Worms & Other Things Found Half-Eaten In Apples

So, a few weeks ago, I bought a new iPod. It’s a brand-new Nano, with a touchscreen, 8 gigs of storage space, and a bizarre tendency to get lost in my pockets and end up in pants I’d worn days before.

I had an iPod the last time I lived in Toronto, and somehow lost it or had it stolen or something. But either way, I’ve been without portable music for a year or two, as I’ve had no need for it; car stereos are awesome, and because everyone has iPods now, CD’s are super cheap. Anyway, I love the stupid thing, but I’ve had some troubling thoughts about the iPod, and a little bit of time to think about it.

All of a sudden, we’ve got a mass-produced gadget that’s completely individual–each one even has its own name. They’re only downloadable, not connected on peer networks or even able to move content from their hard disks to the computer. Information passes one way on an iPod. Once unboxed, it immediately becomes yours, changing to reflect your taste in video, music, everything. In some ways it resembles Hegel’s master and slave dialectic, with each piece of this new synthetic identity–you and the iPod–defining itself against its interactions with the other. There is no community of iPod users; in this way, each is both limited and specific and individual, but wholly didactic. There’s no arguing with your iPod. Even though you get to control what’s on it, once it’s there, you only get to rate it with a few stars or delete it. That’s it.

Apple has dealt with the limitations of the iPod with the iPhone, but I’m kind of scared of having to trust one catch-all device to keep my nose pressed up against the virtual world when I’m having enough trouble paying attention to this one as it is.

So, with the iPod, though, we get the ultimate one-way connection: endlessly refreshed downloads, radio, it’s like a badge displaying what you value, who you see yourself as. In the new Nano, they almost enact this as well with a slideshow of album covers that display so everyone can see what you’re listening to. This iPod is also an iCon, a totem through which you reflect your own individuality even as the two of you change it with new content–music, podcasts, photos.

In stark contrast stands the iPhone. Far more than a mere doodad, the iPhone connects the world to your hip (or pocket, or wherever you keep the damn thing.) I have no idea why you would want Facebook status updates RIGHT NOW, but hey. If that’s what you wanna do…

I think the iPhone is even more customizable than the iPod, though that is part of its weakness as well. Apps like recording studios, guitar tuners, stupid voices, are bursting out of the Apple Store, so I guess it would reflect the same endless dialogue of self-definition Apple’s other products try to show. The metaphor itself isn’t as neat, I suppose, because the iPod only trucks in important things: music and art, real culture–and the iPhone lets you see John Mayer’s tweets in real-time from across the continent. Maybe I’m afraid of the potential. And to be fair, the iPod can contain just as many showtunes and other garbage as the next piece of crap, so it’s not like it forces you to develop taste.

But the concept of the self in the 21st century has been, and will continue to be, at least partially defined by these gadgets. With these things, we can really wear our taste on our sleeve, or belt, or whatever. I think there’s something in the downloadable content, as well, the seemingly endless parade of free podcasts, live feeds, and other ‘goodies’ that were never available even four years ago. We define the music player as it turns around and defines us.

PS Sorry for the iCon joke. I have about two dozen more that I didn’t use. Be thankful for that.

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