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Monday, September 17, 2007

It is illuminating his study of those who crave the new - or fear it- iPod

To build and develop career

This beautifully designed media player is like a slim iPhone sans phone--but it's marred by some early hardware and software issues.

On Wednesday last, Richard Wilk found himself in a state of "iPodopause."

The professor of anthropology at Indiana University was travelling through Westport, Conn., on his way to Gothenburg, Sweden, and had been seized by the idea of purchasing a new iPod for his wife's birthday.

Wilk's iPodolatry was not newborn. "We have a drawer at home with the broken remains of a number of dead iPods, including my daughter's dead iPods and my dead iPods and my wife's dead iPods," Wilk relates.

This electronics graveyard has done nothing to dampen Wilk's iPodophilia.

"It's very hard to be anthropological about your own consumption," the professor continues. "I think there's something very seductive about the iPod."

Apple, ever the temptress, has just launched its latest iPod line-up, including, beguilingly, the new Nano, featuring a teeny, tiny video screen, a squarish body, and a pleasing array of colour options, including a retro green reminiscent of a Bakelite butter dish. Brilliantly, the new Nano is being shilled by Feist: One, two, three, four, tell me that you love me more.

The crass and the unkind have swiftly labelled the new Nano "Fatty" and "Fatboy," ignoring the fact that its merry, blocky face fronts a body as thin as a graham cracker, though with a sturdy, heavy-metal backing.

It is the perfect gift, the object of one's desire.


Could this be lust?

Unrequited, sadly, at the Eaton Centre, where, on the very day following the day when Apple pledged immediate worldwide availability, the sales clerk at the mall's Apple store raised his shoulders in the gesture acknowledged worldwide to mean: We haven't seen the new iPods yet and, no, we have no idea when they might arrive.

A return trip the following day drew the equally dispiriting: "Apparently they're in transit." This particular sales clerk placed those little air commas around "transit," yet another euphemism for: We haven't seen the new iPods yet and, no, we have no idea when they might arrive.

Richard Wilk trolled Westport and reported, by email, this discouraging news: "The old models are gone, the new ones are not in yet. We are in a temporary iPodopause."

As it happens, Wilk is headed to the University of Gothenburg and its Centre for Consumer Science, or the Centrum för Konsumtionsvetenskap, where, among other matters, he will continue work on his book on the history of men and consumption.

As such, Wilk is in a position to put my own family's konsumtionsvetenskap of iPods in context. Surely when one owns an early iteration Shuffle (the one that looks like a stick of gum) and the current Shuffle (the one that's the size of a postage stamp), and an early model 60 GB, now amusingly renamed as the sixth-generation "Classic," as well as a Mini and an earlier, non-video version of the Nano, and one is eager to get one's hands on the latest generation, one has two things.

The first thing: a great many iPods.

The second thing: an illness.

Has man always wanted the new, new thing?

"No," says Wilk. "I'm working on a paper right now on -philia and -phobia. I'm thinking about it more in terms of neophilia and neophobia, but it's really the same thing. There are people who are at times always looking for something new. But there are also people who are afraid of new things, who reject new things, who find new things destabilizing. I think all of us have a mixture of the two.

"For instance," the professor continues, "when it comes to, say, toothbrushes or when it comes to footwear, you're very conservative. But when it comes to consumer electronics you're extremely neophilic."

Cleverly, the iPod offers a mixture of the new - the thing itself - and the old, in Wilk's case, what he loads onto it: ska, rocksteady, Sly & Robbie, Burning Spear. In this way, the cutting-edge technology doubles as something historic, a museum.

In years past, Wilk has been an early adopter, technology wise. Recalls his purchase in, oh, 1983, of his Eagle PC portable, weighing in at something like 19 pounds with "a little six-inch yellow screen." He took it to Belize, where it died on or about the fifth day he was there. "The ironic thing is I think they had an anthropologist working in the company documenting their demise."

Latterly, Wilk has been more cautious, and was not an early adopter of the iPod. But then he got hooked, despite the iPod's propensity to die right after the warranty ran out.

"I found a website that shows you how to open them up and swap parts out ... I swapped a new hard drive into one and it worked fine for a little while. I got it all filled up with music and I was out walking the dog and I had it in my chest pocket and my dog jumped into the creek. I reached down to pull him out and the iPod jumped into the creek, too."

So he bought another one.

My husband, who clung to his Betamax long after its time had passed, finds that dropping his fritzy 60 gig on the floor is the way to get it working again. (Eventually the Betamax was chucked, though the "Boom Box," the Walkman, the Discman (Discmen, actually), the Mini Disc player and the waterproof transistor radio all remain on the premises in various states of déshabillé.)

My Shuffle works just fine.

Still, the new Nano beckons. Does this make me:

a) shallow

b) morally vacant

c)) a pathetic seeker of self-completion relying on things to make me whole

"The psychologists have been telling us ever since Freud that somehow our relationship with stuff is false because it's a displaced desire for human connection," says Wilk. Detachment plus familial alienation equals the transference of affection from people onto objects. "What that says basically is that all of our love of things is some kind of pathology, and from an anthropological point of view, I think that's just crazy. If there's anything that distinguishes our species over the last four million years it is that we are object users. We're tool users. We love stuff."

Humans are into possession.

Chimpanzees, not so much.

Dogs? Into possession. See: stuffed animals.

This invites the absurd image of dogs sporting ear buds and collar-clipping iPods.

Go on, laugh. Wilk points out that there are dog cellphones. And if you want to itemize dumb stuff, you might as well include what Wilk calls "the most ridiculous thing." And that would be? "Neutricles ... They're prosthetic testicles for dogs ... You can get them in six sizes. $400 a pair."

Where does it end?

Wilk tells us that there have been civilizations in history where people seemed relatively happy with stability.

"The ancient Mayans knew about wheels but didn't feel any need to invent wagons," he says. "But today, if there were no economic innovation, can you imagine what would happen?"

"I guess that would be the end of the modern economy."


At the Apple Store in the Eaton Centre, the new iPods have arrived. Stephanie Iossifidis is scrutinizing the new Nano. It's a bit of a bummer.

"I just bought this one a couple of months ago," she says of the now "old" Nano she pulls from her sweatshirt pocket. She's gone through two Minis. One broke when she fell off her bike. The battery died on Mini number two.

Planned obsolescence.

An electrical engineering student in a "So Hip it Hurts" T-shirt and checkerboard Vans, Iossifidis likes the way the new Nano video screen is "not that pixelized." She likes the hard metal back. She finds the movie-music combination compelling.

Will she buy it? "I think I'll wait it out," she says, meaning she will await the death of her existing iPod.

So wise. And only 18.

The 52-year-old caresses the seductive Fatboy before she, too, walks away.

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