Interactive Media Social networking

Critical cultural history of the iPod

A fantastic think piece on the iPod from Alternet (via the inimitable kPunk) and the impact of portable audio which has interesting ripple effects for how our audiences increasingly expect to be able to engage with our content – on their terms, in their space, right now.

Some quotes of particular relevance to museums.

It is impossible to make sense of the contemporary culture industry without putting the iPod center stage. Even those music lovers who have no interest in using one, either because they are unsatisfied with its limited fidelity or because they aren’t interested in mobility, must confront the fact that the choices available to them are constrained by the iPod’s influence on the market. Indeed, the very existence of traditional audiophiles is threatened, since the criteria they use for rating both equipment and recording are no longer a high priority for most listeners. Frequency response, the accuracy of microphones, the virtuosity of musicians — the bread and butter of “serious” music magazines from the late 1940s until the popularization of the MP3 format — have become secondary or tertiary considerations in a context where the most important thing is not how good the music sounds, but how readily it is available to you.

In the various workshops and papers I’ve been doing around the country recently I’ve been talking a lot about the atomisation of content – the freeing up of content from pre-built packages – allowing users/audiences to assemble and reconstruct narratives in their own ways. One of the side effects of atomisation is the loss of an authoritative narrative (the voice of the curator) who would have previously assembled a structured path through a collection for an audience. I usually use the example of music now being consumed as tracks rather than albums – albums being the signature of ‘serious’ rock music. Notice that I say ‘tracks’ and not ‘singles’. If you look at the patterns of music consumption now it is the audiences, consumers who are choosing their favourite tracks by an artist – rather than accepting the predictions of a record company who chooses what to put out as a single. Singles were always chosen by record company executives applying market logic to a musician’s output – what is going to be the ‘hit’? will the hit single help sell the ‘album’?

By building on a longstanding belief that music is tightly bound to identity — you are the music you hear — Apple was able to imbue the iPod with the aura of home itself. If the rumbling bass of an SUV blasting hip-hop breaks down the invisible walls that divvy up our personal space in the public sphere, the iPod does exactly the opposite, building new barriers between us. Music may “know no boundaries,” but the purpose of the iPod is to protect them. As anyone who has spent some time sitting in a Star-bucks can tell you, the customers who work there use iPods to minimize the possibility for social interaction.