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The sound of you

October 22, 2006|Thomas de Zengotita | THOMAS DE ZENGOTITA, a contributing editor at Harper's Magazine, is the author of "Mediated" and recipient of the 2006 Marshall McLuhan Award.

ONLY FIVE years since its introduction, it's an icon embodying the spirit of the age. iPod. I -- pod. As in Me -- module. As in Self -- bubble.

The name says it all.

But there are also those brilliant ads. The ones showing a range of sub-cultural types -- but in silhouette. You know the ones I mean? Only the iPod and its audio umbilicus show up in detail, set off in contrast, radiant -- as if fashioned out of plasmatic pearl. The featureless users, profiled in some attitude of transport, invite you to project versions of yourself into their outlines without imposing assumptions on you.

That's a stroke of genius, a profound insight into the need for self-authorship to which iPod is catering, a need that is shaping our culture at every level. As the venues proliferate, and niches and commodities multiply, that need remains constant. It is the last common denominator.

And the iPod provides the soundtrack.

Marketing types have glimpsed this development. "Personalization," they call it, and although that's not misleading, it's just a surface symptom. Because the concern is marketing, the idea of personalization focuses on "consumer choice."

To manufacturers, that translates as consumer "empowerment," a threat to the sovereignty they enjoyed back when markets and media were mass, when there were three networks and three car companies, when the choice of cereal was Rice Krispies, Wheaties or Cheerios.

Manufacturers feel that empowered customers are forcing them to offer some tailor-made something for each and every one of their ever-shifting whims. And they are.

But what's going on underneath all this is that consumers want to displace producers entirely. What customers really want is to produce for themselves. And not just for themselves. Ultimately, they want to produce themselves.

Things being what they are -- things like refrigerators and cars and stoves -- consumers can't actually become manufacturers. But wherever media technologies are making it possible for consumers to become the producers, they are doing it. The terms "customer" and "customize" have always been affiliated. Now they are fusing.

As life becomes a production, it's only natural that it should be accompanied by a soundtrack. You are not only the star, after all, you are the director -- and if you've learned anything from the movies, it's just how significant that soundtrack can be. Without the right song kicking in as you pull out of the gas station onto that desert highway in the evening light -- without, say, Beck's "The Golden Age" or maybe Neil Young's "Helpless" -- without something like that, well, it just wouldn't be you the way you want to be.

THE IPOD MAKES possible so many perfect fusions of media and life. Depending on the occasion, depending on the mood, you can summon just the right emotional resonator, just the right little thrust and throb, just the right kind of attitudinal support.

The iPod is the most perfect realization of the culture of self-construction, even more so than the cellphone. After all, though you can filter people out of your world with your cell, once they are on -- well, they have their own scripts. But your music never lets you down. It always delivers what it delivered before, what you know so well, what you want again.

What's more, with the iPod's amazing storage capacities, you can keep adding to your cache of meaning enhancements. You can build an evolving library of self-reflection, a virtual history of your life expressed in song. You get to dote on your past as well as your present -- because there's nothing like a song to make memories come alive, is there?

And if you happen to be in the mood for surprises? Well, there's always the iPod shuffle function. Another stroke of genius. Randomness domesticated. Safe risk. You don't know what's coming on next but, whatever it is, you can be assured of this much: It will be about you.

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