Resonances Through Urban Non-Space: Shifting Mediums and Retained Practices of Sonic Mediation

This paper will de- and reconstruct a history of privatized listening practices – those specific to transitional praxis from physical to artificial isolated sonic spaces – temporally localized within an effective-history of systemic interaction in early broadcast radio, its automotive assimilation, and continuing practices manifest and mirrored in modern use of the iPod. By probing the practice of private listening as a social norm revelatory of several forms of cultural communication via evocation of social systems theory (Luhmann: 1995), I will demonstrate how listening practices initially noted and incidentally birthed in the ‘golden age of radio’ have today become voluntarily commonplace in modern iPod usage, representing a shift from unintentional to intentional sonic mediation of everyday life. I will explore how developments in record production, specifically varying relevancies of fidelity, have altered as a result of these shifting mediums. In both contexts, I will ultimately demonstrate that both the means of mediation as well as the accompanying technical developments in container technology demonstrate cultural adaptation to modernity.

At the foundation of these arguments is the assumption that ‘technological adaptation is specific to local environments because the problems that need to be solved vary from place to place’ (Boyd et al: 2013, p.120), and that:

humans were able to create this diverse set of tools rapidly because cultural evolution allows human populations to solve problems that are much too hard for individuals to solve themselves (Boyd et al: 2013, p.120).

In Niklas Luhmann’s theory of society, read as an examination of the organization of this evolution, it is selection amidst complexity – an operation consisting of differentiation and distinction – that in turn generates information and subsequently creates further complexity over the course of time (Luhmann: 1995, p.47). It is the totality of this complexity that we may call modernity. The selections made within it by individual actors are those which in turn force subsequent selections of other actors; thus, communication becomes ‘an examination of the structure of modernity that both dictates… observations and emerges as a result of them’ (Rasch: 2000, pp. 1-3). This emergence and reproduction of structures of communication is what Luhmann describes as ‘autopoiesis’ (Luhmann: 1995, p.359). Simply explained, all communication systems presuppose and inform themselves through structuring the communicated selections amidst modernity above described (Luhmann: 2013). Thus, our underlying assumption more specifically states that social practices are constructed of communicative interaction, find their future in their past, and that the causality of these practices are (or, can be) geographically static yet temporally fluid. The causality of any given practice thus gains in complexity with every observation, for with every observation one creates a distinction. This temporalization of complexity thus results in further irritation to the social environment undergoing its own observations of complexity through differentiation: all this to say, social structures operate on the basis of self-reference (Luhmann: 1995, p.13). This is why, as Luhmann says, we may proceed from a basal theory of systemic organization to one of self-referential systems of communication (Luhmann: 1995, p.487). Therefore, in the problems – the supposed ‘curse’ of the present (Luhmann: 2013, p.87) – we encounter the complexity of the past.

Urbanization presented the necessity of mediated negotiation of metropolitan space, and was further encouraged by post-Civil War social fragmentation. The radio, paradoxically a voice of comfort to the isolated, became a means of self-imposed isolation that would later be made mobile in the automobile, and ultimately the iPod (Slade: 2012, Katz: 2004, Russo: 2010). Through an examination of the historical contexts informing the adoption of the radio, its eventual retrofit to the automobile, and ultimate culmination in the iPod, I will explore the cultural resonances effecting the adoption of each subsequent practice while attempting to construct, in a sense, a lineage of audile technique localized in the selections of complexity that comprise and allow us to navigate modernity. I will additionally locate the relevance of fidelity in each noted manifestation of privatized listening.

Methodological and Contextual Considerations

A temporal continuity, constituted of the practices of automobile audio and audile technique developed between golden-age radio and the iPod will identify the shared privatized listening practices which are indicative of urban social change in their unique use and creation of an isolated non-space, and more specifically the construction of identity and mediation of reality within this non-space. To depict this shift, a systemic hermeneutics of privatized listening will be developed spanning from the early 20th century through to the contemporary era. The practices of each specified era are to be contextualized amidst their historical and social resonances (Gadamer: 1975, p.311), determining what the iPod owes to its nostalgic and archaic predecessors.

