iPublic Interfaces

Nina Gram

As the iPod user moves through the city his experience of urban space is a technologically mediated experience. He can use the iPod to make the tedious urban commute more entertaining and captivating, or he can simply create a listening space in which time seems to pass a bit faster. This musical management can be understood as a way of controlling personal moods, bodily energy levels and the experience of public space. As such the iPod user often has an agenda when adding a private soundtrack to his experience of a public urban space:

‘Nola’: Let’s say that I have a broken heart. That’s classic. […] Then you can have this empty feeling […] And you can enhance that feeling and perhaps give it meaning for instance by listening to depressing music. And in that way you can have a sort of cleansing moment. […] That’s amazing!

 ‘Mikkel’: And if I’m going out for a run […] then I listen to something quite aggressive […] It’s impossible to run to something introvert like Bruce Springsteen’s acoustic stuff. You have to pay attention to the details and that’s not possible when your pulse is racing. […] But music that just goes on and on is best for me when I’m running. [1]

When focusing on this controlling element of the iPod the notion of public interface becomes interesting. In the quotes above the listener takes control over his experience in public space by managing it through an interface, namely the iPod. If for instance the listener finds himself in a noisy or stressful situation he can turn to his iPod and choose a specific playlist with loud music that he created for situations like this one. Or if he needs to relax after a hard day at work he knows exactly where on his iPod he can find this auditory relieve. As such the iPod and other mobile MP3 players provide different possibilities for control. This controlling quality is mentioned in most research within the field. One example is Iain Chambers’ “A miniature history of the Walkman”, in which the mobile music player is described as a product for domestication of the public sphere (141ff.).

However, it should be mentioned that the iPod listener does not have complete control as the affordances (cf. Gibson) of the product and of connected products such as iTunes to some extend determine how one can interact with and use the product.

When controlling ones personal experience in public the listener seems to find himself in a space that is not entirely either private or public. The mobile listening space is often described as an exclusive and excluding ‘sound bubble’ (Bull; Simun; Beer; Sterne; Chambers) creating a private territory in public space. I would like to suggest a modification of this understanding by describing the iPod as an iPublic Interface. The term ipublic should indicate the ambiguous spatial character of the mobile listening space. I acknowledge the fact that the users often feel as though the mobile music creates a private listening space through which they can experience and stage their surroundings. Nevertheless, it is important to emphasize that this staged experience is a result of a synergy between the music and the surroundings – between the private listening space and the public urban space. According to David Beer, the iPod user ‘tunes out’ of the public space as he turns on the music. I would like to expand this idea and suggest that the listener constantly tunes both in and out of the private and public realms, and I believe that it is exactly this ambiguous shift between a private and public frame of mind that constitutes some of the attraction of the mobile music player. The term ipublic interface indicates the possibility of being situated in a private and a public space at the same time. One explanation can be found in Peg Rawes article Sonic Envelopes in which she uses the notion of sonic envelopes to describe the way in which the individual is connected to the surroundings through sound, time and space (62). Raw explores the relation between the listener, the private listening space, and the surrounding public space, and she touches on the idea that our experience of the surroundings is affected by the sounds in the private listening space.
The architect Rem Koolhaas presents another more general description of this complex spatial dichotomy as he describes it as a contemporary tendency caused by the media:

I think we are still stuck with this idea of the street and the plaza as a public domain. I don’t want to respond in clichés, but with television and the media and a whole series of other investigations, you could say that the public domain is lost. But you could also say that it’s now so pervasive it does not need physical articulation any more. I think the truth is somewhere in between (in McQuire, 130).

The iPod understood as an ipublic interface with certain controlling qualities seems to represent that ‘somewhere in between’. The private soundtracks become tools for staging and making sense of our experiences in public space. In referring to Steven Felds notion of acoustemology (226), which refers to the epistemological qualities of acoustics, the iPod becomes an interface for making sense of and staging public space.

Works cited:

Beer, David. ”Tune out’: Music, Soundscape and the Urban Mise-en-scéne.” Information, Communication & Society. Vol. 10 nr. 6. (2007) s. 846-866. Print.

Bull, Michael. “No Dead Air! The iPod and the Culture of Mobile Listening”. In Leisure Studies (2005), Vol. 24, Nr. 4. Print.

Bull, Michael. Sound Moves: iPod Culture and Urban Experience. Routledge, 2007. Print.

Chambers, Iain. “A miniature history of the Walkman”. In Gay, Paul Du. Doing Cultural Studies: the story of the Sony Walkman. London: SAGE Publications, 1997. Print.

Chambers, Iain. “The Aural Walk”. In Migrancy, Culture, Identity. Florence: Routledge, 1994. Print.

Feld, Steven. “A Rainforest Acoustemology.” In The Auditory Culture Reader. Bull, Michael and Back, Les (eds.). Oxford/New York: Berg, 2003. Print.

Feld, Steven. “Places Sensed, Senses Placed” in Empire of the Senses. Edited by David Howes (ed.). New York: Berg, 2005. Print.

Gibson, J.J: “The Theory of Affordances”. In Perceiving, Acting, and Knowing. R. E. Shaw, R.E. & Bransford, J. (eds). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1977.

Leong, Tuck Wah. Understanding Serendipitous Experiences when Interacting with Personal Digital Content. PhD diss., University of Melbourne, 2009.

McQuire, Scott. “Performing Public Space”. In The Media City: Media, Architecture and Urban Space. Los Angeles & London: Sage, 2008: 130-158.

Rawes, Peg. “Sonic Envelopes.” In Senses and Society. Vol 1, issue 1. London: Berg, 2008: 61-76.

Simmel, Georg. Hvordan er samfundet muligt? Udvalgte sociologiske skrifter. Kbh.: Gyldendal, 1998.

Simun, Miriam. “My music, my world: using the MP3 player to shape experience in London.” In New Media Society, vol. 11 (6). London: Sage, 2009: 921-941.

Sterne, Jonathan. “The Mp3 as a Cultural Artefact.” In New Media and Society. London: Sage, 2006. Print.



[1] The quotes are a part of a series of semi-structured qualitative research interviews with iPod users where the listeners talk about their experiences with and reasons for using the iPod.

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