Before leaving for Thanksgiving vacation with family in Colorado I made a trip to the computer store. I wanted extra storage space for my digital pictures. On a whim I decided to spend a bit more money and buy an iPod. This decision went against my recent ‘less pocket crap’ philosophy. Over the years I’ve owned a Minidisk player, a Palm Pilot and a half dozen pocket sized digital cameras. In each case I became exasperated with all of the cords, charges and docking stations. I succumbed to the iPod because of its elegance. Four buttons. One cord.
Before leaving for the Rocky Mountains (dial-up country), I downloaded a bunch of music and podcasts. I gave myself over to the new toy. Here are my reactions. First, I can hear the collective ‘duh’ when I say the iPod is great for music. More specifically, it is great for sound. I’m a big fan of audiobooks. I downloaded all seven CD’s of the current book I’m listening to – Larry Watson’s Orchard. It is a treat to have the whole thing in one small place.
My feelings about the podcasts are a bit more mixed. First let me say what I like. Unlike a web browser, the iPod is good at ‘containing’ information. When I look at podcasts on a browser, I never feel like I’m fully present. A momentary curiosity will have me checking email, news, and so on. Because everything on the web is linked, I feel like nothing is contained. By downloading it on my iPod, I’m a little less distracted.
With the iPod I was able to watch every Magnum in Motion podcast. I’d seen a handful before but always became web-distracted. But seeing these programs on the iPod brought up some other problems. First, the image is ridiculously small. Most of the Magnum images were too rich and complex for the tiny screen (The exception was Thomas Dworzak’s ‘7/7 The Longest Week‘ which seemed to have been shot for the iPod). My second problem was with the brevity of the programs. On the web all you want is a little teaser. It is all you have time for. But with the containment of the iPod I wanted a fuller experience. The Magnum programs were too short. I searched the web looking for video and slideshow podcasts that would give me a more complete artistic experience; I looked for programs that could immerse me in their small-screen world. My search was unsuccessful.
Of course the era of the podcast is still quite young. So perhaps great artistry will emerge. But this is where I really get frustrated. I don’t think it has time to emerge. Next year the iPod will have a bigger screen. The year after that it will have a web browser. And the year after that it will be obsolete as some new unforeseen technology takes over. The medium only has time to be a toy. It never has time to mature into a tool.
This is the same problem I have with digital photography. The potential is always remarkable. But the medium never settles. Each year there is a better camera to buy and new software to download. The user never has time to become comfortable with the tool. Consequently too much of the work is merely about the technology. The HDR and QTVR fads are good examples. Instead of focusing on the subject, users obsess over RAW conversion, Photoshop plug-ins, and on and on. For good work to develop the technology needs to become as stable and functional as a typewriter.
After hours spent playing with my new iPod, I set it aside to read a book. While I thought the iPod was elegant, nothing beats the book. No downloading. No batteries. No cords. No ads. No links. No distractions. The format is so elegant that it becomes transparent. It is the perfect container for art.