Friday, September 12, 2014

Single Use

In all likelihood we’re not just seeing the death of the iPod Classic, but the death of the dedicated portable music player. Now it’s all phones and apps. Everything is a camera. The single-use device is gone—and with it, the very notion of cool that it once carried. The iPhone is about as subversive as a bag of potato chips, and music doesn’t define anyone anymore.
(Based on his author page this kind of technological uneasiness seems to be a bit of a theme. I feel a kinship.)
There are a few reasons to love the classic iPod. It was a well crafted, beautifully designed piece of technology. There’s something inherently charming about a machine that only does one thing, like a clock or a typewriter, and it is strange to think that the iPod might have been the last mass market single-use invention. It makes me want to own one.
The opposite of single-use is software, by the way. And software I create all the day long.
But the more interesting thing about this piece is that he points out an additional use of the iPod.
We made playlists that spoke to the lives we lived at the moment. Looking at someone’s iPod was like looking into their soul. In their music you could see who they were. You could tell if they were sophisticated or rough. You could see in their playlists the moments they fell in love and the moments they fell back out again. You could see the filthiest, nastiest hip hop in the little white boxes of the primmest people, and know their inner lives a little better than you did before.
I recently went through the exercise of ripping all my wife’s old CDs so she could have them in our shared iTunes Match library. A side-effect, though, has been the further dilution of my own identification with the library. It used to be so tidy! Basically this was me giving up on library management. It had been eroding every since we got married. Might as well go all the way. But if I had an iPod I would choose exactly what went on it out of the shared library. With my phone I just have access to download any of it at any time. Plus I have Spotify.
Music matters to me, but it matters much less than books. For a while I was collecting ebooks, and I still do very occasionally. But now that we have more room all I want are physical books and physical bookshelves. Because looking at someone’s bookshelf should be like looking into their soul. And I wish to keep my soul in order.
I suppose the Kindle is actually the very last.
But the problem with the Kindle is that whereas you might share your iPod library with someone on a car ride, so they could choose something to listen to, I think you are less likely to show off your Kindle library. The iPod allowed you to take your music library out of the house with you, and at least there was a chance you would share it with someone. You always could take a book or two with you out of the house, but with the Kindle you could read without anyone else seeing the cover.
But let’s not get too caught up in the intricacies of products and devices. What I really want to say is that what was really wonderful about old technologies, including even the iPod in a small way, is that they had many uses. These uses were not features listed on the side of a box or offered for sale in an app store. They were just different ways that people used them. Whereas a piece of software is really as specialized and limited as anything can be. Here’s one of my favorite bits from Chesterton:
Cast your eye round the room in which you sit, and select some three or four things that have been with man almost since his beginning; which at least we hear of early in the centuries and often among the tribes. Let me suppose that you see a knife on the table, a stick in the corner, or a fire on the hearth. About each of these you will notice one speciality; that not one of them is special. Each of these ancestral things is a universal thing; made to supply many different needs; and while tottering pedants nose about to find the cause and origin of some old custom, the truth is that it had fifty causes or a hundred origins. The knife is meant to cut wood, to cut cheese, to cut pencils, to cut throats; for a myriad ingenious or innocent human objects. The stick is meant partly to hold a man up, partly to knock a man down; partly to point with like a finger-post, partly to balance with like a balancing pole, partly to trifle with like a cigarette, partly to kill with like a club of a giant; it is a crutch and a cudgel; an elongated finger and an extra leg. The case is the same, of course, with the fire; about which the strangest modern views have arisen. A queer fancy seems to be current that a fire exists to warm people. It exists to warm people, to light their darkness, to raise their spirits, to toast their muffins, to air their rooms, to cook their chestnuts, to tell stories to their children, to make checkered shadows on their walls, to boil their hurried kettles, and to be the red heart of a man’s house and that hearth for which, as the great heathens said, a man should die.

Now it is the great mark of our modernity that people are always proposing substitutes for these old things; and these substitutes always answer one purpose where the old thing answered ten.
(What’s Wrong With the World, Part III, Chapter II: The Universal Stick)
I’m not sure I can express why our universal computers do not seem to live up to the romantic wholesomeness of the hearthfire and the walking stick. Maybe it is just sentimentality. But I think it has something to do with the fact that each thing it can do has to be painstakingly built out of software, and that software is always falling apart, and it is opaque to the person trying to use it. Anyone can pick up a walking stick and begin to discover all the ways it may be used.
When I was young and naive I used to say that everyone needed to learn how to program. There is a charming optimism to that view of the world. It would almost make the universal computer truly as universal as the universal stick. But it is a fool’s dream. Software is too pinched and strained to be universal. It is not worth doing in the Chestertonian sense. We do not wish for people to do it for themselves even if they do it badly.
I think I’m in the market for a walking stick.

No comments:

Post a Comment