Communication Currents

Volume 3 , Issue 2 - April 2008 Print | Email iPod Appeal: The Sexual Allure of a Gadget

April 1, 2008
Digital Communication & Gaming, Visual Communication

Today it is difficult to ride on a train or bus, to shop in a store, or simply to sit in a park without being confronted by someone else's musical enjoyment--chances are, you'll see someone listening to or playing with an iPod. Personal music devices have been around since Sony introduced the Walkman in 1979; however, no single device has dominated the market or public space quite like the iPod. Why has listening to an iPod in public become so controversial? Or more to the point, how have these devices become so ubiquitous? The answer to both questions is that iPods have sex appeal.

To say that iPods have sex appeal requires stretching what we mean by sex to cover a broader range of life-affirming human behaviors. Over a century ago Sigmund Freud argued that all human behavior can be reduced to fundamental drives or motivations. More specifically, the drives are pulsations of energy around beloved objects. The drives are usually associated with human sensory organs: There is a drive to hear (the ear); a drive to eat or drink (the mouth); a drive to eliminate (the anus); and so on. Although we are typically most aware of our drives when we are engaged in sexual activity, many scholars since Freud have stressed how all the drives are life-affirming or sexual in nature, even if we don't think about them that way. People-watching at the mall, for example, stimulates the drive to look. Nail-biting stimulates the oral drive. The iPod is designed fundamentally to stimulate drive to hear, or the invocatory drive, and the principle pleasure it offers to listeners is through sound.

Yet the iPod's sex appeal is not limited to its primary function as a music playback device. It also looks sexy, and its design—especially the iClick wheel in the center—encourages listeners to play with it. All gadgets, from cell phones to personal digital assistants to remote controls, are designed to attach to or insert into a sensory organ, or to engage our sense of touch. Gadgets also work to stimulate more than one drive at a time to create the complex pleasures they provide. Apple is keenly aware of this fact, which is why all of their products have striking visual designs in addition to functionality. Although the iPod attaches to the ears and appeals to eyes, it also feels smooth to the touch. The iPod looks like a piece of candy, as if you could eat it! In short, the iPod simulates many of our drives at one time.

In designing the iPod, Apple has also tapped into a deep-seated cultural fantasy that we associate with gadgets; they seem to make us omnipotent. In other words, there is something sexy about the iPod that gives listeners a strong sense of empowerment. The fantasy of omnipotence provided by gadgets is made plain by watching any Star Trek episode. Long before the advent of the cell phone, characters in this 1960s science fiction television show communicated to each other across planets by simply tapping a small device worn on the shirt. Similarly, iPods give their users a sense of empowerment by making their entire media libraries portable; any song, television show, or film is available by a turn and click of the wheel.

What makes the iPod distinctive from other gadgets, however, is the way in which Apple has framed the device as an intoxicant. In general, intoxicants work to decrease inhibitions and our own internal censors, allowing us to do or think previously impermissible things. Intoxicants also tend to work directly on our drives though sensory stimulation. In most of Apple's print and television ads for the device, people are shown jamming out, dancing, and in general getting lost in their own personal music enjoyment. In the 1960s the late LSD advocate, Dr. Timothy Leary, inspired a generation of young people to "tune in, turn on, and drop out." In a modified sense, Apple's advertising campaigns—many of which are psychedelic in character—advance the same message. And like many illegal drugs, turning on and dropping out with one's iPod can also be physically harmful. Because digital audio does not contain the pops and hiss of analog sound recordings, it is possible to listen to an iPod at very loud volume levels without discomfort, resulting in permanent hearing loss.

Because the iPod stimulates the drives, taps into fantasies of omnipotence, and offers musical intoxication, it has been wildly successful as a personal pleasure device. Consequently, it was only a matter of time before the iPod became associated with genital pleasure. Although the iPod is not a dildo, it functions as one for other sensory organs, chiefly the ears and the eyes. It is for this reason some cultural commentators find the use of iPods in public places patently offensive. Decades ago the conservative cultural critic Alan Bloom described the sight of university students listening to their Sony Walkmans as a form of public masturbation. Today, critics from across the political spectrum are making similar claims about the iPod. When we understand the primary, sexual function of all gadgets, those arguments start to make some sense. Insofar as masturbation is typically the opposite of communication and interaction with others, it is important to remember that a person's private musical ecstasy on display in public may be perceived as a PDA in more ways than one. The personal digital assistant can be perceived as a public display of affection—with oneself, of course, and at the expense of others.