Monday, October 23, 2006

Happy Birthday iPod

Apparently the iPod turns five today. So happy birthday iPod. It may well be true that as Farhad Manjoo writes in Salon the iPod and digitization of music have "altered how we experience music more fundamentally than any technology since the advent of audio recording."

Manjoo points out how complicated our relationship to the iPod tends to be. Though he loves his iPod, he says he sometimes wishes it had never been invented...It's great to have so much music at your fingertips, but doesn't the iPod tend to foster a kind of musical ADD in which you skip from song to song without ever truly soaking in anything? Does walking around with headphones all the time cut you off from the rest of the world? Etc., etc.

What Manjoo misses, I think, is that these are the kind of questions that come with the introduction of any new technology, and the more revolutionary the technology, the greater the anxiety about change. Take a look at debates that raged about the train, the automobile, and even the typewriter when they were introduced if you don't believe me. One would be hard pressed to find any technology, no matter how helpful, no matter how much it enriched our lives, that wasn’t met with some level of ambivalence and resistance. Though there are no records to document this, I expect the first humans to take to cave dwelling complained that it had cut them off from the "authenticity" of their nomadic experience as hunters and gathers.

Such fears tend to fade over time. I remember in the early-eighties predictions that the advent of "test tube babies" would have a radical effect on our lives and that the technology was moving forward before we had time for adequate debate on the pros and cons of the procedure. Some worried the test tube baby would mean we would cease to be human (again, if you don't believe me take a look at the debates from the time). Who worries about that now?

The same people today claim we're not ready for BioNanotechnology because we haven't pondered all the moral implications long enough. To hell with them, I want to be turned into an invincible nonobot-cyborg that can lift cars, see through buildings, shoot lazers out of my eyes, and has an iPod that knows what I want to listen to before I do implanted in my brain as soon as possible. Sign me up. I'll let others wring their hands and worry about what it means to be human. If we ever listened to these kinds of people no new technology would ever go anywhere because we'd be stuck debating its merits ad infinitum. We'd still be living in caves debating whether fire was on balance good or bad for humanity.

I think Manjoo also misses the fact that people tend to appropriate technologies in ways that work for them, and don't necessarily use them in a uniform manner. People find ways to personalize technology. Consider for example the plethora of aftermarket products that are available for the iPod. This is actually a sign of a robust and healthy technology, not a flawed or incomplete one. No one argues that there is some basic problem with the automobile because people customize it. The very fact that people want to customize it merely indicates that they want to personalize their relationship to to the technology, and by extension that it is important to them.

For instance, I only rarely listen to my iPod through headphones, but it has made my daily commute much more pleasant with the added accessory of a radio transmitter. What could possibly be wrong with listening to the music I want to hear in my car? When I do listen through headphones it is usually through a pair of Grado SR80 headphones (I never took the stock ones out of the box). And my iPod is clad in a fluorescent green silicon skin. It protects the iPod from scratches true, but it also personalizes it--makes it more uniquely mine.

I was surprised to see a couple of "audiophile" complaints about the iPod pop up in Manjoo's article, as these usually get passed over as applying only to nutcases. First, the complaint about compression of music (the reduction of dynamic range) is valid and real. But this has been an ongoing problem that started well before the advent of the iPod, and is probably more linked to the introduction of the CD changer than to the iPod. As for the digital compression process (reduction of file size), it is true that it reduces audio quality, especially at the frequency extremes. But in my experience this is not a problem in the high noise environment of the automobile or for casual listening, and I still have my turntable and a decent CD player for those times when I want to relax and really sink into the music. And if you insist on audiophile quality from your iPod you can use Apple Lossless compression, get a good pair of Grado headphones, and buy an audiophile quality headphone preamp. Your life will be a little bulkier, but the point is it's your life and your iPod and you can use it however you want to.


Z said...

I agree that the iPod is an intensely personal device, and that's part of its allure. I worry, though, that Apple will either make a major misstep in a future version, or cram too many features into it to expand market share.

I’m glad to see another Grado fan. I’m still searching for the perfect headphones; I listen in a noisy environment (downtown Chicago) and the SR60’s don’t block out enough sound. Maybe the pricier models do.

Good luck with the blog, Pete. It’s an interesting topic.

Pete Bilderback said...

Hi Z,

In a noisy environment you might try some noise cancelling headphones; Sennheiser makes some decent ones. These require an extra battery though. Another good pair of headphones is the Sony MDR-7506 Studio Monitors. They are more comfortable than the Grados and are sealed (whereas the Grados are open), so they block out more noise than the Grados. They also work well with portables due to their high impedance. Not as good as the Grados in absolute terms, but very satisfying. They are also often steeply discounted. Thanks for stopping by.