TCS Daily

iLove Is a Many Splendored Thing

By Ilya Shapiro - March 25, 2005 12:00 AM

Late last month I broke down and ordered an iPod. You know, one of those ultra-sleek digital music players with the telltale white earbuds and wires. The latest in the long line of compact portable personal entertainment systems that began with the now retro-hip Sony Walkman. The one that has been banned by apoplectic educators for fear of encouraging "social isolation," thereby solidifying its place among the technological advancements that expand freedom and choice while consternating nanny state status quo-ers.

Now, I'm neither an early adopter nor someone who is swayed by fads. Nor am I a gadget freak; I'm one of those guys who wonders why Maxim magazine added "gadgets" to its tagline ("sex, sports, beer," etc.). Instead, my objective for getting one of these new-fangled contraptions was that I like my music but never get a chance to listen to it; I no longer drive every day and am not at home enough waking hours. What finally sold me was the simple idea of having all of my CDs, from Pavarotti to Postal Service, loaded up and ready to go -- in a device about the size of a pack of cigarettes, and not much heavier.

And that's probably why a lot of people are getting them nowadays -- along with Apple's astute marketing, which has effectively branded the aforementioned white headphones and is playing off the great success of U2 to go after two generations of music-lovers. As of the end of last year, over 10 million iPods had been sold, 8 million in 2004 alone (4.5 million in October through December, essentially the holiday shopping season). The iPod now has 65% of the mp3 (digital music) market in this country, and that share can only grow with the recent introduction of the screen-less iPod shuffle (from $99) and the gigantic (60-gigabyte) photo iPod -- which segments the market at every feasible price/feature point.

But I'm not trying to be a cheerleader for Steve Jobs. It doesn't seem like he needs them now that he's revived a company that had been facing extinction -- and with little more than a good color scheme. (Without help from the Fab Five of Queer Eye fame.)

No, what I'm meandering toward is that the iPod is revolutionizing American society -- at this point mainly youngish urban somewhat affluent society (call 'em "yosas"), but that's where revolutionary trends begin. Not in the glib "iPod changed my life" sort of way; it sort of does that, but more in terms of improving its quality than by adding a new dimension. What iPod has done, building on the legally short-circuited Napster wave that I just missed in college -- more on the differences between Generation Y and the tail end of Generation X in a future column -- is to give people control over their music, and to allow them literally to provide a soundtrack for every moment of their lives.

Some bemoan this development as yet another step on the road to the complete atomization of society -- Bowling Alone writ larger and larger. And this is a fair criticism; I was recently in an Au Bon Pain on the campus of George Washington University and witnessed two students have an iPod non-versation: one tapped the other on the shoulder and waved hi, they noticed each other's white earbuds, and so just sort of smiled and kept looking at each other. What was stopping them from pausing their music and interacting? -- after all, this was more than a case of acquaintances nodding "wassup" as they pass each other on the quad path.

Rick Barry, writing in the GW Patriot -- a Collegiate Network paper I came across while surveying the collegians in their natural habitat -- points to the iPod as a threat to civilization for just these self-isolating reasons ("absent presence" he calls it). And it's bad for music and for the soul as well, he adds.

You can even hear echoes of Chicago law professor Cass Sunstein, who argues in that our polity will gradually dissolve as people filter out the news and information they don't want to hear, customizing their narrow societal "engagement" rather than being exposed to a range of views and sources. Well.

There are two sides to every criticism. For every absent presence or social isolation there is an unspoken bond between strangers -- such as the kind I feel when passing another business casual soul on K Street with the white wires slinking up from his brown corduroy Banana Republic jacket. For every bit of instant-gratification candy dispenser music, somebody learns to appreciate Chopin or Clapton or Coldplay. And for every lament about a false, conforming-yet-segregating "control," there is an exultation at the increasing choices -- the growing freedom -- in this brave new 21st century.

So I'm not too concerned, and indeed welcome iPod nation.

As for my iPod purchase, it turns out that two days after I placed my order for a 40GB iPod, that particular model was discontinued and replaced by the 60GB beast. This prompted an Apple email saying that they'd discount me $50 (not that I had any hard feelings, as I certainly don't need that much memory and am not willing to pay the higher price). Then two days later I got another email saying they'd just send me the 60GB model anyway, still for $50 less than I would have paid for the 40GB. Now I have a machine that has six times the memory of my three-and-a-half-year-old Dell laptop and can store all my photos and writing along with my music. Not a bad ploy: Apple certainly has piqued my interest in an iBook.

Ilya Shapiro a Washington lawyer, writes the "Dispatches from Purple America" column for TCS. His last contribution explained why hockey is the sport of Purple America.



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