TOPICS > Nation

Apple’s IPod a Technological, Cultural Phenomenon

May 15, 2006 at 3:45 PM EDT

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s the invasion of the pod people, the iPod people, those folks passing you with the buds coming out of their ears. It’s a phenomenon that’s been growing since apple’s iPod, the most renowned of the so-called MP3 players, first hit the technological stage in 2001.

At the recent Winter Olympics, it seemed no hip snowboarder could be caught competing without one. Gold-medalist Hannah Teter listened to her boyfriend’s band as she hit the slopes.

And many new car stereos now come iPod-ready, a smart way to drive your iPod, as the promoters boast. As the technology has improved, the choices have grown. Users can download personal music play lists, so-called podcasts of news and information, including the NewsHour…

JIM LEHRER: You can download audio versions of our reports…

JEFFREY BROWN: … and a growing number of options of audio on demand.

And now video. ABC and NBC struck deals this winter with Apple to sell iPod users episodes of some of their most popular programs, current hits like “Lost” and “Law & Order,” as well as “Dragnet” and other vintage shows.

So far, more than 15 million videos have been purchased at $1.99 each and downloaded from the Apple iTunes online music store. But music remains the dominant force, with over 1 billion songs downloaded from iTunes to Apple devices, such as the iPod and its smaller offspring, the Nano and the Shuffle.

JAMES KATZ, Rutgers University: People love the iPod and love other MP3 players because it allows them to create their own music environment, their own song of their life.

JEFFREY BROWN: James Katz runs the Center for Mobile Communications Studies at Rutgers University.

JAMES KATZ: Most people use them, of course, to listen to music. But like most aspects of human behavior, it doesn’t exist in isolation. What’s really important to a lot of people is how other people see them, whether they’re — how they see them consuming music or walking down the street. And, therefore, something like the iPod is considered part of a personal statement.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean a personal statement, as in who I am?

JAMES KATZ: Yes, who you are.

JEFFREY BROWN: For many scholars, the podification of society is just the latest chapter in a continuing story of technology and culture. Think of the remote control, the VCR, the Sony Walkman, and so much more, in which companies offer and people pursue ways to tailor, enjoy and control their environment.

SALESMAN: It’s like having a $10,000 speaker system right there in your ear.

Do iPods put us in a bubble?

Danny Palestine
Rutgers University Student
Listening to music is not that extreme. Like, it doesn't build that cocoon. It's not like you're dead to the world, you know. Like, you're not blindfolded and you're not, like, senseless.

JEFFREY BROWN: But what does it mean if we're all walking around with earphones on? Does the technology give us new freedom and opportunity to experience and shape our world or does it put us into individual bubbles and keep people from connecting, making us, as some sociologists say, alone together?

RUTGERS STUDENT: Now I use it every single time I'm on the bus.

JEFFREY BROWN: As always, new technology raises new questions, as we heard when we sat in on a focus group Professor Katz runs with Rutgers students.

RODY ELHHOURY, Rutgers University Student: Instead of, like, making new friends or meeting new people, they're just sitting there alone listening to their music. So I feel like, in a way, you could be -- it is in a way isolating you, and you're not making, like, more friends like you should or meeting new people.

JAMES KATZ: You might want to have a quick response, and then we'll hear from you.

DANNY PALESTINE, Rutgers University Student: Listening to music is that extreme. Like, it doesn't build that cocoon. It's not like you're dead to the world, you know. Like, you're not blindfolded and you're not, like, senseless.

JEFFREY BROWN: There's no question that the iPod is one of the great business technology success stories of the last decade, dominating 80 percent of the MP3 market. And Apple's CEO and founder, Steve Jobs, sang its praises at the high-profile winter Macworld convention.

STEVE JOBS, CEO and Founder, Apple: I'm really pleased to announce today that last quarter we sold 14 million iPods.


That is over 100 every minute, 24 by 7 throughout the whole quarter.

Apple's savior

Christine Rosen
Ethics and Public Policy Center
If you've ever watched someone with their iPod in public space, they're constantly taking it up. They're scrolling with the wheel; they're looking at it; they're playing with the ear buds. They fetishize this object.

JEFFREY BROWN: Since its first release five years ago, Apple has sold more than 50 million devices. And, of course, there's all the accessories.

SALESMAN: For example, this is a backpack which has a fabric-sensor controller that allows you to control your iPod.

CHRISTINE ROSEN, Ethics and Public Policy Center: If you've ever watched someone with their iPod in public space, they're constantly taking it up. They're scrolling with the wheel; they're looking at it; they're playing with the ear buds. They fetishize this object.

