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Last Updated: Monday, 8 March, 2004, 18:04 GMT
More than just a pretty interface
Dot.life - where technology meets life, every Monday
By Mark Ward
BBC News Online technology correspondent

Apple iPod earbuds, Apple
The iPod: design icon and social force
If you thought you liked the iPod because of its looks, think again. It could, according to one academic, be a way of regaining your personal space.

To Dr Michael Bull, portable music players are "multi-faceted transformative devices", a "tool whereby users manage space, time and the boundaries around the self."

Dr Bull is one of the few academics, possibly the only one, to spend time researching what owners of iPods and other music players do with their gadgets, why they listen to them and what difference they make to their lives.

If you look at urban experience through sound, you get different explanations
Dr Michael Bull
He started investigating what people do with music players because he realised it was an area that had been neglected by other students of culture.

Most people who study how humans behave in public look at what is seen, rather than what is heard.

"There's the visual domination of explaining urban experience," he says, "but if you look at it through sound you get different explanations."

We live in a visually dominated culture and suffer constant bombardment by visible messages.

Adverts, shop fascias, street signs, the clothes of fellow pedestrians, newspaper headlines, magazine front covers, car designs create a visual cacophony.

Inner space

But, says Dr Bull, it is because of this deafening visual chorus that exercising choice over what we listen to is so important.

Through interviews with Walkman owners and now iPod buyers, he found that listening to music acts as a shield, aura or cocoon.

Using headphones helps to keep the world at bay and reclaim some space.

Gallery of mini iPods, Apple
The incoming iPod mini
"They construct their moods, they re-make the time of their day," says Dr Bull., "It's a much more active process even though it's dependent on the machinery."

Choice is the key factor, he says. By choosing the music, you reclaim some of the world - it's no longer dominated by messages pointed at you.

Sometimes this is because music rekindles a memory that takes you away from the street back to the time and place where that song became important.

The improvement in technology from cassettes to CDs/minidiscs to digital music players helps too.

"All those things about empowering and managing are just more elevated and sophisticated with the iPod," he says.

But what you listen to and when has a more subversive edge as well. It can undermine some of the messages aimed at you.

Shopping for food while listening to a Bach violin concerto completely remakes the experience. It turns you from a grazing animal into something finer.

In the same way listening to David Bowie's The Laughing Gnome would radically alter a dressing down from a policeman.

Community work

Donning a pair of earbuds also grants a certain amount of licence. They let listeners become witnesses without the risk of getting too involved. The earphones absolve them of some responsibility.

Sony minidisc Walkman, BBC
Music players put you in control
Some women use earphones to deflect unwanted attention, finding it easier to avoid responding because they look already occupied.

In the same way, removing earphones when talking to someone sends a strong message about how interested one is in what is being said. It pays the speaker a compliment.

Digital players in general and the iPod in particular are having a dramatic effect on the way people behave, he says. He has interviews lined up with hundreds more users to see what further lessons can be learnt and what possible impact the technology might have on people's lives as it develops further.

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