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THE COMFORT OF THINGS LEE WOODMAN

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In this essay I will evaluate and critically analyze the use of my iPod as both a personal listening device and a storage device for my music library. I will then look at the wider design background and forms of use of this object by drawing on academic writings about personal listening devices and iPods. Finally I will evaluate this academic research and personal experience combined with a photographic portrayal of the iPod to gain a holistic understanding of design in a cultural context. My particular iPod is a white, fifth generation 30GB iPod, which I obtained through a trade account points system around 2006. I have used it extensively since I acquired it and must admit, it has, and continues to provided me with comfort. In scrutinizing my daily use of this object through the log entries two things are immediately noticeable. Firstly, the iPod goes where I go, it is part of the walking, commuting, and travelling essential equipment that is carried in my bag. When walking anywhere, the iPod travels too, even if I don’t intend to use it. The rationale is ‘I might want to listen later’. Other times it is intended to be used and doesn’t reach the bag but is carried in my pocket and used once I start walking. The second noticeable thing is the dual use of my iPod. I store all my music on it and because I only store a small amount on my laptop I need to connect it to the laptop to listen to music through the computer. The listening range is otherwise limited and if any amount of time is spent in my bedroom or


working directly on the laptop, the iPod is invariably connected. This amounts to every evening, and often during the day. There are other things to note from the log of use. The associated earphones that are needed for the device to work become the weak link as they have a short lifespan if used regularly and if often carried in the bag with heavy books. On just the second day of the log the right earpiece began to cut out and I could maintain use of it by bending the wire attached at an acute angle using my ear to hold it in place. Ater two more days it gave up completely; the iPod was reduced to a home based music library until I could afford some new earphones. Another anomaly to note was the unexpected low battery. If my iPod is left connected to the laptop overnight and the laptop is in sleep mode, then it seems to drain the battery. As sometimes I forget to disconnect it before sleep, I discover in the morning it is flat, even if the battery was charged the night before. This happened during the log when I intended to use it on the morning walk to Kelburn; I felt the distinct sense of being cheated when I discovered it did not turn on. This leads to the other important aspect of my iPod use. The log confirmed that its use is mainly mood-based. Because of the isolational effect it provides by being in a realm of sound that is relevant to the user only, this enables me to indicate that I want to be left alone, and provides the sound ‘bubble’ that makes it hard to engage with others. In this aspect, the iPod is most effective and has changed the way I can be in both the private and public sphere. The iPod’s predecessor can be traced back to 1972 when amateur inventor Andreas Pavel wished to recreate the listening experience he had previously


enjoyed. Pavel had lived inBrazil, where he enjoyed music listening sessions with friends in a high vaulted room with big Stanton speakers. When he moved to Switzerland for a time, he longed for those sessions and that sound and so set about making a device to achieve that. Pavel began with a shoe-box sized Sony cassette player and some open-air headphones. He wired the headphones into the player in place of the speakers and with some help enabled two headphones to be wired together (Levy, 2006, p.111). He attached the unit to a thick belt and together with his girlfriend travelled to a snowy wood nearby. With a jazz flute cassette by Herbie Mann in the player, Pavel pushed the button and the “woods exploded in sound.” Pavel recalls; “It was, like, ‘Wow! I can’t believe that!’ A really fantastic experience.” (as cited in Levy, 2006, p.112). Pavel’s excitement in recalling continues; It is like an electronic drug, that thing! It’s like the whole band is playing in the woods, at full sound. It is like film, a film experience. We couldn’t get enough of it. We played and we walked, and played it and played it. (as cited in Levy, 2006, p.112). Interestingly, while Pavel and his girlfriend were experiencing their personal sound journey in those snowy woods, they stumbled across some hikers who were the first to experience “earphoned dropouts from reality” (Levy, 2006, p.112). Pavel tried unsuccessfully to market his ‘stereobelt’, and was turned down by Yamaha, Phillips and many more. It wasn’t until 1979 when Sony introduced the Walkman that personal listening devices were available to the masses (Levy, 2006, p. 112). Sony’s journey to produce the walkman discovered the same problem that Pavel encountered; anyone using earphones to listen to music isolated


