The dialectic of wearing an iPod

Michael Bull’s new book says we wear iPods in order to escape alienation and ‘chilly’ urban landscapes. Maybe, but it’s not the whole story.

Rob Clowes

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This article is republished from the August 2008 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.

Sound Moves is an investigation into an icon and perhaps one of the most ubiquitous (and beloved) technologies of the early twenty-first century: the iPod.

The iPod has been one of the most talked-about technologies of the past seven years. Since its introduction in 2001, it has sold 100million units worldwide. More than 4,000 accessories have been created to work with the iPod and, unlike many other gadgets that are bought and then discarded, there is evidence that the iPod plays a central role in the everyday life of its users.

Given the immense cultural importance attached to this not-so-humble device, it is not surprising that it has now received a book-length treatment by the media theorist and academic Michael Bull. If one thinks that dedicating such a lengthy treatise to the iPod is a little over-the-top, then the opening section’s hyperbole will not disappoint. Bull recasts cultural critic Roland Barthes’ idea that the great cultural icons of the medieval period are recast for us moderns (not to say post-moderns) in consumer technology. For Barthes (writing in the 1970s) the Citroën, like the Gothic cathedral before it, represented the supreme cultural artefact of its age: a machine not just for any simple utilitarian purpose, but a vehicle for the spirit.

Bull has it that the iPod is the signal artefact of our own age and notes that the progression from ‘Gothic Cathedral to Citroën DS to the Apple iPod represents a Western narrative of increasing mobility and privatisation’. However, Bull’s book is really more of a critique than a paean, for Bull’s aim is not so much to analyse the device itself as to explore its use and integration in our culture. Through the iPod, he writes a narrative of the creation of a new sort of self, which has withdrawn from much of urban life into what he calls ‘mediated urban isolation’.

Central to Bull’s argument – although rather implicit – is the idea that the contemporary self is structured around the use of certain mobile technologies, most notably the iPod, but also mobile phones and GPS devices. In common with some contemporary cognitive theorists (1), he sees these devices as reshaping our cognitive landscapes. However, Bull’s main reference points lie in critical theory, and especially the ideas of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer whose Dialectic of Enlightenment is lent upon rather heavily throughout this book (2). Bull rethinks these ideas to give us an account of how the iPod reshapes our cognitive and emotional worlds, with his ‘Dialectic of iPod Use’.

The first step of the dialectic is that the iPod as technology reflects the relationship of contemporary subjectivity to urban space – which is primarily to reject it. In Bull’s account, it is the already ‘chilly semiotic space’ of the contemporary urban environment which the iPod user seeks to overwrite with his own portable envelope or ‘cocoon’ of sound.

However, as the subject comes to depend on the iPod to supply the right sort of accompaniment for his experience of the world, he increasingly withdraws from the urban landscape as a scene of interactions with others. Rather, the urban landscape becomes ‘privatised’ by being subsumed into his own private, experiential universe. This is said to be signalled by the white earpieces which are at once a fashion accessory and a sign that the user is content with his own company. But this retreat itself has consequences. In a sort of feedback relation, the iPod user retreats into a privatised sound world and comes, partially, to vacate urban space even as he inhabits it, replacing the outside world with one that is the product of his own, fevered imaginations.

Bull’s Dialectic of iPod Use echoes the Dialectic of Enlightenment, according to which ‘instrumental reason’, once focused on controlling nature, returns boomerang-like and ends up distorting, controlling and ultimately destroying the Enlightenment subject itself. Famously and bleakly, for Adorno and Horkheimer, the road of instrumental reason leads to the death camps, as the human subject itself becomes merely a means rather than an end. Versions of this argument have been rehearsed countless times recently by environmentalists, in order to show that the desire to intervene and control nature carries within itself the seeds of destruction.

Bull also appropriates Adorno and Horkheimer’s reading of the myth of Ulysses, whereby Ulysses gets to listen to the Siren’s song by having his crew block their ears with wax and then tie him to the mast. For Adorno and Horkheimer, this is a central moment both in the division of labour and the creation of higher aesthetic sensibilities. The aesthetic moment is created when Ulysses, unable to throw himself on the rocks or command himself to do so, has to passively listen to the Siren’s song. Bull rewrites this myth for the audiophile and turns it into something a little different: Bull’s iPod users simultaneously inhabit and withdraw from an urban landscape that they thus render colder and more inhospitable. Ulysses is the distant ancestor of today’s iPod user immersed in a private soundscape which plays a central role in his sense of identity.

Urban life is thus becoming increasingly phantasmagoric and spectatorial; a place not to interact with others but to experience one’s own private movie that is conjured up by a readymade sound world. ‘Readymade’ is important here because, as Bull frequently emphasises, the private sound world of the iPod user is not of his own making but rather relies on the products of the culture industry. Urbanites are increasingly shut into their own private sound worlds, which are constructed to project their own private experience on to the cityscape that simply becomes so much scenery for their private movies. At the same time, the shared space and conviviality of city life is eclipsed.

What Bull doesn’t really explain are the reasons for this retreat into a ‘cocoon’. The isolated and somewhat needy self that he portrays is not simply produced by contemporary media technologies or even the technological culture in which they are embedded – instead they are responses to wider social and cultural trends. If urban life is really so cold, the dialectic itself does not tell us why. In Bull’s book, the question of what it is about urban life which prompts our ‘iPod retreat’ is left unexplained; public space is simply referred to as ‘cold semiotic space’. But how and why did it turn ‘cold’?

