[Comparative Literature major and former Nass contributor Lee Reitelman ’07 offers the following excerpt, the first chapter of his senior thesis. Infl uenced by Second World War-era German cultural criticism and informed by the insatiable contemporary appetite for Apple’s products, the piece explores just what it is that’s so entrancing about the iPod. Note: the essay has been edited for length. –Eds.]
Whether or not we agree that the iPod somehow essentializes the twentyfirst century–an intriguing claim, if not intentionally exaggerated–the more general principle underlying that claim is reasonable enough: the idea that one might “read the state of the cultural spirit [Geist] off of the sundial of human technology.” (1)
On the front side, the iPod’s surface is bright white: this fact alone sets it apart from most comparable technologies. Cell phones, pagers, laptops, PDAs, televisions- -these are all black or gray or silver, colors that can, to be certain, avail themselves of a certain sleekness, but which, by virtue of their ubiquity in contemporary technological devices, nevertheless signify that technological character. But the whiteness of the iPod, like the whiteness of a number of other products recently released by Apple, does more than merely set it apart from other technologies. It signifies, in its own right, a kind of purity and simplicity associated with mastery. The sense of mastery is twofold: first, the device’s mastery over the technology it employs–the iPod is not beholden to its mechanisms, but rather so in control of them that it turns them into something beautiful–and second, the user’s mastery over the device–something so white and clean and simple, the beholder thinks, must be very easy to use.
On the backside of the iPod, the surface is mirrored and, save for some inconspicuous inscriptions in light gray, free of the clutter one usually finds on the underside of comparable devices. There are no screws, no mechanisms for accessing the battery, no raised levels indicating the location of the battery beneath the surface. As for the mirrored surface, the iPod is the only device of its kind to boast this feature, which, like the color of the iPod, is no functional necessity, but rather a deliberate aesthetic choice. When the user of the iPod looks at its backside, however, it is not just a mirror that he sees but rather his own face reflected in that mirror. Th is is an essential point: while all iPods appear the same from the front–white, clean, simple–and signify the device’s and the user’s mastery over technology, no one person sees the same thing on the backside of the iPod as another: this iPod, the reflected image announces, is his alone. The mirrored back confirms and enables this feeling of singular ownership.
Only the display model in the store or the iPod fresh out of the box will be found to have a mirrored back completely free from scratches, nicks, and smudges. Th e more vigorously an iPod is used, of course, the more distorted the refl ected the image becomes. For this reason, the most obsessive of iPod owners will take the utmost precaution in handling the device, always transporting it in protective cases and perpetually cleaning its surface. The obsessive tendency after all is the manifest symptom of insecurity over the cleanliness of the self: in the case of the mirrored back, smudges, nicks and imperfections quite literally make the self appear tarnished and unclean. But these imperfections, being the indexical traces of usage, are also confirmations of ownership, proof of a lasting and indelible relationship between the user and the device: as the user grows older, travels to new places, has new experiences–the iPod, of course, being with him at every step of the way–so must the reflected image bear the traces of this experience: its scratches, nicks, and smudges are so many wrinkles, furrows, and smile lines.
The primary interfacial mechanism of the click wheel, however, is the circular movement of the fi nger in one direction or the other over its surface. This movement corresponds to three basic functions: to scroll up or down lists of items displayed on the screen; to move forwards or backwards in a song being played; and to turn the volume up or down. Of value here is the sense in which this mode of interface is, in the original sense, digital–pertaining to the finger. Certainly other digital interfaces require the use of the finger in button pressing, but the use of the click wheel is far more sensuous than these. With the click wheel, it isn’t merely a question of on or off, pressed or unpressed: it requires prolonged contact; it responds even to the speed with which the user’s finger circles the wheel. The click wheel thus preserves an element of the phenomenal in an otherwise disembodied interface.
The image of the finger on the wheel resonates with another image from the history of music listening: the needle on the phonographic record. The needle on the turning record is the performative spectacle of sonic reproduction in the age of the gramophone: it is at this moment that the encoded, indexical inscription of the sonic event is translated back into sound. In the iPod, there exists no such performance; or rather, the performance takes place behind a curtain–hidden inside the little white box. In the absence of such a spectacle of reproduction, the image of the fi nger on the wheel becomes its surrogate. But whereas the image of the needle on the record privileges the act of the mechanical deciphering of the encoded inscription–that is, the technological process of sonic reproduction itself–the finger on the wheel privileges the act of selection, the user’s control over the sequence of the sonic events to be reproduced. (2) Indeed, the user of the iPod takes for granted the mechanical reproduction of music; what is most essential is the ability to determine when and where he will hear it. The phenomenality of the means by which he can do so–the click wheel–tangibly confirms, indeed makes sensuous and intimate, this interface of control. This is music, as it were, that responds to the touch.
Then there is the thing’s name. “iPod” was originally an acronym applied by Apple in the development stages of the device, standing for Internet Portable Open Database. The term’s technical origins were not enough to keep the company from releasing the product under this name, and the decision has by all accounts been a good one. That the name has stuck so well, that it has, indeed, attained a status in popular culture surpassing even that of the Walkman–ours has often been called “The iPod Generation”–is perhaps not incidental. Few people, of course, know what the acronym stands for; only a few more, perhaps, even know it to be an acronym at all. How should we interpret its ubiquity and power? The unconscious appeal of the term is perhaps related tothe presence of two smaller words: “I” and “pod.” A pod generally refers to a kind of protective encasement, as in a peapod. A pod nourishes and safeguards precious contents during their development. Most generally, it is a container, but its purpose is always more than preservation: it is preservation for the purpose of growth and evolution. Though it is now applied to such things as the detachable compartment of an aircraft or spaceship, the term usually conjures images in nature, organic processes: sites of growth. The compound word iPod, then, is best understood this way: it is a container in which the “I” develops–a locus of self-generation. If this seems tendentious, we might suggest that the real, technical meaning–Internet Portable Open Database–itself affirms or at least resonates with our suggestion. A Portable Open Database–this phrase denotes something not unlike the word which stands as its acronym. An open database is a container whose contents evolves as new information is added or taken away. Its portability parallels the sense in which the pod is detachable, removable. The presence of the word “Internet” can here be understood not to denote the wider concept of the World Wide Web, but rather the compatibility of this particular device with it–the Internet as a means of connecting one with many, and the empowerment of the individual in the process of this connection. Thus, Internet Portable Open Database denotes the portable container in which the technologically empowered individual stores information of his choosing.
But if the iPod is a site of self-generativity, is it the human who generates himself in the use of the technology, or is it the technology that generates itself in absorbing the human? Is it a unique, spontaneous and human self, or a commercially reproducible, technological one? In many respects, the iPod conceals those features that would otherwise announce its technological and commercial character. It blurs the distinctions between the phenomenal and the non-phenomenal, the singular and the reproducible, the organic and the artificial–and ultimately, the human and technological. This produces a situation in which the user is unable to dissociate himself from the technology. In adapting himself to the device, he becomes numb to its true character. The face that is reflected in the mirrored surface of the iPod becomes a symbol of this numbness. In an inversion of McLuhan’s reading of the Narcissus myth, the user doesn’t fail to recognize himself in the technology but instead recognizes only himself–a self that is merely an ideological representation. He worships this representation as an idol, and subsequently becomes its servo-mechanism. He perceives his reflection as the signature of his control, all but blind to the corporate emblem emblazoned on his forehead that constitutes the real signature of ideological control.
(1) Levy, The Perfect Thing, 1.
(2) Cf. Adorno, “The Form of the Phonograph Record,” in Essays on Music.