An eye for an iPod: For people who want to believe in the potential for new media technology to create democratic and occasionally corporate-evading outcomes, there was depressing news under the Christmas tree. Ditto for the far-louder chorus who keep telling us that capitalist markets create diverse products of great excellence at keen prices. (You know who you are, ye talking heads on health insurance, mobile phones, electricity, transport, ad infinitum, ad nauseum.)
I'm talking about the little plastic slice that has ruled Yuletide for several years now, the Apple iPod, its bright, friendly range of sizes and colours concealing a heart of conformity and corporate dominance. For the ever-faithful Tiny Tims among us, it doesn't help matters that the company behind the nearest – yet still very far – thing to a mass-market competitor, the Creative Labs range of digital players, has just celebrated Christmas by slashing jobs here in Ireland.
The iPod is a grand little device in many ways, though the never-ending proliferation of pricy accessories and Apple's refusal to, say, stick a radio on it makes it ultimately unloved by more discerning stocking-fillers. But the real problem with it is the way it has carried online audio acquisition in its wake with a software near-monopoly that even Bill Gates would (and surely does) envy.
We like sheep
The slow roll-out of broadband here in Ireland is, in retrospect, good news for Apple: unlike Americans, our free-spending populace never learned to love “illegal” file-sharing when it was at its millennial zeitgeist heights. Instead, for Middle Ireland, downloading music simply means iTunes and its “Store”, with all the easy clicks that connect it to your iPod and provide quick, convenient music with sound-quality inferior to CDs at a price that's only a little cheaper.
Worse yet, converting purchased files to a format you can use on a non-iPod is tricky and degrades them further. But what the hell, you don't own them anyway: all these years that you thought you were buying music it turns out you were only acquiring a sort of use-licence for it: the record industry and Apple make sure you know it by encoding iTunes tunes with technical restrictions on their re-use.
“All we like sheep” – as Handel inclines us to sing this time of year, in a Messiah on which iTunes once stuck a parental warning – put up with this rubbish, shrugging our shoulders and nodding our white-earbudded heads. However, “all we” are not sheeplike: there remains a vigorous online community of people, many using free, open-source software, who share audio files of better quality for nothing but the love of music. (There are also of course various commercial models superior to iTunes.) Too many otherwise sensible people regard them disdainfully as “pirates” and eschew their simple methods – perhaps until one of their favoured artists endorses such piracy and they check it out.
The general success of the iTunes-led media counter-revolution, in which Apple has saved the life of a century-old record industry that fully merits euthanasia, has been greatly facilitated by enthusiastic support from traditional media. This ranges typically from a newspaper panic story about prosecution of “illegal” up-and downloaders to a raving Village review for the latest Bono-branded Africa-saving iPod.
There's no need to explain this conspiratorially in terms of the corporate links that undoubtedly exist within the monstrous global journalism/entertainment complex. Journalists, sometimes under time pressure, are simply amenable to PR and their ideological default position is blind and bland acceptance of the capitalist status quo.
Moreover, journalism education is extremely poor at teaching about pop culture (eg the history of the parasitical music industry) and technology – perhaps on the basis that students are supposed to know all that stuff already. What journalists don't know, however, is hurting us.