Year: 2006

Author: Rebecca Payne

Type: Undergraduate coursework, University of Birmingham, UK.

Availability: in full, below.

Full reference: Payne, R. (2006) iPod. followthethings.com (www.followthethings.com/iPod.shtml last accessed <insert date here>)


I’m in the second row from the back of the computer cluster in the uni library. Sitting at a screen, tapping away like the other 34 people in the room. But, thanks to my Apple iPod, I have created my own sonic bubble in which to hide. The instrumental Icelandic overtures of Sigur Ros pulsate through my head, the soft beats rippling from ear to ear, down through my spine and through my limbs, the rhythms dictating the tap of my foot, the speed of my fingers, my mood, my whole psyche, what you’re reading now.1 This innocent looking white and chrome contraption has me in its grips. As the Apple slogan goes, ‘iPod therefore I am’.2

This morning I unplugged my little white friend from his nightly recharge where his internal Sony lithium battery had spent the night sucking the juice from the national grid. I removed him from his cosy plastic dock and inserted the long white headphones deep into my ears and let the powerful vocal harmonising and amplified funk beats of Jurassic Five provide the upbeat soundtrack to inspire my legs to get going for my morning run. As I ran I was transported back in time to the night I saw J5 live. I smiled. Then a pang of guilt hit me. I had copied the J5 CD from a friend so is listening pleasure illegal? Am I eroding the music industry? I then let the shuffle setting randomly select some of the 2459 songs I have installed and let the various rhythms and melodies determine the speed I moved and where my mind wanders. We have been travelling together on powerful musical adventures for 6 months now but I’ve just realised I have never even asked where he comes from!

My little white friend openly tells me that he was designed by Apple in California and assembled in China but is less forthcoming about the origins of his hidden components, let alone how many other people’s lives he has touched. His sleek exterior doesn’t give much away.3 He’s now trying to get me off track by transmitting the smooth grooves of Morcheeba. I’m gone. Somewhere calm. I let the sultry vocals of Skye Edwards and the symphonic strings wash over me. But how did I get here?

Morcheeba recorded. Sire label paid. HMV bought. I bought. Inserted into laptop. Installed onto iTunes software. Connected iPod via USB connection. Data transferred through Sharp Electronics Flash memory chip and PortalPlayer controller chip designed by 134 designers in Silicon Valley; through Texas Instruments 1394 FireWire interface onto the Toshiba 1.8 inch hard drive. Connected headphones. Listen. Now I’m somewhere calm.

Yes, Apple sources the 20GB hard drive from Toshiba (Allen 2005). But Toshiba gets them from SAE Magnetics. They have a plant in Dongguan, China. Here, there are reports that the predominantly female, rural assembly workers are forced to work 16 hour days to make the heart of my little white friend. Wages are low and supervisors brutal (Frew McMillan 2002).

Can I still be calm? Turns out that me and my little white friend are not so independent, individual and innocent as I thought. I can’t hide in my sonic bubble any more. I can only feel so separate because I’m so connected. So implicated. iPod therefore I am…4


1 My emotions have been made portable (Chow 1997) as my iPod has become a prosthetic extension of my body (Chambers 1997). Donna Haraway (1991) might call me a cyborg, a cybernetic hybrid of flesh and machine. Technology has allowed me to create my own personal soundtrack to this otherwise public space. The melodies and rhythms created far away are affecting the wat my mind and body function. The sounds flowing into my ears are being processed by my brain, and determining how my fingers tap the keys. The mood produced has influenced what you are reading now. I am caught up in the human and machine network, embedded in a complex web of information.

2 Apple have appropriated Descartes’ declaration ‘I think therefore I am’ to sell their product as the essential companion to the discerning individual. Kunzru (1997) criticises Descartes for downplaying the importance of networks and interactions in forming individuals and how they understand their place in the world. Perhaps he would also criticise the image of individualism that Apple has created and rather interrogate the connections that iPods and their owners have with whole production and consumption processes.

3 Apple has designed the iPod to appear very simple and clean. Sanitized. Daniel Miller (2003) talks about the fetishism of commodities and how consumers tend to ignore the origins of their goods. Image is all important but scratch the shiny surface and the complex power-ridden exploitation that is materially produced by global capitalism (Law & Hetherington 2000) begins to reveal itself.

4 Tracing linkages between objects, their components, information and people reveals the relational effects that acts of consumption produce (Law & Hetherington 2000). Consumers are implicated in the complicated and exploitative histories of their things (Haraway 1991). By conceptualising humans as cyborgs it becomes possible to go beyond individualism to see how people and machines are intrinsically connected in producing meaning and effecting other nodes in complex global networks (Kunzru 1997). We begin to interrogate power relations and take responsibility for the priviliges of consumption.

References & further reading

Allen, C. (2005) iPod Super. Command tab (www.command-tab.com/2005/03/13/ipod-super/ last accessed 16 February 2011)

Chambers, I. (1997) A miniature history of the walkman. in Du Gay, P, Hall, S., Jones, L., MacKay, H. & Negus, K. Doing cultural studies: the story of the Sony Walkman. Sage: London, 141-3

Chow, R. (1997) Listening otherwise, music miniaturised: a different type of question about revolution. in Du Gay, P, Hall, S., Jones, L., MacKay, H. & Negus, K. Doing cultural studies: the story of the Sony Walkman. Sage: London, 135-140

Frew McMillan, A. (2002) Dongguan joins China’s assembly line. CNN.com/Business 28 November (http://edition.cnn.com/2002/BUSINESS/asia/11/28/china.dongguan/ last accessed 16 February 2011)

Haraway, D. (1991) A cyborg manifesto: science, technology and socialist-feminism in the late twentieth century. in her Simians, cyborgs and women: the reinvention of nature. New York: Routledge, 149-181 (www.stanford.edu/dept/HPS/Haraway/CyborgManifesto.html last accessed 16 February 2011)

Kunzru, H. (1997) You are cyborg: for Donna Haraway, we are already assimilated. Wired February (www.wired.com/wired/archive/5.02/ffharaway_pr.html last accessed 16 February 2011)

Law, J. & Hetherington, K. (2000) Materialities, spatialities, globalities. in Bryson, J., Daniels, P., Henry, N. & Pollard, J. (eds) Knowledge, space, economy. London: Routledge, 34-49

Ngai Pun (2005) Made in China: women factory workers in a global marketplace. Durham: Duke University Press.

Published in

Cook, I., Evans, J., Griffiths, H., Mayblin, L., Payne, R. & Roberts, D. (2007). ‘Made In… ?’ Appreciating the Everyday Geographies of Connected Lives? Teaching Geography (Summer), 80-83. (www.youngpeoplesgeographies.co.uk/download/YPG_TGSum07Cook.pdf last accessed 16 January 2011)

Picture credit

iTopic (2009) iPod Classic (2). Flickr Creative Commons 31 May (www.flickr.com/photos/itopic/3581718540/in/photostream/ last accessed 11 May 2011)

Posted by Ian Cook et al (last updated May 2011). Page created as coursework for the ‘Geographies of material culture’ module at Birmingham University. Reproduced with permission of the author. Photo used under Creative Commons license.