Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Technology: Audio expert profiles iPod users

As an owner of her third iPod, one from each generation, I am either a person of great taste, a control freak or both, according to an expert on users of audio in the contemporary urban environment. I choose the cooler designation, person of good taste, of course. Some technologies are off-putting, but I haven't found the iPod to be one of them.

Lecturer Dr. Michael Bull is "the world's leading -- perhaps only -- expert on the social impact of personal stereo devices," according to The New York Times.

Bull, a lecturer in media and culture at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom, is the author of Sounding out the City: Personal Stereos and the Management of Everyday Life, a book Bull calls the "definitive treatment" of the impact of the Sony Walkman and its descendants.

Now Bull has turned his attention to Apple's iPod.

Bull is currently interviewing iPod owners about how, when, where and why they use the iPod, and how it integrates into their everyday lives.

The interviews will be the basis of Bull's forthcoming book, Mobilizing the Social: Sound Technology in Urban Experience. The book, to be published next spring, will examine the impact of cell phones and car sound systems, as well as the iPod.

Bull believes a cigar is more than a cigar. According to him, our avid approval of a device that allows us to decide when and where we listen to music is a way to control our environments.

WN: But does it make people antisocial? Is music less of a social experience than it used to be? The New York Times ran an article last week about New Yorkers using their iPods to block out the city. But isn't that the point of personal stereos? What's different about the iPod that wasn't true of the Walkman?

Bull: People like to control their environment, and the iPod is the perfect way to manage your experience. Music is the most powerful medium for thought, mood and movement control....


The Times asked what becomes of the public space when the public space becomes privatized. What about the others -- the person in the supermarket checkout you don't recognize is there? It asks whether the public space becomes colder as the personal space becomes warmer through music.


There's a lot of studies in the literature that demonstrate with the urban space, the more it's inhabited, the safer you feel. You feel safe if you can feel people there, but you don't want to interact with them.

Music allows people to find pleasure in the place they're existing. (Personal stereos) make the user's life much better. It helps them manage urban life.... Urban life is one of the reasons they're using these devices. How often do you talk to people in public anyway?

As some of you know, I have written about public and private space topics often because they intrigue me. I agree with Bull that this is another form of the issue. I believe some limitations on public space, such as Starbuck's rule against patrons taking pictures in their establishments, do make public spaces colder. However, I don't see that occurring with the iPod. I usually listen most when I am in transit, especially when walking or taking public transit, which consists of buses, trolleys and trains where I live. If I were not listening to music on the iPod, I would be reading a print magazine or book, or, tellingly, reading the news, a periodical or a book on my PDA. So, the iPod is replacing a noncommunicative behavior. Furthermore, there are other forms of current technology that use space in the same way, such as the previously mentioned PDA and cell phones. One of the attributes of the iPod is that it is private. Unlike talking on the phone, I am not forcing other people sharing the public space to share my experience when I'm listening to music. An interesting side effect of being into the iPod for two years is that I find leakage from portable CD players and lesser MP3 devices more annoying than I did before. I have come to believe that, unless asked to share, one should keep one's music to oneself.

But, what of Bull's belief the iPod can be used as an avoidance mechanism? That is true some of the time. When I am listening to my iPod, with the white earbuds in my ears being so noticeable, I am able to thwart some unwanted social contact. As recently as yesterday, I deflected a hopped up panhandler. I watched him annoy a man from several feet a way. The vagrant, who was filthy and smelled like sewage, walked alongside the man and kept tugging at his elbow while demanding money. I was next. My response was to look straight ahead as if I had not even noticed him. The earphones made the pose credible. The panhandler left me alone and sought out another person a few feet ahead of us. He went through his routine of pestering the mark again. Such experiences aren't unusual. If one is listening to the iPod and affects the 'in another world' look required, people one does not want contact with get the message.

A new twist is that the latest generation of iPods have a truly functional remote. One can have the earphones on, but have turned the iPod off by remote. So, you do hear what is going on around you. But, unless he is hip to the remote, the observer does not know you can hear everything going on. The user gets to grant permission to other people to talk to him or her. Or not.

I may be atypical. I do talk to other people in public. Not every stranger I see, but enough to share public space and meet new people. I look forward to seeing how Bull supports his belief that most people want to avoid interaction with others in his book.

If you are an iPod owner, you can participate in the study by contacting Bull.

Note: This entry also appeared at Mac-a-ro-nies.

Amplification: The researcher is looking for female iPod users. So, if you are an iPod owner, he wants to hear from you. Bull can be contacted on his webpage
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