The snobbery of Ipods

This week, the New York Press published its annual feature on “The 50 Most Loathsome New Yorkers”, and while some of the nominees were the usual suspects — 50 Cent, Chuck Schumer, Dick Grasso — one of them was unexpected: The Ipod. Or rather, the people who use them — “i-Snobs”, as the magazine called them:

THE BLINDING WHITE cords flowing out of my sublimely waxed ears say it all: I’m in no mood for talking, and my income bracket makes cumbersome CDs so unnecessary, so Second Wave. With thousands of songs from my iPod at my polished fingertips, I can now walk through life effortlessly, angelically, shielded by the anodized aluminum of my futuristic listening device. I can strut with confidence and disinterest past those in my chosen path. I’m cut off from your dirty world by my ear buds and their enhanced sound and noise-suppression features. I’m a creature of advertising, a walking cliche with 25-minute skip protection and Volkswagen dreams. Shit, my profile even resembles the faceless, platonic form in the billboard.

I confess, this made me giggle a bit. Though I definitely see the attraction of the ipod, it’s also true — as I blogged a while back — that the ipod is not merely a music player. It’s a piece of existential performance art, a way of illustrating that you are such a musical aesthete that you need to have 10 bazillion songs at your beck and call every second of the day.

Interestingly, I may not be pulling this argument entirely out of my ass, since it appears that I’m supported by academic research. Michael Bull, a media lecturer at the University of Sussex, studies people’s uses of personal audio players; he wrote a book in 2000 called Sounding Out the City: Personal Stereos and the Managment of Everyday Life. He discovered, as you might imagine, that people use Ipods as a way of establishing control over their environments. In that sense, the wits at the New York Press are precisely right: Part of wearing an Ipod in public is about setting up a personal no-fly zone and publicly proclaiming you really do not want anyone to talk to you. It’s not much different from the way married women with children use romance novels: As ethnographer Janice Radaway argued in her superb book Reading the Romance, the women do not read the novels merely for their content; they read them as a device for alerting their families to piss off, because mom needs some quiet time to herself.

And as for those Ipods? When Bull similarly asked people how many songs users listened to, it turned out that — whoops — nobody really needed 10,000 tunes. The excess capacity is pure overkilll, because all the users were doing was looping the same few tunes over and over again as they zoned out the world. As Bull told Wired News:

I found that they use the same music on a regular basis. They will often play the same half-dozen tunes for three months …

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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