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.