Self-reference of cultural memory and practice, viewed through the lens of social systems theory is indicative of grander and past social resonances (Luhmann: 2002, p.87; Moeller: 2006, p.38). Social systems theory understands society in terms of an organic structure and its growth, inclusive of all functional and interrelated systems of society: social structures, and in turn their operations, are dependent upon their past memory and operations as much as each other, creating an environment for every other accessible only through specialized modes of social communication (Luhmann: 2002, p.86; Moeller: 2006, p.39). Cultural communication in this sense describes the interaction amidst social systems, and with each functional system of society developing their own medium of communication the temporal appearance of these media (not in themselves communication, but as the environment of communication [Luhmann: 2000, pp. 15-16]), becomes an indicator of cultural change (Moeller: 2006, p.26). By understanding the causality of this study’s proposed shift as a result of systemic irritation and resonation (Luhmann: 2000, p.65), those which are self-referenced through systemic growth and interaction instigating change amidst various functional social systems (Luhmann: 2006, p. 285), it is thus possible to conceptualize early practices of privatized listening in the automobile, as were transposed from radio, and their regurgitation through iPod culture as systemic observations, references, responses, resonances, and temporal echoes. Particularly, when we consider that ‘the communication system society is becoming more and more dependent on technologically determined structural coupling with its environment’ (Luhmann: 2013, p.180). Furthermore, the disregard of fidelity in early attempts at private listening in the 21st century stand evidence to the former. The consequent cultural communication represented by these practices is thus indicative of the social changes which in turn catalyze these practices’ continuing autopoiesis (Luhmann: 1995, p.348): where we once sought refuge from each other in public spaces providing ‘individual’ entertainment, we eventually turned to ‘private spaces,’ separate rooms of our homes, our vehicles, and ultimately privatized meta-spaces created by portable digital audio (Russo: 2010, p.172; Slade: 2012, p.22, p.77).

Social Fragmentation

Technological mediation retains principles of past practices covertly encoded in social communication and systemic autopoiesis. Through this autopoiesis, or second-order self-reference, society re-experiences past technological practices as temporal and cultural ghosts amidst its contemporary social environment though embodied in new media. As Niklas Luhmann states:

People… interpreted through the temporal differences of past and future… thus absorb, as it were, attentiveness to time, they serve as tangible symbols of time. They integrate past and future in their actions, and they have to be individual, that is, distinguishable, so that it becomes visible that this can happen in very different ways. But another aspect of this form of observation of time thereby remains unexplicated, namely, the fact that there might also be quite different ways of separating and reintegrating the past and the future, for example, by means of organization (Luhmann: 2000, p.73).

Accordingly, as noted by Giles Slade, this shift and its echoes are culturally situated within a grander narrative of technological development and urbanized adaptation emerging in tandem with physical and biological isolation (Slade: 2012). Slade’s observations justify Marshall McLuhan’s prior assertion that

the new media and technologies by which we amplify and extend ourselves constitute huge collective surgery carried out on the social body with complete disregard for antiseptics… it is the entire system that is changed (McLuhan: 1964, p.71).

Accordingly, social systems theory recognizes human existence as distinctly yet inseparably physical, mental, and social: all of which constitute systems that interact in the formation of reality (Luhmann: 1995, p.255). It is interaction with other agents through social existence and within the environment in turn developed of these interactions through which social structures are erected and reality is consequently constructed (Luhmann: 1995, p.xxxiv). Therefore, existence in the ‘global village’ constitutes social communication afforded by technology and dictated by prior social structural processes. Additionally, these structures exert influence on mental systems via entry in the corporeal realm consequent of structurally mandated, technologically extended existence. Slade’s observations demonstrate this interaction of the social, mental, and physical localized on the micro level, the single agent in our post-literate condition: societal structure and norms mandate a disassociated social existence through extended means of interaction, which in turn affects the mental self – the perception and reaction to this environment – via bodily deprivation of Oxytocin (Slade: 2012, p.106). Media scholars may recognize this social condition as the ‘global village’ described by McLuhan, and the intermittent biological detractions to our participation within it correlating to the stress McLuhan predicted in the emergence of post-literate society (McLuhan: 1964, p.26; 2010, p.36).

Individual Listening

All systems, they themselves constructed of interaction, interact via structural coupling and coexist in totality as an enormous organic structure perceived as society. Contemporary perseverance of our post-literate condition suggests that privatized listening as a form of social communication speaks to (and of) this social condition. Society and culture reciprocates and references itself: communications re-emerging at new levels of social meaning however, in the context of self-reference, consistently evidence the past systemic resonances referenced (Luhmann: 1995, p.488).

Michael Bull asserts that the rise of headphone culture [and we may assume, privatized listening practices], which paralleled the rise of the Walkman and then the iPod, appears to fit the model of mediated solipsism ideally whereby users withdraw into a private world of personalized  music (Bull: 2010, p.26).

However, prior to the existence of the iPod (2001) (Bull: 2007, p.1), the Walkman (1979), or the transistor radio (1954), ‘there was the comfort, isolation, and safety of the car’ (Slade: 2010, p. 55). With the 1930 introduction of commercially available car audio (Russo: 2010, p.172), the driver could then navigate the city immersed within a private and personalized soundscape (Russo: 2010, p.170). Established audile techniques thus stem from the past and assert themselves on new media (Sterne: 2003, p.138).