Also, is the urban landscape really as ‘chilly’ as Bull portrays it? There is as much use of iPod in the leafy suburbs and market towns as there is in the city. Who is to say whether there is less chill in the suburbs than in the city proper? There has been a general withdrawal from public institutions and social involvement in recent decades, which is a far deeper and longer dynamic than is covered in the short timeline of Bull’s book.

His chapter on the workplace is telling. He notes that music at work has traditionally been seen as a collective phenomena bound up with the social life of the workspace. This has now changed. Wearing headphones and listening to one’s iPod is now a way to block out one’s co-workers when concentration is required. In a related way, being allowed to wear an iPod at work is a sign of being more valued and autonomous as a worker and able to control one’s own time. Here Bull’s arguments are illustrated with excerpts from interviews with users. John writes of wearing an iPod in the workplace: ‘I feel isolated from what’s happening around me and that there is less chance of anyone invading my private space. This gives me the feeling of invulnerability.’ Such bite-sized reflections reveal something of the strength and weakness of this sort of method. Clearly what people say they feel about how they use their technology counts for something, but there should be more analysis of what is driving these feelings. Is John really ‘invulnerable’ at work, and what are the other factors conditioning his desire to be isolated from his co-workers?

While the private sound-worlds of today’s iPod users are plainly very different for different individuals, Bull argues that they perform the same basic function: to warm the otherwise chilly environments; they are nostalgic creations to fulfil emotional needs. Playlists are called up to supply the prompt for the requisite feeling for the negotiation of the city at any given point.

Nostalgia is the focus of one of the most interesting chapters in Bull’s book. He argues that nostalgia ‘is a dominant mode of address in contemporary urban experience’, with many iPod users using their playlists either to evoke a certain meaningful moment in the past or to conjure forth the correct emotion to engage in whatever task they are currently undertaking. The iPod thus serves as a form of cognitive technology; Bull argues that its main purpose is to allow the user to access and replay moods and emotions to negotiate a hostile and alien environment. While there is clearly something in this, it does not seem to capture the variety of iPod use and the many means by which it can help organise cognitive and emotional life or, indeed, any other purpose.

This narrowness of focus and eclipsing of the larger context would not be such a problem if it did not lead to a rather one-sided portrayal of the technology itself. As Bull himself persistently hints, there are more ways to use an iPod than simply blotting out conversations on a train, signalling you want some private time or indulging in a little nostalgia.

The urban use of the iPod, even as evidenced in Bull’s book, represents not just a simple withdrawal – it can also be a means of heightened enjoyment of the city. A stroll through London’s South Bank recently revealed an urban landscape as much like a playground for grown-ups as the sort of broken cities that Mike Davis evokes in City of Quartz (3). In this light, it is not clear that the use of iPods is as much a way of excluding or ‘gating’ the supposedly chilly city-landscape presented to the senses. Rather, the iPod can be used as a machine for the aesthetisising of experience, taking advantage of the already playful landscapes that many urban designers seem keen to construct or project. It is not clear in what sense these landscapes are really ‘chilly’.

Likewise, iPods are not just about music. People use them extensively in a variety of tasks and pleasures, such as the study of foreign languages and other academic studies, or note-taking (with a microphone add-on). Such uses are neither needy nor nostalgic, but active.

The iPod and its relatives are a more general-purpose sort of cognitive tool than Bull gives them credit for, and the trends toward social isolation run much deeper than he admits. Worse, by portraying us as being overpowered by our devices in the way that he does, Bull risks flirting with a sort of technological determinism that is really not sustainable given the wider trends at work.

He also misses some trends towards the subject’s attempt to assert private intellectual space. One could think of the commuters buried in their books or newspapers on a London Tube train. The book could be understood as a way of signalling occupation and social withdrawal, as Bull suggests is the case with the white iPod ear-buds. Similarly, it would be easy to try to show that much of the reading material was concerned with sentimental issues or had been mass-produced by the culture industry. But this would be to miss something crucial. The book is a crucial Enlightenment cognitive technology, allowing private access to the thoughts and ideas of the whole world. A little withdrawal from the here-and-now is a small price to pay for such gains. Similarly, it would be one-eyed to see the autonomy and privacy that the iPod allows in public space as an entirely negative thing.

Bull’s meditation on the iPod has many merits. It has much to say on the relationship between subjectivity and technology, and it will be of use to any student of the way consumer technologies colonise our everyday lives. But the framework, taken from critical theory, cuts off Bull from important wider trends, just as effectively as the iPod cuts off some of its users from the wider world.

Rob Clowes is a writer and philosophy lecturer based at the University of Sussex, and chairman of the Brighton Salon.

Sound Moves: IPod Culture and Urban Experience, by Michael Bull, is published by Routledge. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

This article is republished from the August 2008 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.

(1) Clark, A., Natural Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies and the Future of Human Intelligence. 2003, New York: Oxford University Press.

(2) Horkheimer, M. and T.W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment. 1972, New York: Herder and Herder.

(3) Davis, M., City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. London/New York, 1990.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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