I’m taking this class and there’s this sorority girl? And every day she wanders into class with an iPod Mini on her hip, talking to her friend about whether they’re going to the gym later? All the while with the white-corded earbuds dangled insouciantly over her shoulder? And she looks like the kind of person for whom everything has gone right, and though I am older and ostensibly wiser, I want to crush her? Via shopping?
Go Home Productions
Who wouldn’t want to be a dancing silhouette?
“Alright Alright (Here’s My Fist Where’s the Fight?)”
I had thought about getting the 500-meg model, which, because it costs a hundred bucks, I call “the hooker.” But instead I went for the full gigabyte version. The Shuffle is designed to function like the flash drive it resembles; it can be set to store data as well. If the mood struck, you could store an entire disc of CD-quality tracks, dump them onto every computer you got next to. It’s like they want you to steal music. I call this model “the pirate.” Apple might as well package it with a hook and a parrot.
“1, 2 Step”
That’s all. Just the pleasure of this song.
“Scream If You Wanna Go Faster”
I am not impressed with how small it is. I mean, it’s tiny, pack of gum, woo-hoo. Listen, buddy, we’ve had, like, the smartest guys on the planet, armed with budgets that could resolve the third-world debt, working on this for decades. Music players should be small enough to inject behind my ear, and I should be able to operate them by blinking. In fact, it remains unclear to me why they have to be things at all. That’s just a scam to keep the nanotech guys employed. Songs should be beamed into my head from a geo-sync satellite the size of a cat, and I should be able to select among ’em with my thoughts. If you believe this won’t happen in your lifetime, you had better be over 60. Or perhaps you’re a tool of the nanotechnicians?
I’m Shuffling down the avenue when I run into Colin. “You got one,” he says. This is what you say. The thing is a conversation starter, though the conversations are insanely limited. “Yesterday I saw a billboard for it on the way into the city,” he says, excitedly. “It says ‘Give Chance a Chance!’ ” We agree this is a clever slogan, and banter about how “peace” inevitably becomes “chance” over time.
“I Want to With You”
It’s an oblong of white plastic that reminds me a little irrationally of the obelisk at the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey, rendered small enough to dangle around the neck. It’s mysterious and charged with futurity. It doesn’t tell you what song is playing or what’s next or much else. That’s the thing. As a result, each song fades out with a frisson—what’ll be next? This experience is basically what the device sells. Not “shuffle”—everyone’s computer and chunky iPod Paper-weight already offer that. The point here is, only that. You left your choices at home. You’re hostage to what’s coming, and the risk that it might suck. And this makes the day gleam, a little. Contingency, the ancients called it.
Timbaland and Magoo
But the next song doesn’t suck. Over and over it turns out to be a song I really like. This makes sense because I chose all the songs now being shuffled and, for the most part, I like the songs that I like. Each time one comes on, each time I dodge the bullet of Creed or Sage Francis—which of course could never actually strike me because they don’t exist in my library—I think something like, “My taste rules.”
“Goodies (Richard X remix feat. M.I.A.)”
The absence of any display is a void into which one might fall for quite some time. We need do nothing but give chance a chance. Voilà, the soundtrack of our days. In making our own taste the sole object of aesthetic regard—ecce curator—we’re the artists, us and hazard. Apple, the company that made single-song sales work for the digital age, is wagering that individual tracks, arranged by a consumer’s affinities, are the shape of things to come. The display screen is missing because it has only one thing to say, anyway: The album is dead.
“Jesus on a Greyhound”
I walk past a homeless-looking guy and we stare at each other. His body is covered with the traces of his daily life, stains on his thrashed sweatshirt, red splotches on his cheeks. This is a chance encounter, the other contingency. For a second I think I am thinking about him, how very empathetic of me, but behind that I am wondering what he thinks of me, a de-bodied body with my technology worn outside my clothes for all the honest world to feel. One of the many possible voices starts inside my head: But, but, it was only 150 bucks! It’s not like I’m some big executive. I’m just some guy, I have my own problems. It occurs to me that this is the core of what’s always disturbed me about therapy: It’s the little world that turns around one’s own problems and lets you off the hook of this particular encounter, despite any lip service otherwise. Because in fact, despite my daily interior monologue of sorrow and rage, my problems compared to his are minuscule and/or fake. The things I think he thinks when he sees me, Shuffle rampant: basically true.
The new essays about how iPods provide channels for community are as vacant as the old essays about how Walkmen were factories of isolation and alienation. Technological advance dictates that the desires to be connected to other people, and the sometimes conflicting desires to be lovin’ you some Top 40, will grow increasingly portable. That’s neither good nor bad, it’s just inevitable. The tech that “lets” you work while in a café—the digital abstraction and transmission of data—is the exact same tech that lets you rip songs onto an MP3 player while you’re “posting to your blog,” which, let’s be honest, sounds like slang for the solitary pleasures. If there’s a meaningful advance in the Shuffle, it’s not regarding alienation or connection but technologies of narcissism. It asks you to delight in your own excellent sensibilities every three minutes. It asks you to look at yourself and admire.
“19-2000 (Soulchild Remix)”
Last summer I saw a lot of French-African kids wearing music players on lanyards around their necks, light gray devices and dark skin. The iConic image of the Shuffle is a parody of this, or a wish image: perfectly white device hanging on an empty black body. And it’s incredibly appealing. I’m disembodied just like hyper-modernity always promised me; only the commodity speaks. Finally, I am too rich and too thin.
It occurs to me that, when I am very old, I can tell people I meet in bars that I was one of those dancers in the iPod commercials. Who could say I wasn’t?
Lacking a screen to communicate with me, it speaks on my behalf, look at me, look at me.
Joshua Clover’s most recent book is The Matrix (British Film Institute, 2005). He hasn’t been interested in the self since 1989.