Technological Mediation

Technology shapes history through its adherence to social demand; when a technology is required, with it is adopted cultural practices relevant to its use and function within the grander social environment (Lacey: 2012, p.118). Media technology becomes the environment for the mass media communication that it facilitates (Moeller: 2006, p.124), thus:

Technological developments therefore cannot produce revolutions in communication.  They can only produce revolutions in technology. How communication reacts to technological developments is decided by and in communication alone. Strictly speaking,   [technology] does not change society – society (not only the mass media, but also the economy, politics, and so forth) changes itself by resonating with changes in its technological environment (Moeller: 2006, p.124).

Privatized listening practices date to the 1890s, particularly in the use of ear tubes or headphones for solo enjoyment in phonograph parlors, salons, or other public venues (Lacey: 2012, pp. 117-118). Despite the amusements promoting privatized entertainment’s initial failure amidst the saloon demographic (Lacey: 2012, p.118), the initial terminology of ‘single’ or ‘individual’ listening describing this practice appears as ‘private listening’ in literature beyond 1932 (Slade: 2012, p.77). Though perhaps an easily overlooked discursive modification, ‘throughout the history of meaning formation, specific semantics have emerged to regulate performances of differentiation’ (Luhmann: 1995, p.89). The literature then semantically reflects, literally, a shift from an emphasis on the individual within society and their entertainment, to isolation from society accomplished via the same media. But what are the conditions that effected this shift?

The development of contemporary practices and their culturally formative aspects can be examined amidst wider resonations through society at large. Scholars draw particular attention to ‘the clamor, the density, [and how] the sheer weight of the modern city is heard as a mechanic, constant and general assault on the senses’ (Tonkiss: 2003, p.303). Noise is now a perquisite for feelings of safety in modernity; noise is normative (Attali: 2012, p.29). This noise must however be self-governed, granting the listener control of their sonic, meta-environment.

Privatized audile technique’s perseverance is not only confirmed in contemporary practice, but its development is evident in the headphone jacks installed on phonographs and radios manufactured past 1948 (Slade: 2012, p.77). The self-enclosure produced in this practice not only points to societal and familial fragmentation (Slade: 2012, p.77), but to that phenomenon’s subsequent development through its resonations in iPod culture (Lacey: 2012, p.118). Where the ‘radio in every room’ strategy encouraged the segmentation of listeners via physical isolation, contemporary use of the iPod undermines the necessity of physical isolation. Made impossible by urban development, portable audio devices instead place the listener within a space entirely personal and private. Culture, in this sense, looks to its past in search of answers to emergent social demands. In this brief overview, the reader then gains some clarification as to how technology effects the environment of wider society, resonating both holistically and selectively (Luhmann: 1995, p.140).

Mediating Urbanity

To specifically define the modern condition wrought of urbanization and affirm the importance of sound in its construction, Slade explains that:

conversations with strangers invariably brings awkward moments and slight but annoying interpersonal risks. Moving through the metropolis, we are overwhelmed by the number of strangers passing close to us… We wrap invisible technological shells around us like hamster balls and become “i-Pods” as we move from site to site in our native urban landscape (Slade: 2012, p.30).

Where privatized listening today is commonplace, its development took place through the course of the 20th century (Slade: 2012, p.57). Radio once provided a stationary haven: it was then made mobile, navigating and negotiating the metropolis as well as the home, by the automobile. The listening practice’s qualitative effects of modernity that now permeate iPod culture transgressed through the space/non-space of the automobile’s sonic world. It was, in effect, the original ‘i-Pod’ in the sense Slade describes.

An ontological question must be addressed before proceeding any further. Though somewhat benign, it seems pertinent to equalize the relationship between radio, a sound reproduction device – albeit one in many cases reliant on pre-recorded programming – and the iPod, a sound storage and reproduction device. McLuhan said that the phonograph,

which owes its origin to the electrical telegraph and the telephone, had not manifested its basically electric form and function until the tape recorder released it from its mechanical trappings. That the world of sound is essentially a unified field of instant relationships lends it a near resemblance to the world of electromagnetic waves. This fact brought the phonograph and radio into early association (McLuhan: 1964, p.300).

Furthermore, ‘radio foregrounded and promoted certain modes of listening that dominated particular eras, and this played a powerful role in forging generational identity’ (Douglas: 2004, p.35). Though the aesthetic guise has altered, the practice and function of privatized listening remains intact. Again, we must remember that technology does not alter communication, communication adapts to its environment (Luhmann: 1995, p. 140). We are therefore left to conclude that modern practices, and their subsequent social communications, – yet to be discussed – within society are not only echoes of past listening practices, but in fact have been constructed on the afore described foundational cultural memory.

