Monday, February 18, 2008

The Hooplah: iRant

SUBMIT to iLIFE: Bliss Through Acquiescence

Apple is making me nervous. The brilliant folks at the pirate computer company have keelhauled the souls of millions!

All right, perhaps it’s not as bad as that. Apple makes fine products in its two key lines, computers and portable media devices [iPhone inclusive]. Their computers are arguably the best for graphics work, ease of interface and reliability (even if they lack some of the functionality of a PC). I've been tossing around the idea for a while now of getting one, if just for the space considerations. I've friends and family with the machines, and they are quite happy with their purchases.

These same people also have iPods, those fancy little numbers in stylish colors, rounded and sleek. They are part of a horde of consumers who have made the iPod one of the most successful product launches ever. Stores run out, people line up, they lose the iPod and buy a new one heedless of cost. If crack had a headphone jack and a thumbwheel, it would be something like this.

There is a level of addiction to this product that I have rarely seen in my own frenzied consumerism. The only computer-linked item that has grappled onto the public so quickly is Blizzard's World of Warcraft, at 7 million customers worldwide and counting, the juggernaut and new standard of online massive multiplayer RPGs (before, subscriptions in the hundreds of thousands was considered good; Blizzard past that after some three months). But even that people quit.

People just can't quit those iPods, though. A former co-worker of mine loves to espouse the benefits of the iPod and the iLife it engenders. Recently, her iPod ran out of batteries…and though that happens in all electronic devices, iPods of her generation cannot be given new life with new batteries. Once they crap out, they're buried. Were I the consumer in her shoes, I'd be upset. After all, I paid several hundred dollars on this thing, expecting a good life at least equal to my Discman (thank you, Sony, for not messing that up like your batteries; it's still going strong after 14 years), and four years in it says, "Goodbye"? That dog won't hunt, monseigneur.

She decided to buy a new iPod, my co-worker. When? At lunch. It ran out of batteries in the morning and by lunch she intends to have it replaced so that by this time tomorrow it will be fully armed and operational. If she could, she would run back to her apartment and load it up before the work day was out so, when commuting home, she wouldn’t have to listen to the drone of fellow "el" passengers or the clank of the tracks. And she is not alone in her obsession with the little device. It's become, if not a status symbol like a fancy car or a big house, then a social symbol. Do you have an iPod? Are you one of us?

To call them pod people would be too obvious, and iLife is too cute, but also eerily close to what's happening, beginning with these things. It's almost as if, while listening to your favorite playlist, a subtle addiction is formed in the back of your mind. You have to have your iPod, lest you feel cold and alone. It comforts you whenever it’s around, like a security blanket, and like a child you do get upset and flustered when you don't have it handy. You'll do anything, spend any price, to make sure it is always a part of your life. Buy the car adapter, so it broadcasts on a very localized station. Make sure to have the waterproof case so when you head to the beach, it won't get damaged. Leave a charger at work and at home, in the car or at your parents' house; you never know when it'll need a little boost. Plug it into a one of a variety of port and speaker options at home, so it can function as your stereo, your alarm clock, the white noise in the background while you stare vacantly at the wall. Don't have a lot of money? Buy a Nano, which used to be a Mini (now discontinued). Have too much scratch? Try the iTouch, or wait a few months (if you can wait five minutes) for the iPhone to become available with your network. Feel your wallet lighten, your spirits plateau and your mind slowly tumble off a precipice.

This might all be a rant because I fear the demise of physical media distribution systems: CDs. The record is a novelty item, the 8-track a nearly forgotten bad dream, the tape a fondly remembered childhood item and now the CD: how soon until its head falls on the chopping block? I'm a fan of the CD, of the clever liner notes you can get and the case styles, the tactile quality of it all, knowing you own a thing instead of just nebulous bytes on a small harddrive.

Swap tapes when you were younger, or CDs more recently? I love the concept of trading music collections, and MP3s are as ready a format as CDs, but they take a little of the personality out of the equation, and perhaps that's more at the core of my problem with iPods. They insulate us against the outside world since, for many of the people who use them, they use them all the time. Between classes, on the train, in the elevator, on lunch breaks, jogging, shopping, relaxing at home: there isn't a function of the waking (or sleeping!) day that an iPod can't insinuate itself in. My co-worker put it best when she said it's a "way of life. Once you have an iPod, there's no going back." Her sentiments were echoed by the others in my cubicle area who also own iPods.

It’s a way of life. What does that mean about our society then, that we're captivated so by this small thing, this pocket-sized device that spews out our shuffled musical tastes in 3-minute helpings? People aren't killing people over the things, thank God; no, only clothing drives us to kill when fashion tastes are involved. But iPods are certainly creating distinctions in the American population, a thin, sleek line if you will, where you have one and you're One of Us or you don't, and then the others just pity you, trapped in your caveman-like past. Even the commercials show a lack of individuality, a sort of conform or die quality with the shadow shapes flailing about all the same, their iPods in common, letting us know this is how you find your group, your
self, your spot.

It's Apple we're talking about, not Microsoft, but why do I feel the former is being more sinister? I could be paranoid; the claim has been made before. But think to your friends who have the Objects: do they cherish it a bit too much, pat themselves on the back for owning it, shake their head that you don't own one, isolate themselves in its stereophonic cocoon whenever they get a chance (car ride, bus, train, bathroom, dinner, homework, work, nocturnal activities)? Is iLife the new way for America, a polished, sleek, uniformity that numbs us at the press of a button?

Ah, but all that sounds so serious. I have an iPod Nano (free) waiting for me at home, but I just haven't been able to bring myself to use it very often. I'm sure I will, though, if just for convenience, right? It's just a little old MP3 player. What's the harm in that? It's not like everyone in the US has an iPod variant.

Just one in six.


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