate about academic discussion. Jonathan has master's degrees in philosophy and linguistics, from Stanford and Oxford respectively. Living in San Francisco, he's an avid rock climber, yogi, musician, and writer on topics he considers vital, like the relationship of technology to what it means to be human. Visit jonathanlipps.com for more.

6 thoughts on “iPod Culture and the Weight of Consumerism”

  1. From http://www.nbc5i.com:

    A Houston pastor is putting a new spin on Apple Computer Inc.’s popular iPods, telling his Baptist congregation that the simple gadgets contain a religious lesson: Life can also be simple.

    “The reason the outside of the iPod is so simple to use and so beautiful to look at is because of the way they designed the inside of the iPod,” Metropolitan Baptist Church Pastor Sal Sberna told his congregation Sunday during his second of four sermons on “iPod Theology.”

    “All you do on the outside is push the little button, drive the wheel and pick what usefulness you want out of your iPod,” he said. “And so when Jesus talks to us about simplification, it must start on the inside.”

    Sberna said preaching about the hugely popular iPods has helped attract people who otherwise might not attend church. The tens of millions who own iPods translates to a huge potential audience for his Sunday sermons, he added.

    “I am always looking for something that a majority of people can relate to,” he said.

    Sberna, who has two iPods, isn’t shy about his vision of reaching a younger, professional audience with hopes of increasing his 4,000 member congregation to 20,000. He’d like everyone in his congregation to own an iPod with a goal of one day offering his sermons through podcasts.

    “When I go to iTunes, I select all that I want. When I go to Jesus Christ, he gives me all that I need. It’s that simple,” Sberna told his congregation Sunday morning. “Why have you not bought one of these things. These are so cool. They cost a little bit of money, but they are worth the money. Let me tell you something about salvation, it’s free but it’s not cheap.”

    “When I am sitting here and I am rocking out with my music … you don’t know what I am listening to. That is between me and the iPod,” he said. “That’s between me and God. That’s between you and God. All I can be responsible for is myself.”

  2. Do you wonder whether we have any obligation to consume the trash of the masses too – or the less aesthetically developed, say – for the purpose of understanding?

    Honey Bunches of Oats is the best cereal.

    I like “unimpressed microphones.”

  3. Pavi: uh….?

    Alex: yes, some of us might have such an obligation (though we might differ on what “consume” means here). But it is, as you say, a scientific one, for the purpose of understanding only. Careful, though, lest you become the comical picture I have in my mind: walking in on a nutritionist gorging herself with doughnuts, claiming she’s just trying to “understand what it’s like to eat doughnuts”. After a while, you start to think maybe she just wants to eat them. Beware musical hypocrisy!

  4. Wow, the iPod is just full of profound analogies

    “Just as the iPod comes equiped with many different languages and is marketed to many different countries, so should the Bible be translated into many different languages and Jesus be marketed all over the world!”

    “The fact that there is a coinstantiation of the white and black iPod teaches us that there is both good and evil in the world (it represents the yin and the yang), but also that good was prior and thus more fundamental than evil, for the white iPod came first and is more rockingest. In the same vein, the fact that the black iPod, which is the obvious and deliberate representation of evil by Apple, is so beautiful teaches us that evil may often be disguised as something apparently beautiful.”

    “On the other hand, in the Garden of Eden God commanded us to not partake of the apple products, the iPod being one in fact, so even though, ‘These are so cool. They cost a little bit of money, but they are worth the money.’, it seems that God has forbidden the use of the iPod. However, Adam and Eve did eat the apple which too was forbidden, and as a consequence Jesus came and saved the world; so maybe by using the iPod we will summon Jesus’ return. Actually, the scriptures are clear on this – it’s all in Revelation.”

    Oh man, maybe I should start a mega church. I’d probably rake in about 16,000 people just for talking about iPods and their very clear and purposed analogical relationships to spiritual truths, and probably another 9,000 people just because the church name will be “iChurch”. All sermons will be available via iTunes podcasting services. Furthermore, in an effort to give to the poor indirectly by stimulating the economy, all members of the church will be encouraged to shop as much as possible. All members will be required to have purchased an iPod before being admitted to the church and subsequently being baptised and all that.

    What do you think? Sounds like a great money-making machine eh? Maybe then an iPod really will only cost “a little bit of money.”

    Jon – I like your thoughts about media consumption responsibility.

  5. Alex! Where have you been?! It’s good to hear your voice. And unlike the microphones, I am impressed by your taste in cereals.

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