In Robert K. Logan’s recent elaboration and modernized modifications of McLuhan’s foundational work, he coins ‘new media’ as a term describing newly emergent digital media like the iPod. He notes that ‘many [of these] “new media” emerged by combining an older medium with computer chips and a hard drive’: the crucial difference between new and old media is the element of technological interactivity (Logan 2010, p.4).[i] Here Logan indicates not only technological hetero-reference – the adaptation and expansion to and of social developments – but also to the larger social narratives argued by Slade to be ultimately culminating in direct human-technological interaction replacing interpersonal communication. This in turn conclusively evidences Moeller’s claim that technology systemically adapts to its environment via the structural coupling of various functional subsystems ranging from science to economics (Moeller: 2006, p.124).

Functional Fragmentation

McLuhan attributed the isolating effects of early modernity to machine technology (McLuhan: 1964, p.8), however interpersonal communication has been in decline for emotional, economic, and efficiency purposes since the initial onset of urbanization following the American Civil War (Slade: 2012, p.27). Where McLuhan sees the automation age as representing a new epoch of communication (McLuhan: 1964, p.7), the technological catalysts of urbanized loneliness in the mechanical age survive in our use of personal media devices (Slade: 2012, p.27). This adaptation to fast-paced scheduling, reliable mechanical technology, and larger networks of communications forced an adaptation to reliance on technology in place of other people, ultimately culminating in our technology being designed as ‘prosthetic substitutes for human company’ (Slade: 2012, p.28, p.13). The new media accordingly is designed to be extended into the realm of hyper-reality (Logan: 2010, p.40): A reality, which as defined by Luhmann is constructed through the permeation and cognition of mass media communication (Luhmann: 2000, p.77), consisting of advertising, news broadcasting, and entertainment (Luhmann: 2000).

Entertainment is a form of potential control over this hyper-reality by those socially stratified to control the production of media, which, to the chagrin of a ‘literate community,’ limits the content possible for broadcast or release to listeners (McLuhan: 1964, p.305). Mass-media entertainment, catering to those not of the elite McLuhan refers to, has of course been linked to mass production and advertising (Adorno: 1982, p. 47). A listener can construct their identity in tandem with the commodity of the entertainment itself, or through advertising presented through it (Adorno: 1982, p.48). Though not a form of control, the manipulation of self amidst reality, besides mediation yet to be discussed, demonstrates the vulnerability and validity of sonic hyper-reality. Concurring with this assertion, Luhmann’s decidedly counter-Frankfurt reaction to media control suggests that since we are unable to trust its purveyors, we

suspect that there is manipulation at work, and yet no consequences of any import ensue because knowledge acquired from the mass media merges together as if of its own accord into a self-reinforcing structure. Even if all knowledge were to carry into a warning that it was open to doubt, it would still have to be used as a foundation, as a starting point… [ultimately] whatever we know about our society, or indeed about the world in which we live, we know through the mass media (Luhmann: 2000, p.1).

When we as a species assumed reliance on technology, and through the course of the 20th century continued to invest our interests in it, we assumed an economic rather than natural role (Slade: 2012, p.11). It is thus not surprising that radio, as an extension of ourselves, of our hearing, and guised in its ‘cloak of invisibility’, is able to assume itself as an extension of this economic role (McLuhan: 1964, p.302).

Radio, Its Mobilization, and the Effects of Privatization

Alexander Russo points to three characteristic images associated with radio in the 1930s: ‘the family gathered in the living room around the set; the car radio; and the child or teenager under the covers listening to some forbidden program’ (Russo: 2010, p.151). Russo’s taxonomy is revelatory. The latter two of his examples point to practices of isolation and self-enclosure within the sonic realm of the radio. The foremost however indicates an image that has come to be iconic of golden-age radio (Goodman: 2010, p.21).

This image is, however, inaccurate (Goodman: 2010, p. 21), for as a result of declining prices of radio sets in the Depression and post-WWII, the average home supported multiple radios for simultaneous use (Russo: 2010, p. 154); a practice which persevered until the advent of television in 1949 (Slade: 2012, p.76). Marketing campaigns were developed and mounted as early as 1927 promoting the placement of radios in every room of the home, hotel, and various other public and private spaces (Slade: 2012, p.76).

Advertisers looking to reap profit from the widespread use of the radio (Slade: 2012, p.75) attempted various strategies through the 1930s in order to compensate for listener behavior (Russo: 2010, p.161). Morning shows, for example, were designed to accompany the morning routine of a family and with cleverly used sonic markers triggered attentive listening to the subsequent advertisements:

sponsors were directly linked to daily activities performed while listening – eating, drinking coffee, and getting ready for work. This suggests that the advertising continuity was tightly integrated into not only the program content but also daily activities and purchasing decisions (Russo: 2010, p.161).