themselves from outside interaction. Sony’s confounder, Akio Morita, wrote in his autobiography about bringing home a prototype Walkman; “I noticed my experiment was annoying my wife, who felt shut out.” (as cited in Levy, 2006, p. 117). In response, Morita instructed his team to include another earphone jack. Not long later, he realised that even two earphones could still create anti-social conditions. When he shared the invention with a colleague on the golf course, “he smiled broadly and wanted to say something, but he couldn’t because we were hooked up to earphones”, wrote Morita, “I realized this was a potential problem.” (as cited in Levy, 2006, p.117). To fix this problem the Sony engineers introduced an orange ‘hotline button’ that when pressed allowed the user to speak via microphone to the other earphone user (Levy, 2006). Needless to say the dual earphone jack and the hotline button did not last long on the Walkman, as buyers saw their Walkmans as “very personal”, and “we found that everybody seemed to want his or her own” recalls Morita (as cited in Levy, 2006, p. 120). “The Walkman was not about sharing, it was about not sharing”, says Levy (2006, p.120). The iPod was launched by Apple on October 23rd 2001, and Apple CEO Steve Jobs proclaimed that he had a great digital device to show, but it “was not a Mac.”(as cited in levy, 2006, p. 8). After a build-up discussing al the products technical components, Jobs showed a picture side-on of the first iPod. “It was slim, shiny, like a cigarette case someone in a noir film would pull out in a nightclub.” Says Levy (2006, p. 9). Then a shot of the back came next, it was shiny, “...imagine a silver soap dish”, drools Levy (2006, p. 9). Finally, after a three quarter back and side view, Jobs showed a picture of the full front view.


It was pure white and looked ‘clean and alluring’ and yet, “somehow mysterious”, as Levy recalls, “since it seemed to have no precedent” (2006, p. 9). The aesthetics of the iPod are some of the strongest embodied in a designed object. Jon Austin, in his chapter The unbeatable Whiteness of the iPod, writes that the white of the iPod is its most defining feature, “it was more than just white – it was an almost translucent, radiant white that you would swear glowed.”(2008, p.99). Although more modern versions have colour variations, the first few generations were predominantly white and with the matching white earbuds the colour became synonymous with ‘iPod’. Austin writes a comprehensive chapter on the symbolic nature of ‘white’ within our western culture and it is fascinating the depth he goes to flush out the things we take for granted. While there is little room to explore his analysis here, analyses stand out and provide some concept of the unconscious nature of ‘white’. Austin explains; Domestic appliances might well come in a range of colours, but the serious items – the basic, essential to life items like refrigerators, washing machines, dishwashers – these are white goods... In recent years, the iPod has become another of these core items, and the first such items to travel beyond the confines of the domestic sphere. (2008, p.103,104). Austin also attributes white to scientific development through the white lab coat, and by extension the white iPod is seen as connected to this scientific world of technology and sophistication (2008, p.104). So it seems there are plenty of positive things to say about the iPod, and I could write a great deal more, but we must look at both sides to be truly


