July 21, 2004


Have you heard? Our society is changing! Gasp! At least, that's what Newsweek says this week, in what is essentially the same article that Newsweek has been running every few months for the last three years: the iPod is fundamentally changing the way people consume music (the title of the article, by the way, is 'iPod Therefore I Am', which might seem kind of witty, except that I'm sure they used the exact same gag when the iMac had its five minutes of fame).

Well, I'm sorry, but I have bad news for all the iPod worshippers who insist on spouting this masturbatory bullcrap: the iPod is not fundamentally changing anything, and it's not going to anytime soon, either (with the possible exception of Apple's share prices). As Newsweek so astutely notes, the iPod "seems centered on big cities and college towns" (gee! I wonder why that is!)-- and at $400, it also seems likely to stay that way. Apple will never (if past performance is anything to go by) lower their prices to the point where iPods are easily available to all-- so even if MP3 players (note the distinction) eventually change the way people consume music (and I'm still skeptical), the iPod is just a toy for the rich and famous.

Ironically, the article pegs the iPod's real appeal without ever really giving it much attention: it's a big, fat, status symbol. I may as well admit to owning an iPod, at this point. But I also fully admit that the thing I love most about my iPod is, simply, that it's so damn cool. Yes. I am shallow. So are the other three million people who own them (not to mention the people who buy the white headphones and plug them into-- sacrilege!-- a normal Walkman). The iPod Mini, especially, is solely a status symbol-- almost by design. It's under-specced and over-priced compared to other MP3 players, and yet people are snapping them up like they were going out of fashion (which, oops!, give it a few more months and they probably will be).

What really gets me is drivel along the lines of: iPods give their owners "membership into an implicit society . . . 'When my students see me on campus with my iPod, they smile,' says Professor Katch, whose unit stores everything from Mozart to Dean Martin. 'It's sort of a bonding'." I'll be honest with you. When I see a fellow iPod owner, I do not feel proud, or spiritually connected to that person in any way. I feel embrassed that we've both been suckered into the same stupid, expensive fad (especially if I happen to be, say, sipping a Starbucks latte or shopping for sand-blasted jeans at the Gap).

So, to reiterate: the iPod is a gimmick. It is not a revolutionary device. I am tired of hearing that it is. Please stop rubbing my face in the fact that I am just as bad as the people who say "It's almost as if my iPod understands me." Jeez!


At 22/7/04 20:07, Blogger Jan said...

...remember when cell phones first came out? the ones that looked like large bricks? (i'm not that old...)

does it makes us look shallow to live for gimmicks like an iPod? (i don't own one, nor an mp3 player) but i jumped on the whole society changing band wagon and got a DVD player to replace my aging VCR. may not be revolutionary but it is a space saver since DVD's are slimmer.

when i was growing up, 2010 was supposed to be the year our cars would all be flying. oh well, maybe 2050? unless society changes a bit faster and we can just beam ourselves all over!

cheers :)

At 23/7/04 06:03, Blogger Andrew said...

Yes, I do remember those old, brick cell phones-- I had one! (Of course, back then we called them 'mobile phones' and had to wind them up with a crank.)

I know 'shallow' sounds a little harsh, but this is what happens if you do a sociology degree. There's a book by a man called Veblen called "The Theory of the Leisure Class", in which he argues that people (all people, incidentally, not just the rich ones) try to engage as much as possible in what he calls "conspicious consumption". That is, it isn't enough for somebody to be successful, one has to prove to the world that he or she is successful. And although your close friends and relations probably know how successful you are, strangers don't-- so in order to demonstrate to them what a stand-up guy or gal you are, you have to buy/use/wear/do things that obviously require a great deal of success.

Playing golf, for example, is expensive, time-consuming, and requires a lot of practice; therefore, if somebody sees you playing golf, they'll know that not only do you have a lot of money, but that you don't even need to work all the time to get that money! DVD players are another good example: when they were first developed, they were prohibitively expensive and only the rich could afford them (and the rich bought them, obviously, so that everybody would know just how rich they were). Then, because all the rich and famous people had DVD players, they became a symbol of status and everybody started trying to buy them because they were such a reliable indicator of a certain type of lifestyle. As demand increased, the technology got better and cheaper, so that now you can buy a DVD player for $70 at Wal-Mart and, ironically, they're not such a great status symbol at all.

Of course, the iPod is a much better indicator of success than a DVD player, because you can carry them around with you and show everyone how great you are. To be sure, iPods are also great MP3 players, but there are a ton of other MP3 players available that will do the job and seem just as great once you're used to them.

This may all sound very cynical, but I'll finish with the example that my sociology professor used on us: The Magic Porsche. This is a car that, to you, looks like a Porsche, feels like a Porsche, and acts like a Porsche. For all intents and purposes, this car is a Porsche. But only to you. To everybody else in the world, the car looks like a beat-up, second-hand VW Golf from the 80s. Its paint is chipped, its motor is loud, its exhaust is black, and it has no radio. In short, although you will be having the most wonderful driving experience possible, to everyone else you will appear a miserly putz. Do you buy the car?

(I might add, by the way, that even though I've just spent an age ranting about this, the thing that I really wanted to complain about in my original post was all the air-brained crap about the iPod being a revolutionary device. This conspicuous consumption stuff is a completely different problem, as far as I'm concerned.)


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