Soon after, ‘block programming’ was introduced as a means to narrow the listening demographic and more specifically program content with demographic-appropriate advertising (Russo: 2010, p.162). Thus during the Great Depression and the Second World War, privatized listening, motivated by market interests became the norm (Slade: 2012, p.79).

Targeted programming created a second result: to women targeted in the home, the voice of the talk-show host, the radio announcer, even the advertiser, ‘became a companion imbricated in their lives, not a voice from outside to be rationally assessed’ (Goodman: 2010, p.25). This in turn resulted in a construction of identity, in dialectic with the sonically advocated product, as a result of what was concluded to be widespread isolation, both geographic and physical, as well as ‘psychological’ (Goodman: 2010, p.27).[ii]

In addition to mediating isolated modern life, segregated and private radio listening allowed the listener to enjoy a program undisturbed and uncontested (Slade: 2010, p.77). This is in turn partially what led to the development of the car audio system; the first step in audio becoming fully consuming, and fully mobile.


The consuming effects of radio can be partially connected to what Slade calls system trust: a modern equivalent of trust developed to suit our current social environment in which reliability is paramount over the comparably fleeting nature of human interaction in urbanized modernity (Slade: 2012, p.193). The power of the reliable voice of radio is amplified through the subliminal encroachment of the sound of the radio; a near noumenal presence (Douglas: 2004, p.37). In this case, localized within a comfortable, private space. Bull notes that:

The metaphor of the car as a home has a long anecdotal history in cultural theory. The root of this is discerned in the automobile as a metaphor for the dominant Western values of individualism and private property, which is coupled to the romantic imagery embodied in travel as signifying individual freedom. The cultural meaning of the automobile as a privatized entity is inscribed into its very origin. From the move away from traveling collectively in trains at the beginning of the twentieth century, to the discomfort of inhabiting restricted spaces with strangers to the desire for smooth, unbroken journeys unfettered by timetables; these concerns have become embodied in everyday automobile use (Bull: 2003, p.358).

It is thus clear how the automobile could function for advertisers in much the same fashion as the home, particularly considering drivers spend many hours of their day traveling for various ‘mundane’ purposes (Bull: 2003, p.370). Like the home, advertising was targeted specifically at motorists, with advertising catering to their needs (Russo: 2010, p.168),

precisely because advertisers are completely open about their interest in advertising, they can be even more uninhibited in the way they treat the memory and motives of the person targeted (Luhmann: 2000, p.45).

However, the car functioned as a place of prolonged isolation from the modernity beyond its walls (Slade: 2012, p.58). Bull concludes that

technology is perceived as paradoxically enhancing and increasingly constituting that impoverishment that, for Adorno, constitutes to the dependency of the user/listener. Music, as such, becomes a substitute for community, warmth and social contact… Automobile users thus appear to prefer inhabiting an accompanied soundscape. However, many drivers prefer this auditized space to be occupied solely by themselves. Drivers often mention that the space of the car is preferably a privatized space (Bull: 2003, pp. 363 -364).

Contemporary Consequences and Systemic Echoes

Today, the principle of navigating modernity enclosed in a personalized sound world is commonly realized through the use of headphones; creating “new sonic territories” of urban surroundings (Thibaud: 2003, p. 329). Headphones create for the listener a privatized space, akin to the enclosed world of the automobile, however an entirely immersive sonic experience. Sound reproduced through headphones isolates the listener within their own sonic world, one with no physical bounds, impossible for others to invade or inhabit (Sterne: 2003, p.87).

Our separation of work and leisure spaces creates a culturally reinforced mandate for this negotiation of urban terrain, be it on foot or in a vehicle (Bull: 2007, p.52). Thus, similarly to the desired solitude of the car, the street mandates the same isolation as ‘solitariness and the daily movement of people through the city are two dominant hallmarks of contemporary urban experience’ (Bull: 2007, p.5). The iPod itself has colonized the interior space of the vehicle, drawing listeners with allure of its variety (Bull: 2007, p137). Though Bull isolates the technologies of ‘the automobile, the iPod and the mobile phone’ as those central to our negotiation of modernity (Bull: 2007, p.52), it can be demonstrated that the iPod is heir to the listening practices of the automobile.

Hosokawa defines ‘musica mobilis’ as ‘music whose source voluntarily or involuntarily moves from one point to another, coordinated by the corporal transportation of the source owner(s)’ (Hosokawa: 2012, p.106). Its history is encompassed in four factors. First, music becomes noise in the city. Second, street musicians provided the initial inspiration to musically accompanied urbanity (Hosokawa: 2012, p.106). Third, others in the city with radios, for example a passing car stereo, suggest the plausibility of mobile mediation. And,

finally there is the Walkman listener, who is found in the world of listening to music alone. This listener seems to cut the auditory contact with the outer world where he really lives: seeking the perfection of his ‘individual ‘ zone of listening, he is the minimum, mobile and intelligent unit for music listening (Hosokawa: 2012, p.106).