critical. Joseph Pitt argues that the iPod is damaging our society by silencing the joyful sound of human conversation, “the spontaneity of the social has disappeared and the silence of the anthropoid now rules”, laments Pitt (2008, p 161). This, he argues, inhibits our learning of valuable social skills like argumentation of ideas. By not engaging and discussing our ideas we fail to develop good eye-contact and body language and therefore limit our ability to become useful members of society (Pitt, 2008, p.164). From another angle, Michael Bull writes that traditionally our ears were considered a ‘passive sense’ always open to the world. But with the introduction of walkman and iPod technologies we are able to change our auditory landscape to our own preferences. While this may be pleasurable, Bull warns; “this empowerment is dependant” (2010, p. 57). Combining different types of research in order to assess designed objects helps produce a holistic picture. Some research confirms earlier concerns. For example, Andreas Pavel and Akio Morita, both pioneers in personal sound devices, discovered the initial ‘problem’ that both Michael Bull and Joseph Pitt point out later as ‘problems’ in widespread iPod culture. My own understanding and use from the log of use show this ‘problem’ as one of the very aspects that make the iPod attractive, especially in modern cities or high density living. Other research has a surprising depth to otherwise mundane facts, and prescribing to Ira Shor’s “re-experiencing the ordinary”, Jon Austin’s work on the ‘whiteness’ of the iPod opened my eyes to something I put out of ‘conscious consideration’ (as cited in Austin, 2008,p. 100). To compliment this, my photographic log explores the ‘whiteness’ with new eyes. It became


obvious that the aesthetics of the iPod held some of its greatest power in being desired by the masses. Besides Austin’s writings, many others pointed out aspects, one of those being Francis Raven who argued the iPod ended the ‘Blobject’ era by merging forms of idealistic ‘beauty’, and rational ‘truth’ (Raven, 2008, p.24,25). Another is Alf Rehn who points out there is an ‘iPodness’ that all design covets, an abstract quality that connects all things elegant and desirable to the concept of the iPod, a concept that designers might aspire to re-create (Rehn, 2008, p.5). I learnt that relationships between designed objects and society can work in two ways. As Andrew Hickey points out, various ideas of “prestige and affluence” are connected to iPod ownership. So when you purchase an iPod, “you also get a range of social assumptions about who you are” (2008, p. 117). But he points out the iPod not only represents an idea of “youthful, techsavyness”, but it also defines it (Hickey, 2008, p.125). This highlights interesting notions of design and culture and how they influence and reflect each other. My log of use confirmed some of the issues and uses covered by the library research. One similarity being the isolation problem that the library research often covered, and the actual intention of my use to achieve that ‘isolation’. However, I must say that it has made me think more carefully about this ‘problem’. My photo log helped me understand the aesthetic power of the iPod, and this is confirmed by the library research also. Overall, my log of use together with the photo log, made me acknowledge the extent and variation to which I used this device.


REFERENCE LIST: Austin, J. (2008). The Unbeatable Whiteness of the iPod. In Wittkower, D. E., (Ed.), iPod and Philosophy; iCon of an ePoch (pp. 97-113). Illinois: Carus Pub Co. Bull, M. (2010). iPod; A personalised Sound World for its Consumers. Scientif Journal of Media Education. 17 (34), 55-63. DOI:10.3916/C34-2010-02-05 Hickey, A. (2008). iCon of a Generation. In Wittkower, D. E., (Ed.), iPod and Philosophy; iCon of an ePoch (pp. 115-128). Illinois: Carus Pub Co. Levy, S. (2006). The Perfect Thing; How iPod shuffles Commerce, Culture, Coolness. New York: Simon & Schuster Pitt, J. (2008). Don’t Talk to Me. In Wittkower, D. E., (Ed.), iPod and Philosophy; iCon of an ePoch (pp. 161-165). Illinois: Carus Pub Co. Raven, F. (2008). The Moment of the Blobject has Passed. In Wittkower, D. E., (Ed.), iPod and Philosophy; iCon of an ePoch (pp. 17-28). Illinois: Carus Pub Co. Rehn, A. (2008). Wittgenstein’s iPod, or, the Familiar among us. In Wittkower, D. E., (Ed.), iPod and Philosophy; iCon of an ePoch (pp. 3-15). Illinois: Carus Pub Co.


1. Obey the iPod


2. Dependence


3. ‘The Unbeatable Whiteness’


4. Design reflects society; society reflects design


5. The Ubiquitous iPod


6. ‘Hero shot’


7. Travel Bus


8. Travel Plane


9. Travel Nelson...Zed


10. Wear and Tear


Log 1. Aborted when ear phones broke


Log 2. Continued when ear phones purchased


The comfort of things; iPod