Breaking the sound barrier: Community use of the iPod within a shared space

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  • In his book Sounding Out The City, Michael Bull (2000) determined a typology of personal-stereo use for individuals. He determined there are 11 possible strategies employed whenever a personal-stereo user negotiates urban space. These strategies, however, are focused on the individual use of personal stereos, a focus that privileges an assumed comprehension of the term “personal stereo” as belonging to and being used by one person. As personal stereos become more technologically advanced, this assumption of a user profile composed of a 1:1 ratio of personal stereo to user privileges a singular view point, that of the individual. The technological advancements embodied by the iPod inculcate the possibility of different yet equally important user profiles. Unlike its Walkman forefather of the 1980s, the iPod carries with it the physical capacity to extend or morph into other forms. Speaker docks are a popular method for extending or “adding on to” the original form of the iPod so that it enlarges its reach and extends into spaces considered previously inaccessible (Boradkar, 2005). This negotiated physical form of the iPod forefronts the physical independence of the technology by removing the necessity for headphones to be used in order to engage with the technology. This disengagement rationalizes the hypothesis for a ratio of 1:x of personal stereo to user, with x representing multiple individuals comprising a collective or community. Disengaging from the privatizing construct of headphones in favor of the public construct of speakers also allows for the hypothesis that the iPod can achieve resident rather traveler status within a specific space. The use of speakers provides the means for the iPod to enlarge its environment, and it can be seen to do this by shifting mobility to the transmitted content and by locating space not only to all implicated in that act of transmission but also to the environment in which the technology is statically located. What these two hypotheses achieve together is a perspective that the iPod as a personal stereo need not be entangled solely with an individual’s negotiation of private space through physical engagement with the technology. Rather its achievement as a personal stereo can be seen as endorsing the expansion in form, embracing the potential in multiple user profiles, and promoting evolutions in spatial mappings. Extending the personal stereo in form of use (speaker dock) and localizing it to a specific environment (shared space) opens up the typology of personal-stereo use determined by Bull for further investigation and verification from the perspective of community use. This study was guided towards documenting this opening by the following research question: • can the defined typology regarding the individual use of personal stereos to negotiate urban space be extended to the community use of the iPod in a shared space? Two paper-based questionnaires were constructed primarily based on Bull’s typology of personal-stereo use. These questionnaires collected quantitative and qualitative data. Response choices contained a mixture of closed-ended questions (e.g. yes/no questions, multiple choice, scaled questions) and contingency questions (e.g. a question is answered only if a particular response is provided for a previous question). A few of these questions were followed-up with open-ended or unstructured questions (e.g. why/why not). Each completed questionnaire was manually entered into SurveyMonkey by the researcher to enable the digital tabulation of descriptive results. Sixteen people from Ahava Day Spa participated in this study. The grouping was a mixture of staff and returning clients. The overall sample was almost exclusively female (13 versus three males), with the staff sample exclusively female (five). Overall, the exploration was successful in its intent of extending Bull’s person-stereo use typology to the exploration of the community use of an iPod in shared spaces. Participants responded that the use of an iPod to play music at Ahava Day Spa had no influence on their decision to enter the environment but that its use was appropriate and even expected in defining the environment separately from other spaces nearby. The aural experience created through the iPod produced a community soundscape that established a spatial familiarity and an emotional and sonic aesthetic. This study provided valuable information on the importance of familiarity and boundaries in respect to the shared space and the significance of suitable emotional and sonic qualities in respect to the music being played by the iPod. Participants responded that the iPod functions positively as a symbolic form in establishing a physical environment separate from others nearby and in establishing an identity for that environment within the defined spatial boundaries. It does this through the broadcasting of music throughout the environment, a mediating activity that establishes familiar auditory boundaries that also function to control the flow of unwanted sounds and noises into the space. By controlling the flow of sound from outside the established environment through its mediation of the aural experience within the environment, the iPod creates a sound or sonic bubble zone that is the Ahava Day Spa Within this bubble zone, participants express their particularities about the personalization and aesthetic of the music being played. Participants identified emotional and sonic qualities that are expected to be present within the music. These expectations were present in the majority of the responses, demonstrating the existence of a like-mindedness among the participants. They are not interested in the individual personalization of the music but rather, desire a community personalization of the music. Additionally, this community personalization is to be expressed aesthetically in the form of background or mood music. This type of music is considered to be suitable for making the environment comfortable and relaxing as it allows people to hear the music without actually having to listen to it. Not being required to listen to the music in order to make sense of it likely factored into participants responding that identifying with the music was not important. They had no obvious need to create their own sense of narrative within the space; participants were in favor of connecting to the environment through the music rather than using it to disconnect from the environment. This connection aided them in managing their moods and in mediating their interpersonal interconnections. Not all strategies, however, proved to be as applicable as others to this shared space. Participants were rather indifferent to the iPod and its music playing a role in the management of their personal time or in activating physical action. In terms of stimulating physical action, the consideration of mental and emotional stimulation seemed more of an appropriate explanation in the context of this shared space. As an MP3 player, the iPod is called upon daily (actively and passively) to map our spatial and auditory boundaries as we go about negotiating urban life and public space, whether or not we are consciously aware of its activity. It is in how these mappings may be constructed and understood via the iPod that the concepts of public and private spaces collapse into themselves and render different and possibly unexpected communicative and symbolic processes within each individual and community circumstance. This study is a small step towards understanding these processes at the intersection of personal audio technology, music, space and users. More importantly though, it is a step towards breaking the sound barrier that personal stereos are solely individual constructs intended for private use by shedding light on the construction, apprehension, and use of the iPod as a model of communication in a community of like-minded individuals within a shared space.

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    Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 International