Saturday, May 26, 2012

Sharing Alone

Growing up, music was a way to share yourself with others.  That moment when your favorite song came on the radio was an unexpected gift. If you saw someone else get excited by the same song, it was a moment of magic.

With the advent of cassette tapes, much energy was put into capturing tunes from records or radio, and meticulous attention put into mix tapes. Where there is magic, there is always a human drive to capture it and harness it and share it and be the magician. That is what we do, and how we shape the world around us.

There were few things more liberating than a drive with friends with the perfect mix tape blaring. After the randomness of radio, the freedom of setting the soundtrack for your own life was a new kind of magic, made more so because you were sharing that life with those you cared about.

Things began to change with the Walkman. The magic became personal, and part of who are.  Your own private soundtrack followed you wherever you went. You were never without that extra emotional dimension. As much energy went into deciding what tapes to take with you for the day/weekend as went into deciding what clothes to wear or where to meet your friends.

The sight of someone walking with those iconic headphones became common, and we all knew that they were in a happy personal place. Very occasionally, you'd hear some bleed through or someone would share their headphones, and it felt like an intimate view into a private place.

The boom box was brief detour into again public sharing of music, but the socially indiscriminate nature of it made it a fleeting thing. It is one thing to share music you love with friends, it is yet another to have some idiot you don't know blasting distorted tunes you don't care for.

The CD Walkman was a gift the tech gods delivered from the top of Mt Fuji. How could all that magic fit into something so small and so light?  It heralded the ever so brief revival of the Album as the unit of music consumption, and a brief return to the artist being the curator of the experience, but it was an evolutionary dead end.

The iPod then changed everything again. All your music, always with you, in whatever order you want, just for you. iTunes and Napster liberated you from your friends, radio, or the music store to score your tunes. Like the kings of old, if you saw something you liked, you just reached out and took it for your own. 

iTunes and Napster also made the album irrelevant again. All that mattered was your music, your songs, and your mood. The soundtrack of your life was now a realtime mix, limited only by the depth of your library, and your skill in wielding it. White ear buds were the new talisman, invoking the power of the new gods from Cupertino.

Even though the iPod was intrinsically opaque to the world around you, everyone wanted one, and envied those that had one already. Once they started to become ubiquitous, there was an unusual importance given to your choice of iPod style and color. Did you have one of the big ones with 60GB, or one of the cool Nano's? Neat, I love the red ones! What cause are they for again?

The emergence of the iPhone took much of that away. The magic of the iPhone is that this plain piece of glass becomes anything you want it to be. Having one was/is an expression of profound self-empowerment. However, once everyone has one, how do you express to others who you are? How can they infer the secrets hidden in the soundtrack of you or your TXT stream?  

The explosion of designer headphones (Bob Marley headphones made of sustainable leather and FSC certified beech wood?  Really?) is a symptom of the much broader need to share who you are, not just be empowered to express who you are. The ubiquitousness and perfect abstractness of the iPhone have removed its power as a talisman. What will be the new talisman for the physical world that can match the power of what's happening in the social and mobile worlds?

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