Information about Information Technology

I got tagged to fill out a meme about five “guilty pleasures” on my iPod. My iPod is a pretty chaotic little beast and I don’t really use playlists much, so to some extent each time I listen to it, and that’s not all that often, it’s a pretty different experience. Ok, so I have Enya on there, how’s that? Also Modern English “I Melt With You”.

It just so happened that I was thinking about my iPod when this meme wandered across my doorstep, however. And I was not thinking nice things. The iPod was a gift, and I’ve enjoyed having it. I doubt I will get another one when this one (inevitably) dies, though a small digital music player like a Nano seems like a good idea. What really turned me against Apple’s version of the technology, and made me wonder once again why on earth Apple has a reputation for higher ethical or design standards than the PC-Microsoft world, was trying to move my iTunes collection from an old computer to a new desktop at home.

I buy almost nothing from iTunes: the DRM in use there strikes me as pure poison, a lousy deal. I do have a big collection of converted music from our own CDs. I’ve never downloaded music from any other legal or illegal source in my life: it’s just not my thing. Before we had our iPods, I’d digitized about 25% of our CDs in mp3 format. I was already a bit annoyed when iTunes wouldn’t recognize some of those digitizations and I had to do it again.

However, I basically viewed the iPod as a small hard drive that was built to work fairly well with a particular software ensemble. Because that’s what it is. I’m not fussy about music formats or sound quality, and not especially knowledgeable about music as a cultural system overall. It just isn’t where my intellectual interests lie. So most of the debates about the quality of the music played by iPods didn’t draw me. Because the device was a gift, I also didn’t think that carefully about as a technology.

So imagine my surprise at discovering something that most iPod owners have long since known: you can’t easily copy your whole iTunes directory onto a new computer from the iPod itself, even though technologically, that should be as easy as moving files of any kind around via flash memory. At first I just figured that I was being stupid, but after being stymied for a while I went looking and found out the ghastly truth.

I grasp what Apple’s reasoning is for crippling their own technology: this was to reassure the music industry that users would not spread their personal music collections around to other computers like so many Johnny Appleseeds. As with so many alleged safeguards around digital culture, however, this decision largely just inconveniences legitimate users pursuing legitimate purposes. It’s not as if you can’t get around this bit of stupidity–there are third-party programs, but I just went into the totally freakshow file structure that iTunes employs and manually copied over all my files to the new desktop. Of course, that meant that a job that should have taken 15 minutes with no hassle took me considerably longer.

The larger lesson here, however, is once again that people who view information technology with ambivalence, both inside and outside the academy, are fairly right to do so. When you’re adopting something new, it’s often very hard to get clear information about the real work processes, difficulties and shortcomings involved with the technology. In some cases, that’s because nobody knows yet what those will be because no one has worked with the technology long enough. In other cases, it’s because there is a lethal combination of enthusiasts and salespeople working to obscure the long-term costs and issues. And in still other cases, it’s because you adopt the technology accidentally or on the fly, without a lot of thought, and it seems simple enough on initial use.

This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t make assertive use of new software applications, new hardware, and so on. A lot of the precautionary knowledge about both common and less-used technologies, however, is buried at least several layers deep inside specialist conversations or it’s obscured by long-running partisan battles over platforms, companies, and design philosophies. We find it only when we suddenly have need of it, and by then, it’s sometimes too late: data is locked into a proprietary format, information has been lost, labor time has been wasted on an application that’s about to abandoned.

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4 Responses to Information about Information Technology

  1. Laura says:

    Yeah, I have a love/hate relationship with Apple. I used to have a third party program that stripped all DRM off of my iTunes songs, but now that program no longer works, so I buy from eMusic most of the time. Amazon sells DRM free music and iTunes has some, but you have to look for it.

    I think technology choices have become even more complicated than you suggest. I liken it to Michael Pollen’s food choices. If you want to make “politically correct” food choices, you have to know an awful lot about what goes into making and delivering all kinds of food. Same goes for technology. If people really thought about Microsoft as a company, they might not choose to use their products. Like food, people tend to go for convenience with technology, damn the political or business consequences. I’m no purist when it comes to technology, but I use open source when I can, I’ve been railing against Blackboard for years, and I try to support little start-ups that I like.

    I do wish people would think more about what they use–especially when it comes to the issue of proprietary formats. One of my first technology-related jobs was scanning books for a professor whose digital copies of said books were no longer in a readable format. He was trying to put together a new collection for publication.

    I guess we could say, “I wish people would think . . .” in front of a lot of consumer choices. Oh well.

  2. I absolutely agree about the DRM issue, and about what a plague the plethora of hardware and software formats is–especially but not only the proprietary ones. I have a feeling that over time the klunky old book is going to keep looking better and better as information is lost to decaying or unreadable media and obscure formats. I sort of learned the lesson when I could no longer run MS Word 5.0. I still have lots of those files and because I refuse to buy MS Word it’s always a pain to deal with them. Someday (I say to myself) I’ll convert them all to RTF. We all know how often someday comes along, though.

    I generally avoid buying DRMed tracks from iTunes, too. It seems inevitable that they’ll become difficult to listen to at some point, just like my old word files have become difficult to read (of course they wouldn’t be that hard to access if I wasn’t both a cheapskate and dead set against using Microsoft products). But I’m a little bothered by a familiar line of reasoning in your post: “I grasp what Apple???? reasoning is for crippling their own technology: this was to reassure the music industry that users would not spread their personal music collections around to other computers like so many Johnny Appleseeds.” Realistically, what was their other choice, if they wanted to set up a networked distribution system that integrated easily with the iPod? Given that DRM sucks, I’ve found the iTunes implimentation to be pretty fair and workable, and I was impressed by Steve Jobs’ public letter on DRM and the follow-up shift towards DRM-free tracks on iTunes.

  3. Daniel Rosenblatt says:

    Agreed DRM is evil and anoying, but you shouldn’t really blame apple for not transferring you music in the simplest way: first of all, if its not what itunes is already doing for you, use the consolidte library command on the advanced menu to have it make copies of all you music, podcasts etc. and put them in one folder. Assuming this is too big to put on a dvd, either transfer it to a hard drive or start up your old computer as a hard drive to your new one. Then just import everything in the folder (you may have to go in and select all the subfolders, but you can do this all at once from within the import window). You could even use your ipod as the hard drive for this if you set it up to be hard drive as well as a music player.

    As for the DRM on itunes, I believe you can burn stuff to an audio cd, get rid of the drm’ed version, and import the audio cd. No DRM.

  4. Sam says:

    Like many Apple enthusiasts, my ultimate attitude towards their product is similar to Churchill’s quip about democracy: it’s the worst (commercial) product available, except for all the others.

    As far as the iTunes DRM restrictions: extraordinarily annoying, but even given what they are now, the RIAA is in a perpetual state of fury with Apple at how easily the restrictions are disabled. It’s slow & maddening, but if you copy the tracks to a music-formatted CD, then copy them back into iTunes, the restrictions are erased. Unfortunately, this does not work with TV shows, where the DRM is embedded into the audio. (And if anybody knows a way to delete them from iTunes-purchased TV shows, please share!)

    The easiest way to copy from an iPod back to the computer is using the 3rd-party iPod Rip, a piece of shareware that can be used perfectly well before purchase. But it sounds like you took the more hard-core tech approach to accomplishing that.

    In any case, I believe that the lawsuit brought by the government of France charging Apple with monopoly practices due to the iTunes/iPod DRM restrictions is still on-going. Maybe France will save the day. Or maybe, if they’re successful, they’ll cause record companies to abandon iTunes & lead to the destruction of Apple. Interesting times….

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