Pod People

This Valentine's Day, the fastest way to the heart may be through the earbuds

You and Cap Girl, however, are still rocking out to different songs; in fact, Cap Girl may have personally constructed her own idiosyncratic playlist for rocking-out purposes. And since most of us under a certain age have TV-shriveled attention spans, it's safe to assume that when a song ceases to rock, Cap Girl sometimes just skips to the next one. Cap Girl might also have forgone the work of making a playlist, instead using the "Browse" feature, which shuffles through all of your songs for you. In a way, "Browse" is like having your own personal radio station; then again, that station is being DJ'd by someone else. Luddites love to hate this function because it's a potent symbol of the worst effects of technology in a society based on individualism. As it selects songs from your very own music collection, "Browse" marries the pleasingly personal with the incredibly lazy.

Then again, other people might be just as gratified by what "Browse" does to your own library of songs, and it's not like an iPod can't be plugged into a stereo. In fact, in addition to exposing our friends to music via iPod swapping and jack sharing, many of us are bringing our iPods out on the town. Using iPods as music-exchange devices has caught on with DJs like Andrew Andrew of New York's APT, who run their iParties entirely with their shiny white toys. In L.A., iPod parties do away with DJs entirely—guests each get to plug their iPods into the bar's sound system for a certain amount of time.

A final element in the iPod paradox: No one throws "Personal MP3 Player Parties," and people with Nomads or Rios tend not to make eyes at each other on the subway. While the content of your iPod is deeply revealing, iPod ownership in itself tells the world something about you. Even aside from the white earbuds, an iPod is a gorgeous creature: Sleek and seamless, it looks nothing like the Walkman or Discman of old. It does, however, look like many other Apple products, which tend to be fetish items among design fans. In fact, it may be that the iPod is the highest-selling Mac item because it gets the most street exposure. If people regularly used their G4s or iBooks on the sidewalk, those items might also escape the cult of Mac and become coveted by the mainstream. Since iPods are both publicly used and easy to spot, they have become shorthand for a certain kind of cool that can only be achieved by purchasing an iPod of your own—in other words, they sell themselves.

Ultimately, this sort of infinite regress may reveal the most about how iPods are changing the way people interact through music today. Unlike the fait accompli of a 30-track mix tape wrapped in annotated liner notes and packaged with a cover-art collage, an iPod's internal organization is always shifting. Just as iPod sightings on the subway create more iPod-using subway riders, an intriguing "Recently Played" list causes those same songs to be played once again. This vertigo can't exist in a vacuum—not even a neon-colored vacuum occupied by a lone dancer in earbuds. Intentionally or not, Apple's MP3 player realizes its true potential as a personal device only when it's shared.

Izzy Grinspan is 14.99 iPods tall.

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