The Bubble


by David Beer

The end of the iPod and the shifting limits of cultural consumption

For a few years the iPod provided me with an ideal object of study. It represented a new materiality for music consumption. A more mobile, miniaturised and interfaced engagement with culture was emerging, and the iPod embodied it. Yet in the early stages you’d do well to find someone who actually had one, at least until the more affordable versions such as the Shuffle and Nano appeared. It was more common to see cheaper and more accessible MP3 players of many different types. The iPod caught the attention but it was digital compression formats and the storage they facilitated that really mattered. In this sense the iPod was a visible representation of a wider change to cultural archiving.

Around 21 years after its launch the iPod will no longer be manufactured. An inevitable moment that has been coming for years. The announcement from Apple that it will discontinue the iPod Touch was entirely expected. It has been a slow phasing-out of these devices over a fairly long period. Tech nostalgia and embedded daily routines aside, it has been rendered largely redundant by the heightened convergence capabilities of phones, the move toward more cloud-based forms of storage and the turn toward streaming.

In hindsight, and despite the attention it received, the iPod was quite obviously an in-between step. A temporary placeholder. The direction being pursued was toward the heightened networking of bodies, objects and spaces, especially where this allowed data to accumulate. The iPod could only partially achieve this. It needed to be docked. In the inventory of devices it would fall into what Martin Dodge and Rob Kitchin labelled the ‘permeable logject’ – the aim was to move toward the constantly ‘networked logject’ (as explored in this piece). The iPod gave a glimpse of what was coming, it had the horizon bound up within its form. It was never going to be a permanent fixture. With its focus on storage capacity, its coming demise was embedded in its own marketing.

Beyond this though, the end of the iPod tell’s us something about the changing limits of cultural consumption.

This is an admittedly off-the-wall diagram I created for my 2008 article ‘The iconic interface and the veneer of simplicity’

Things may have moved on, but the iPod still represented a notable step-change. It wasn’t just a moment of technological change either. At the same time the music collection was reconfigured as something potentially immaterial or virtual, something that wasn’t held or displayed but that was stored on a hard drive. This, along with music downloading, was a step that opened up space for streaming to emerge as a routine practice. The changes in materiality were not just about technological function, they also required a shift in how music and culture were understood as objects that could be owned or possessed or that could be imagined in terms of records, disks and cassettes.

Take this early iPod advert from a 2003 issue of The Face magazine. It’s something I captured early in my research and have used in lectures since. These were still early days for the iPod and, as well as the price being an issue, a transformation was needed in how music collections were understood. Here Apple attempt to juxtapose the old and new version of the music collection. Below is the left hand page of the double-page advert. The old collection.

This was the contrasted with the right hand page (below) and the new approach to collecting. In the lectures I give on changing cultural objects I suggest this as being a potential instance of Zygmunt Bauman’s ‘liquid modernity’. You can see this in the seeming move from the heavy and fixed to the light and mobile. That’s one way of seeing the comparison, it is hooked to a wider sense of the increasing mobilities that were associated with alterations in consumer capitalism and a heightened more flowing modernity. Apple’s presentation of rupture seems somehow to fit with Bauman’s broad observations. There is perhaps something a little more routine here too, something about the way that the limits of culture are represented and understood. In the below part of the advert, ‘your pocket’ represents the old limitations, those confines are said to have have been broken.

The capacity of the iPod may have pushed back the limits of consumption, at the same time it was a device thought to allow the user to establish a much stronger sense of the limits around them. The iPod was thought to allow users to bubble themselves within a soundscape. This was, as Michael Bull observed in his classic study of iPod cultures, about ‘privatisation’. It was a device, Bull explored, that both connected and disconnected (discussed in chapter 6 of this book too).

The practice of bubbling has, of course, not disappeared with the end of the iPod. It has simply shifted to a different set of devices with their own logics and modes of interfacing. Having 2500 songs in your pocket is not really much of an appealing proposition when streaming makes that access innumerable (estimates are that 60,000 new tracks are uploaded to Spotify each day). Being mobile with a C90 cassette may once have seemed expansive, the iPod changed those limits, as Michael Bull described, but not by far enough for it to last.

Those limits of consumption have been breached and the iPod couldn’t keep up, even in the more networked iteration of the iPod Touch, which was the last iPod left standing. The story of the iPod is a story of the changing materiality and shifting limits of cultural consumption. What we have now is not so much limitlessness, but a new materiality with new limits. It’s just less obvious what those limits are. Your pocket may not now have every song you’ve ever owned within it, but that’s because the new boundaries of cultural consumption have gone beyond ownership as well as beyond the storage space of the iPod. ‘Your pocket’ is networked and culture streams through it rather than being contained within it – a permeable pocket becomes a networked pocket, to use Dodge and Kitchen’s distinction. The question then is what now constrains cultural consumption and what its new limits are. Perhaps the question behind this is what makes cultural consumption seem limitless and unending.

About the Author

David Beer is Professor of Sociology at the University of York. His books include Metric PowerThe Data Gaze and The Quirks of Digital CultureThe Tensions of Algorithmic Thinking will be published later in 2022. He is currently part of the team working on the Nuffield Foundation funded project Code Encounters: Algorithmic Risk-Profiling in Housing.

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This essay was first published in Dave Beer – The Fragment. Subscribe here. Republished with permission.

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Images reproduced here under fair use.

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