JEFFREY BROWN: Christine Rosen, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is one observer who raises alarms amid the euphoria over the iPod and other gadgets. She calls ours the age of ego-casting.

CHRISTINE ROSEN: You give certain kinds of signals to those around you in social space, the most important of which is: You don't matter. What I'm doing is more important. I have the cell phone conversation; I have the ear phones on; I'm focused on what I want to do. Ergo, none of you exist.

JEFFREY BROWN: Given such concerns, it's fascinating to see some new ways MP3 players are being used in many parts of society. At this Washington, D.C., nightclub, Cafe Saint-Ex, iPod users gather once a month to share favorite songs at an iPod jukebox night, individual choices blasting through the club, and perhaps creating a new musical community.

WASHINGTON, DC, IPOD USER: It's sort of revolutionizing the way people listen to music, because you can sort of surround yourself with your music at all times.

A growing educational tool

Jamestown Elementary School Students

JEFFREY BROWN: Schools, too, are experimenting with the devices, using them more and more as a teaching tool. At Jamestown Elementary in Arlington, Virginia, we watched students armed with their iPods gather material for a podcast, a kind of audio-video report that can be digitally downloaded by others.

YOUNG STUDENT: Hello, my name is Amanda. I'm in Ms. Hash's third grade.

JEFFREY BROWN: With this project, students record their voices...

YOUNG STUDENT: Hello, my name is Amanda.

JEFFREY BROWN: ... and edit their own stories to share with a broader audience. The school's technology coordinator is Camille Gagliolo.

CAMILLE GAGLIOLO, Jamestown Elementary School: They love media. They live with media, so creating their own media is very exciting.

TEACHER: You say go just before you start recording.

CAMILLE GAGLIOLO: We are looking at the generations that lives with handheld technology in many ways. They're used to little handheld things that they can manipulate and create their own little environments with.

GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY STUDENT: And, in your opinion, which animals are most at risk?

JEFFREY BROWN: At the other end of the educational spectrum, these George Washington University students were doing something similar, using the iPod to create collaborative writing projects.

NATIONAL ZOO EMPLOYEE: Any animal that's endangered or not is habitat loss, in my opinion.

JEFFREY BROWN: At the National Zoo, these freshman interviewed an expert on cheetahs, then went back to the lab...

GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY STUDENT: Hello, this is David Suvelle reporting for Gorilla Radio.

JEFFREY BROWN: ... to edit their own voice narrative with the interview's sound bites.

NATIONAL ZOO EMPLOYEE: I think the first priority for anybody who's interested in conservation...

JEFFREY BROWN: Once the product was completed, anyone, professor, fellow students, and beyond, could access it online. Professor Heather Schell says the iPod technology has a democratizing impulse.

HEATHER SCHELL, George Washington University: It gives students a potential audience outside of the classroom and it gives them some accountability, and that's true whether or not anyone ever listens to the podcast. It's the fact that someone could listen.

The adaptation continues

JEFFREY BROWN: Businesses are now turning to the Video iPod for employee podtraining, allowing companies to cut down on expensive travel and meetings.

JAMES KATZ: For me, the biggest surprise is the way people use a technology that couldn't be more isolating to actually build human bridges.

JEFFREY BROWN: To James Katz, all of this shows how people adapt to new technology and use it in unexpected ways, and that applies even with the most basic use of an iPod: listening to music.

JAMES KATZ: Even though the technology potentially would enable somebody to build a capsule and never leave that capsule, what we find instead is that people get actively engaged in finding sources of music, finding out musicians and groups that they like, and looking for ways to make friends with and exchange ideas with people who share their outlook.

JEFFREY BROWN: But it's exactly that last phrase that troubles Christine Rosen, who worries that our technology bubbles may include only ourselves and people who share our outlook.

CHRISTINE ROSEN: Because of these ego-casting technologies such as the iPod, the downside is that we're also able to filter out ideas we might not want to hear. I think what we do is we lose a bit of surprise in daily life.

We don't have to hear or see things that we haven't already programmed into our iPods or into our TiVos. And so, in that sense, I think it can have a narrowing effect on what we encounter on a day-to-day basis.

JEFFREY BROWN: Back at Rutgers, we put the question to an up-or-down vote.

Having iPods and MP3 players, how many think it's a good thing? That's pretty much everyone.

For now, millions of consumers are seeing the benefits and voting with their pocketbooks, but pod people and their critics alike will keep their eyes open and ears plugged or not, as the technology continues to evolve and society continues to respond.