Much like the motorist, the mobile device listener becomes autonomous, ‘allowing for the construction and deconstruction of meaning of their environment’ (Hosokawa: 2012, p. 108). Where Hosokawa’s criteria is intended to outline the mobile-on-foot listener, its striking parallel, intent, and influence (evidenced by his third criterion) to the practices of car audio-specific private listening can be read as a pivot point of listening practices.

Like the use of an auto(audio)mobile, the door of ones house may lead to new sonic realms (Thibaud: 2003, p.332) meanwhile maintaining sonic continuity across an urban land and soundscape: ‘listening with headphones establishes a ‘sonic bridge’ between domestic and public spaces’ (Thibaud: 2003, p.333).[iii]

iPod users have consistently emphasized in qualitative studies that the iPod creates a sense of filmic unreality, suggestive of a soundtrack to a movie (Bull: 2010, p.59). Interaction within this film, framed by sound, ‘is part of a process of derealization of urban space that depends on the technical mediation of spatio-phonic behaviors’ (Thibaud: 2003, p.330). Though the purpose of recording technology was indeed to ‘capture, transcribe, and store audio events,’ instead current recording techniques ‘manufacture… clever studio manipulations and various technological artifice’ evidencing the fact that ‘technically speaking, digital recordings are not records’ (Gunkel: 2007). Instead they are constructions of reality in which the notion of fidelity, consistently and historically associated with the purpose of exact reproduction, gives way to a manufactured sort of reality.

Though the exact narrative of these filmic associations varies, typically the listener takes center stage as the primary actor within their reconstructed urbanity (Bull: 2007, p.45, p.49). – as we know, mass media is the means by which we construct the world around us; the medium simply effects the conditions by which it is perceived (Luhmann: 2000, p.1). The world is then accordingly perceived through the listener’s own mediate lens, rendering all else a fantasy, as Bull says, negating the ‘otherness of the world in its various guises’ (Bull: 2007, p.49). The mediation of the iPod in turn obscures reality through its redirection of attention and collapse of the urbanized space (Condella: 2008, p.89).

The portable device, be it iPod or Walkman,[iv] reveals within this urbanized space, first the emphasis on sound that is lost in the urban realm, sounds relation to social practices in its adaptability to a particular scenario, and the public secret of the device itself (Thibaud: 2003, p.331). As Dumitrica states, ‘when it comes to iPods, identity, and lifestyles, these lines of division are less drastic’ than those otherwise socially imposed. Sound’s presence in the urban realm, and adaptability, are best explained through function and methodology.

First, where mechanical sound reproduction forged one form of social identity (Douglas 2004, p.35), the iPod mobile digital device is an iconic expression of the digital age… and the ability people have to assume their own sense of self against those presented to them in our global world (Hickey: 2008, p.115).

Adorno’s suspicion of identity being forged against consumer commodities withheld and notwithstanding (Adorno: 1982, p.48), the fetishism of cultural product continues even further in constructions of identity and public demonstrations of sound: ‘social memory is filled with identities which are constantly being renewed in this way’ (Luhmann: 2000, p.37).


The iPod, as a most prominently recognized brand, constitutes a formidable presence in daily life and is now synonymous with those that use it (Hickey: 2008, p.120, p.118). For those that use it, it creates a sonic space for individual expression (Hickey: 2008, p.122). The variety factor inherent to the iPod’s operation in fact operates to facilitate the construction of new identity (Hickey: 2008, p.131), much as the random play of the radio offered the audiences of the 1930s.

The expression of identity, as with any modern cultural product, can be augmented with physical ornamentation (Dumitrica: 2008, p.133), a method of ensuring the presence of sound remains uniquely visible in the urban realm (Hosokawa: 2012, p106). Just as we can customize the iPod, ‘our iPods are the material technologies enabling us to self-customize ourselves’ (Dumitrica: 2008, p.133). Dumitrica does however counterbalance this over-optimism by stating the reality of this self-customization is ultimately rooted in the entertainment industry’s propagation of image (Dumitrica: 2008, p.137).

Accordingly, the notable physical appearance of an iPod, or its distinctive accessories personalized to the user’s choice, informs those around of your conscious withdrawal from social interaction (Bull: 2007, p.58). The iPod effectively silences the voices of those around you, preventing mandated reciprocation to the ‘unreliable’ populous (Pitt: 2008, p.161; Slade: 2012, p.28).

