Friday, April 30, 2010

The Liveness of Desire

Written by Ann Ford, Karynn Ikeda, Sophie Savryn

The iPod is an object of desire: a personal device, a fetish object, essential for the music consumer. Users desire the iPod and its promise of mobility and freedom, but the iPod is also a vessel through which they can then express future desires. Desire begins as a force outside of the user that he or she plugs into but is then reworked through the user's interaction with it. According to Tara McPherson in her article "Reload: Liveness, Mobility and the Web", the modality of volitional mobility is used to describe that desire plays an active role in navigating the Web. Mobility is a key aspect linking the iPod to the Web. Yet, the iPod complicates the modality of scan-and-search by holding onto the older modality of flow. The iPod's disjuncture of space and time separates it from the web.

The web is different than that of television primarily through the difference in navigation. McPherson differentiates between “flow” and the “scan-and-search” as two modalities of experiencing media. Flow is the feeling that one freely coasts through one's interaction with media objects. McPherson illustrates the concept of “flow” through the experience of watching television. We immerse ourselves in a television program that constitutes a continuous and unified trajectory. The “scan-and-search,” alternately, exposes Web users to different segments of data simultaneously, and thus they employ a scan-and-search method of viewing so as not to miss anything. McPherson states: “This is not just channel-surfing: it feels like we’re wedding space and time, linking research and entertainment into similar patterns of mobility” (204). Unlike TV, in which the choice to change the channel is the extent of one's ability to navigate the medium, the modalities of the Web allow for the manipulation of space and time, amplifying the effect of the user's desire on one's experience.

The iPod, like the Web, has disrupted the experience of “flow,” a modality that resembles listening to music on the CD player or the walkman. Prior to the iPod, one primarily listened to a cohesive album that constituted a musical narrative. The navigation of the iPod depends upon the modality of volitional mobility, in that the user must choose music and navigate through one's library to construct a personalized listening experience. Additionally, the Shuffle feature on the iPod, which randomly selects the next song from the user's music library, enables one to listen to an eternal mix tape, again resisting the traditional coherent narrative of the album. Instead, users listen to individual songs similar to the way in which they see individual web segments, allowing for a scan-and-search method of spanning countless genres and periods of music. Ultimately the experience of listening to the iPod depends upon a mobility of the user through the iTunes library, desire prompting action.

However, the iPod also incorporates an experience of flow into scan-and-search that makes it unique from both the Web and television. Similar to the flow modality associated with TV, simultaneity is not possible with the iPod; one can only listen to a single song at a time, similar to the division of channels on a television. The agency essential to the Web is reduced in the iPod. A common thread between TV and the Web is the desire to not miss information. Yet, the iPod resists the anxiety inherent in both the scan-and-search modality and the flow modality with respect to missing: "Whereas this fear of missing something in the realm of television may cause the user to stay tuned to one channel, not to miss a narrative turn, this fear of missing in the Web propels us elsewhere, on to the next chunk" (204). One's music exists permanently in the archive of the iTunes library and then downloaded into the iPod itself, therefore the desire to navigate through the iPod is not based on anxiety. The songs cannot be missed because they are already embedded within the iPod's hard drive. The desire to navigate, then, exists free of anxiety. Thus, the mobility that creates the sense of "liveness" in the iPod is attributed to the immediate desire of the user to listen to music whenever and wherever, rather than the object itself embodying "liveness", such as live broadcasts on TV or the instant updates of the Web.

The iPod further demonstrates a schism from McPherson's description of liveness by countering her point that the user is “wedding space and time,” with the Web. Physically, the media object takes up such little space yet manages to hold within itself so much time: hours upon hours of music fit into a very tiny nano or iPod shuffle. This small size enables mobility, creating the wherever of the iPod. The whenever of the iPod is structured a little differently. The act of "plugging in" to the iPod expresses a desire to dissociate space from time, willing one separate from the other: one hopes to mentally escape the physical space one is in, or to pass time when it seems to linger. Both scenarios disengage the user from the now: the current space or the current time. To listen to the iPod whenever means that one must sacrifice the time of present when this when occurs. The volitional mobility that accounts for the "wedding" of space and time on the Web instead divorces the two in the iPod. Though the Web and TV stress that "liveness" corresponds to real time, the iPod's liveness allows one to move through real time by fracturing it.

Through volitional mobility, the iPod becomes the ultimate expression of the user's desire. Desire prompts our navigation from song to song, but unlike television and the Web, this desire to act is not motivated by a fear that the user will miss the next thing. The iPod distinguishes itself from its parent media, TV and the Web, in that its mobility, which contributes to its "liveness", is not based on how one navigates the device, but rather depends upon the user's desire to be mobile. This desire to move away from the parent media is both in the physical device - to use it the listener must be away from the computer - and in the theory - moving away from flow and scan-and-search to carve out its own modality: a volitional liveness that allows navigation to transcend the device itself, swapping real time for iPod time and escaping space through the iPod.

Tara McPherson, “Reload: Liveness, Mobility and the Web,” The Visual Culture Reader, 2nd Edition, Ed. Nicholas Mirzoeff (New York: Routledge, 2002), 458-470.

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