iPod, therefore Isolate
You see them everywhere. They're enjoying a sutta or a book on park or campus benches. They're waiting at bus and train stations. They're driving, biking or just walking around. They're lifting weights or jogging on a treadmill. Any one of hazaar such activities. And while doing so, they're listening to flat little cigar boxes with white earphones. It might be music, a comedy album, a radio play, hell even a recorded lecture. But they all come out of that little shiny box with a bitten-off apple and a metallic underside. While the iPod took the world by storm, it's taken the US... period.
The late 90's were the Golden Age for digital audiophiles. Before Napster got into all that RIAA trouble, MP3's were all the rage among the net-savvy (and I'm just talking about us guys in India). There was no more buying an album to listen to that one song that you loved on MTV. Get the song itself from Napster. Burn it onto a CD to carry with you, or just play it on your computer. Napster got sued, shut down and re-animated as an emasculated version of itself, but the playlist-based-singles-driven music craze continued to grow, generating an interest in digital players that were also a storage unit.
The first ones were uber-delicate 32-64 MB storing clunky little things whose memory would be wiped out when you removed the batteries. Then came some upgrades from America-based companies like Archos, Singapore-based Creative Labs and Korean companies like Samsung. Compaq licensed the technology for the first GB-order player to HanGo Electronics (I haven't heard of them either) which released the PJB in 1999. The competition around GB-order music players grew, until of course Apple came up with the iPod.
The market's never been the same. Apple remains the leader worldwide in digital music players and digital music. There's a few other players around, but no product matches the sleekness of the iPod, while the Apple store competes with Amazon on the music front.
More significantly, digitally spread mobile media has gained importance like never before. People downloaded songs from the Internet. Now they can do it off Starbucks' WiFi. Internet radio used to require a computer to listen to. Now it's on podcasts. People needed reruns or season tapes to catch missed episodes. Now they download them off company websites and watch it on their iPod videos. And Apple's latest product, the WiFi-enabled iPod Touch, lets the user download media without a computer. This on top of the iPhone, which is a phone-cum-address book-cum-iPod-cum-Net browser-cum-God knows what else.
This explosion of media was once an awesome thing. Now it feels a bit, well like an explosion, which is rarely a good thing.
As I mentioned before, music players before used to hold 64-128 MB. the GB player, when it emerged was considered something rally awesome. Given the opportunity to pick up a 20 GB Creative Jukebox, I jumped at it.
But since then I have found, at no given time can I listen to more than about 500 MB worth of music. No period of motion really lasts longer (or even as long as) the time required to play 125 4-minute songs. The only time now that I really use my player is when travelling out of town. How many of us really need even 1 GB of music to carry around when moving about the place? A computer is one thing but to need that in one's hand....it's bordering on the ridiculous (I understand (a) this does not extend to iPod nanos and flashes (b) I'm an idiot for buying my jukebox to begin with)
My next gripe is with the device itself. As I mentioned, music was just the tip of the iceberg. People now carry TV shows and movies on their systems. Again, do you need media that much whenever mobile? In fact more significantly, how do you get way from all that media? There used to be a time when Moms and Dads would tell us "Get away from that walkman/stereo/ television" so we could go out into the world and smell real air, touch real objects and feel real emotions. Interact with the real world and build self (Or as Calvin's dad would put it, character). But when the TV is now something in your pocket? Britney, Fallout Boy, Heroes, Lost, American Idol (replace them with their analogues outside the US) are things that stream into your head anywhere and anytime. That can't be good for you, to have them tinge reality like that. Makes you wonder - does the i stand for idiot?
My final point has to do with why portable media players and their supporting data networks so popular. What is it about being able to drag 2 episodes and/or 125 songs with you? My opinion - the playlist. I mentioned the playlist earlier as the base of the digital audio craze. It became much more than that. While mix tapes and CDs existed beforehand, they needed people, well to mess about with mixers and what not. The late 90's was the era of GUI driven systems with software that downloaded and coded music for you. This era turned the playlist from a figure of entertainment to a fingerprint, first for the techhead elite, eventually for the (still techy) hoi polloi. When you make a playlist, it's your playlist. It defines an action you've taken. It is a small you-zone. And when that playlist is 2000 songs long, you-zone becomes You-World. That's why people carry so much media organized in such fashion with them. They want to carry a bit of their world (which was restricted to such areas as the room or the house) with them. What's outside is a mixed bag. What's in the magic box can shut it all out, and so the investment in a flatbox with wires coming out of it. Something that I think marks an atavistic return to frogs in wells/ponds. It's more disturbing when you realize that world you cocoon yourself is defined by a handful of information someone else recorded. Someone else's world, so to speak.
Where will this lead us? What will it do to reality as we percieve it? Will we have a new "Ghost in the Shell"ish world, where people spend life cocooned in their own artificial reality (like 6 billion one-person Matrixes)?