The iPod user exists within a self-defined sonic space, and through this space creates an identity within this aural world (Bull: 2010, p.56). The listener, on the cognitive level, replaces the sounds of modernity with the louder sounds emanating from the headphones of the iPod (Bull: 2010, p. 58); a conjoined emotional masking through the content of the sound, achieved through use of the materialism of sound. The sounds of the street are deflected in favor of the sound of music (Bull: 2010, p.58). This social process reflects the technological process which accomplishes it, much like the social processes of automobile listening reflect the function of the technology: ease of transport through modernity. A function again reflected in the means of mediation.

The Means of Production, Agoraphobia, Consumption, and Conclusions

Mp3 files utilize perceptual coding to shrink the size of the data file by ‘masking some frequencies… [rendering them] more or less imperceptible by competing sounds’ (Katz: 2010, p.179). The assumption behind this process is that human hearing will disregard the abstracted data anyway, thus dictating allowance for a more adaptable file (Sterne: 2006, p.833). In this sense, we see a diminishment of the ‘liveness’ once cherished of privatized listeners. iPod users, by comparison, ‘culturally code’ their environment in much the same fashion.

Like the radio’s disembodied enchantment to a mediated world, iTunes presents the listener with access to the means to mediate existence in a not dissimilar, disassociated fashion. As noted of the radio, Slade’s system trust, contextually rooted in the reliability of the radio, too extends to the practices of iTunes, though with deeper cultural resonations (Slade: 2012, p.192).

First, where the radio became a private site for the enjoyment of music, iTunes, like the online services that influenced its development, is disassociated and involves no participation with another human being. This of course falls into the general trend of agoraphobia in urbanity emphasized through the course of this paper (Slade: 2012, p22). Second, because of the small file size of the Mp3, it is well adapted for quick transfer across the Internet (Katz: 2010, p.179).[v] Due to its transferability, the Mp3 file could be adapted for use in satellite radio, the potential for which actually instigated further research in perceptual coding (Sterne: 2012, p.129). However the medium also adapted itself to massive file-sharing networks. Consequently, and in a similar way to music broadcast over radio (as opposed to heard via the record player), music underwent a metamorphosis from a material to immaterial commodity (Sterne: 2012, p.184).

Despite initial market reluctance, peer-to-peer sharing websites instigated the adoption of the medium, the most influential of which, Napster, was shut down in 2001 for transgressions of copyright law (Katz: 2010, p.181). Evidencing Slade’s systemic trust, Apple’s iTunes service, also launched in 2003 by legally acquiring the rights to sell music from ‘majors,’ therefore did what Napster had not (Mjøs: 2012, p.84):

Napster and later Apple Computers realized the change in the ground that completely changed the dissemination of recorded music. Napster did it in violation of copyright laws, which resulted in its legal problems, whereas Apple through iTunes did it legally and as a result flourished (Logan: 2010, p.177).

Furthermore, iTunes uses Advanced Audio Coding -formatted songs (AAC) which cannot be played on a conventional Mp3 player, thus, like radio that offered little alternative, ‘the Apple model not only guaranteed repeat customers; it simultaneously solved the dilemma posed by Amazon’s shipping time’ (Slade: 2012, p.13). Despite the fact that Advanced Audio Coding (denoted by the .m4a or .mp4 file protocol) grants higher definition at lower bitrates (Sterne: 2012, p.226), the widespread use of the Mp3 medium prior to iTunes relegated compression a circumstance of portability; Katz calls this disregard for quality over portability as, ‘post-fidelity’ (Katz: 2010, p.217, p.219).

The connection between car audio culture and iPod culture, as well as an explanation for Katz’s post-fidelity (the alterations to recording and mastering techniques since the dawn of radio and its cultural acceptance), is explained through a fictitious anecdote describing the day of the typical iPod user:

Imagine an American university student on the day before spring vacation. On leaving his last class of the day, he inserts the cheap plastic earbuds that came with his MP3 player and listens to some tunes as hurries across campus. Along the way, he also hears the bell tower chiming the hour, the chattering of passerby, and the shouted greetings of equally semi-deafened friends. He arrives at his room, extracts his earbuds and turns on his computer to finish a final assignment before heading to the airport. Bobbing his head to the music that issues from his computer’s feeble speakers, he quickly pecks out the conclusion of the paper. After shooting the assignment through the ether to his professor, he powers down the computer and dashes out the door, luggage in hand. He jumps in the waiting car of a friend and they zip to the airport. A favorite song comes on the radio, and over the road and wind noise generated by the jalopy, he yells to his friend to turn it up. Once at the airport, he grabs a bite at a fast-food restaurant, barely noticing the latest pop hits floating down from the overhead speakers. Now safely in his seat on the airplane, he pulls out his MP3 player and resumes his tunes while flipping through a magazine, though this time he ratchets the volume even higher to battle the incessant engine noise. A few hours later he collapses into his parents’ car, unsure of which he wants to hear less: the incessant questions about his life or the hopelessly uncool music on the stereo (Katz 2010, p.217).

