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The Wraiths of iPod

One day recently, while walking through downtown Toronto towards the TTC (Toronto's subway), I'm suddenly confronted by an enormous graphic -- several stories tall -- on the side of a building: against a saturated blue background a void-black silhouette, frozen in mid-dance-trance ecstasy, holds aloft an oddly ethereal little white box from which white wires snake to the silhouette's ears.

It's an enormous ad for iPod, Apple's trendy way to store hours worth of entertainment data in a high-tech king-sized cigarette box.

Then I see that there are other similarly oversized, highly saturated, enormous building-sized ads strewn throughout this section of the city -- surprisingly unobtrusive given their size as they meld into the urban landscape. Once I was aware of one others seemed to appear everywhere; it was NLP in action (ie eg, think the word "red" and suddenly the color red appears everywhere.)

And then I thought of the shadows of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I felt like I was seeing the consumer version of the neutron bomb: shadows where there were once people, their last moment frozen as a dark blotch on the city's landscape after being evaporated in an instant, their personal entertainment device -- gloriously unaffected by the blast -- still transmitting some driving house beat.

If ever proof was needed of the product superseding the expendable person who exists by (and through) consuming it, this ad campaign is it. The product, especially in this instance, is an ideal, an absolute; the consumer is merely some ephemeral cog, a "thing" that buys. In a glorious, stark reversal the product and the consumer switch places: the consumer is the product being sold to the iPod -- just fill yourself in the ecstatic blank.

These ads are beautiful, defined either aesthetically or functionally. As a graphic they are compelling -- the intense saturated color with the void-black cut-out creates a fascinating and vibrant figure-ground ambiguity that attracts the eye. And as an ad they are compelling -- they grab your attention, they seduce you to want to experience it. These ads are the perfect symbolic apotheosis of late capitalism's cultivation of the solipsism of product fetishism: they offer the consumer a way towards (artificial) transcendence via some device that has magical properties -- you only need plug yourself in.

There's always been something disconcerting to me watching people walk down the streets wired into their own personal listening experience: they are not sharing the reality of those immediately around them. (Of course it's assumed that everyone's experience is, by definition, unique, and thus not partaking of the reality of those around them to begin with. And yet it is nevertheless a shared reality, even though everyone's experience of it differs. At least their difference comes from a shared experience.) The few times I've tried walking around the city hooked into a walkman I found the experience very disorienting and disembodying. It was as if the protective bubble-sanctuary one feels in one's car was being mainlined into my consciousness, rendering the very world in which I walked into something too much outside myself. My immediate reality became something to be observed, some kind of show, accompanied by some weird soundtrack in my brain. There was such a discontinuity between what I heard and what I saw that I felt there was a disconnect between my inner and outer reality.

Similarly, how many times do we now witness someone talking to himself on the street, only to discover they're on a cellphone? With people insulating themselves in this way the public sphere is further compartmentalized into floating islands of ego, of drifting consciousnesses technologically connected to someplace else, some place other than their own immediate environment (the "there and now" superseding the "here and now"), manouvering the city streets as if on auto-pilot, extending and transfering the phenomenological shell we feel while driving in our cars directly into the consciousness of the pedestrian. Community is thus something "out-there", unrelated to us as we move about it as a visitor rather than a participant.

Such experiences negate the public sphere by wrapping us in solipsistic shells. And, of course, capitalism thrives when individuals are separated from each other. The myth of individualism (as opposed to individuality) is transposed into a fatal myth of community. In this way we go further into ourselves to create our own world as the hope and desire for real community fades away. And to help us create that world we need to buy stuff that helps us define ourselves in our own little vaccuum. Community becomes re-defined as a demographic experience rather than a shared communality: we identify with others who share our same commodity fetish, our same demographic; shared experience is reduced to acknowledging that "Hey, they're listening to an iPod too!"

It's really a glorious ad campaign, perfect in capturing late capitalism's zeitgeist of the negative, seductive ecstasy of complete individualistic self-absorption, the nihilistic, technological sublime of egocentric egolessness. When I see these ads now I can't help imagining these disembodied wraiths plugged into their own little white instruments of torture masquerading as eternal fun. I momentarily see a fade-in as the wraiths become the people they once were, their faces frozen in a look of ecstasy that could be mistaken for agony, their contorted mouths agape in a joyless joy they wish would stop, their frozen dance of bliss a freeze-frame of a spastic waltz with St. Vitus.