iPod – The Symbol of Our Age and Why I Refuse To Buy One

iPod – its presence is ubiquitous

I don’t have an iPod. There, I said. In fact, I refuse to buy an iPod. If I wish to listen to music, I have a stereo and I have my laptop at home, plus I have a stereo system in my car should I wish to listen to music while driving.

During the day in the city, I’ll see hundreds of people going every which way with iPods attached to their bodies and heads. Whether they’re walking to the subway or working out in the gym, these people are detached from the mass around them. It’s precisely this detachment from the reality in their midst that I can’t appreciate. When I’m walking around, I enjoy not just the sights but also the sounds of the city around me. Each and ever sense combines to give me a better understanding of my surroundings. Wearing an iPod cuts me off not only from my surroundings, but it also cuts me off from the people and the community as a whole. Wearing an iPod also tells others that you are in your own space and wish not to be bothered. It’s difficult to call it elitist since it is an incredibly popular technology, but the iPod can be deemed a rejection of the immediate world around you as you seek to control your sensory perception by listening to a pre-arranged soundtrack.

Rob Clowes of Spiked Online elaborates on how the iPod separates an individual from their surroundings in his review of Michael Bull’s Sound Moves: IPod Culture and Urban Experience entitled: The Dialectic of wearing an iPod. I’ve provided several excellent excerpts.

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 Through the iPod, he writes a narrative of the creation of a new sort of self, which has withdrawn from much of urban life into what he calls ‘mediated urban isolation’.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.


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.


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.

read the full review here

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6 Responses to iPod – The Symbol of Our Age and Why I Refuse To Buy One

  1. Joe says:

    This is exactly the point an executive at Sony brought up when he was shown the invention of the walkman. He said that no one would want a device that would isolate them from the world like that.

  2. vodkasoda says:

    hahaha….the article does raise some interesting points though on the effects of the technology.

  3. gary says:

    As a piece of usable technology, the iPod nailed it. I have tried others, but I prefer it. My usage is precisely those moment when I am either isolated or want to be isolated from the mass of ‘humanity’ busting about around me. Sometimes you need the space in the city, airport, or gym.

  4. SweetLeftFoot says:

    I have an Ipod type thing and I only ever listen to it when I’m walking to work or to somewhere else.

    I tried listening to it on a long hauil flight to Oz but it just didn’t gel.

  5. vodkasoda says:

    I understand that the only music allowed on your iPod is Men at Work and Air Supply.

  6. SweetLeftFoot says:

    Ha ha. I would riposte but unfortunately Canadian music has undergone somewhat of a rejuvenation of recent years.

    On topic: Walkmen and Walkpersons and their derivatives are over-rated. What I find creepiest is that sort Nick Hornby type of man you get who spends huge amounts of time putting every song into the right genre and creating millions of playlists for every possible situation/emotion.

    You know, the “Driving Up To The Hills Because I’ve Had A Fight With The Girlfriend Because She Dissed My Polenta Mix” type of dude.

    Oh, I forgot, you most likely are one of these dudes.

    Ah well.

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