Katz goes on to say that,

At no time did our subject listen to music with his undivided attention. At no time did he hear music in an even remotely quiet environment. At no time did he hear music played through speakers or headphones of anything but the lowest quality. And at no time did any of this trouble the young man. It is fair to say that a great deal of recorded music today is heard under similarly comprised conditions, and that many of those hearing music in this way neither notice nor care (Katz 2010, p.217).

Katz’s post-fidelity is rooted in the above anecdote. Modern listeners use of privatized listening serves the purpose of mediation and mobility, with fidelity becoming, due to technological and economic constraint, a necessary compromise (Sterne: 2006, p.835). This suggests that the distracted listening practices prominent in early radio and car radio listening, like all distracted listening practices now mandated by urban sensory overload, have carried on through to today’s iPod culture (Goodman: 2010, p.15). As we have seen, an emphasis on sound in the urban, as outlined by Hosokawa (2012, pp. 106-108) suggests private music consumption modulates across history This open secret becomes revealed through the volume of left-on radios (Goodman: 2010, p.21), the physical presence of an automobile, or the personalized iPod emblematic of the personalized soundscape the listener inhabits. Bull says of iPod culture’s privatized practices,

these cognitive strategies of control and separation, together with the structural constraints of urban life, are filtered through a range of cultural expectations and responses – the desire for space, the desire to control one’s own environment and the desire to control and manage one’s own cognition (Bull: 2007, p.51).

The desire to manage one’s own cognitions, in accordance with Logan’s extended ‘new media’ is evidently an alteration to the listening paradigm instigated by new media’s emphasis on interactivity (Logan: 2010, p.4); indeed,

with the iPod, nothing is new and yet everything is new. It’s an iconic site where high quality digital sound enabled by smarter file formats; high speed connectivity through the Internet; and personal, customizable music on-the-go coverage, and so for us it is the perfect place to think about how and why people come together or remain alone (Kraulingfreks et al: 2008, p.168).

Though the medium or venue of the privatized listener has changed, and the means by which mediation is accomplished is likewise in flux, both the iPod, and the car audio listening practices that serve as social precedent, reflect social change in their adaptability to rapidly urbanizing modernity and solidarity in Hosokawa’s proposed criteria of mobile listening practices: like the iPod’s own pseudo-newness, ‘the idea of a soundscape is not new… the ability to choose what one listens to and shut everything else out of aural reach… has a long history’ (Kraulingfreks et al. 2008: p.168).


[i] Logan subdivides McLuhans three communication phases oral, literate, and electric, into five categories (Logan: 2010, p28). His distinction lies in a subdivision of the electric and digital ages (Logan: 2010, p29).

[ii] Where Adorno links this sort of susceptibility directly to radio’s content, and in purpose to advertising (Adorno: 1982, p47), contemporary critics of the time worried of the listener’s susceptibility to propaganda (Goodman: 2010, p26). The opposition within these seemingly symbiotic readings is made more distinct when we consider the former is in spite of capitalism, where the latter praises its maintenance.

[iii] Unlike the Walkman, the variety and ‘shuffle’ feature of the iPod results in it very rarely being turned off. This is according to qualitative studies (Bull: 2007, p.127).

[iv] The Walkman was introduced by Sony in 1980 (Hosokawa: 2012, p.104). Since functionally replacing the older device, the iPod has sold over 100 million units since introduction in 2001 (Bull: 2007, p1). Sterne notes that ‘with over 5.3 billion mobile phones now in use’ the ‘power to reproduce sound [which] used to belong to the gods’ according to Attali, ‘now belongs to most of humanity’ (Sterne: 2012b, p.1) He asserts that ‘hearing immerses its subject… hearing is a sense that immerses us in the world… hearing involves physical contact with the outside world… hearing places you inside an event… hearing is about affect’ (Sterne: 2012b, p.9).

[v] MP3 stands for Motion Picture Experts Group I, Layer 3 (Katz: 2010, p.178). Its original purpose was use with film soundtracks; thus like the phonograph was not designed for its subsequent purpose (Katz: 2010, p.179). As Katz explains, ‘compression is necessarily a compromise because it requires the removal of data, a loss that could affect the listening experience. The sound quality of an MP3 file depends on the bit rate – the average number of bits (1s or 0s in binary code) used to represent one second of sound. For MP3s, a rate of 128 kilobits (128,000 bits) or higher produces near CD-quality sound but generates only about one-twelfth the amount of data as a CD. Lower bit rates produce lower-quality sound’ (Katz: 2010, p.179).


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