December 18, 2005
Taken to a New Place, by a TV in the Palm
By DAVID CARR
Last Tuesday night, I took my place in the bus queue for the commute home. Further up the line, I saw a neighbor - a smart, funny woman I would normally love to share the dismal ride with.
I ducked instead, racing to the back of the bus because season one of the ABC mystery-adventure "Lost" was waiting on my iPod. Claire was clearly about to go into labor and John Locke, the sage of the show, had been acting funny of late. The portable show meant my commute, which I have always hated with the force of 10,000 suns, had become a little "me" time.
Much was made of how silly it was for Apple to believe people would watch television on a 2.5-inch screen. But consumers have downloaded three million video programs from iTunes since the new video iPod became available in October. What gives?
The new iPod is its own little addictive medium. Its limitations - a viewing experience that requires headphones and a hand-held screen - create a level of intimacy that arcs to television in its infancy, when the glowing object was so marvelous it begat silent reverie.
You now stare at bejeweled color and crisp lines rendered in miniature. The ability to download programming of my choosing gives me a new kind of private, restorative time, a virtual third place between a frantic workplace and a home brimming with activity.
But I feel a little dirty. As a print guy, I have always thought that magazines and newspapers were the ultimate in portable media - I even learned that fancy subway fold so I could read broadsheet newspapers without bonking my seatmate in the nose to get to the next page. And if I am living in a little world of my own making, it is not doing a great deal for my connection to the world at large.
Many times on the train or bus, before the new iPod, I would run stuff over in my mind - doing actual thinking as opposed to the data processing I do throughout the day and night. My commute has gone from a communal and occasionally ruminative day-part to a time when I stare at a television remote control that happens to have a picture embedded in it.
Still, I make the trade. "Lost" always sounded like a show I'd like, but as the father of three with a job that required long hours, and a commute thrown in for good measure, viewing network programming at an appointed hour never seemed to work out. The "Lost" bandwagon left without me.
With the new iPod, I could start at the beginning of the series and view "Lost" at my leisure. The average episode lasts 44 minutes, about the length of my commute. Watching "Lost" on the bus next to a large man working his way through a crinkly bag of nuts is a deeply satisfying media experience. Goodbye crinkly nut man. Hello Claire and John Locke. (It is a bonus that the man can't see the image from the side, as hard as he tries.)
So this is how we end up alone together. We share a coffee shop, but we are all on wireless laptops. The subway is a symphony of earplugged silence while the family trip has become a time when the kids watch DVD's in the back of the minivan. The water cooler, that nexus of chatter about the show last night, might go silent as we create disparate, customized media environments.
By forgoing a chance to sit next to my neighbor on the bus, I missed out on all sorts of gossip and intrigue. And that New Yorker in my bag with the article on Osama bin Laden's upbringing? It is still sitting there, as is Joan Didion's new book, "The Year of Magical Thinking." Ditto for those MP3's of the Concretes I downloaded so lovingly when I bought the iPod a month ago.
There are other drawbacks to personalized, portable video. "Lost" is a program with a background plot of visual clues that don't scan on an iPod, and one and a half hours of video battery life seems precisely designed to frustrate a movie watcher. But as a device for taking in a single episode of a serial drama, sitcom or soap opera, the video iPod seems perfectly conceived.
I actually watch very little television in my home. Between the phones, both cell and landline, the kids' homework and other needs, and a wireless broadband connection that keeps me on the work grid, the TV often ends up being a silent piece of furniture.
The iPod, on the other hand, gets charged, programmed and used almost every day. I have missed my stop on the bus because the video iPod is a completely immersive experience. The act of peering at a small hand-held screen with headphones on blots out the rest of the world - even more than the experience of listening to music.
Am I an anomaly, an overstimulated and overworked freak in need of digital soothing by staring at a curio? Apple does not think so. Remember that the company's iTunes store began in 2003 with just 200,000 songs and now boasts over two million, and that consumers have downloaded songs 500 million times at 99 cents each.
There are five shows from ABC, or its parent Disney, available from Apple. And NBC Universal has followed with 11 new and classic shows - including "Law & Order" and "The Office" - there for the downloading. (There are also 2,000 music videos available, but I am a little more self-conscious about sitting on the bus with Shakira gyrating in the palm of my hand.)
Still, what kind of idiot would pay for shows that are otherwise free? I am paying a so-called convenience charge. I could go to BitTorrrent or some other place where video content is there for the taking, but I'm not interested in the moral and technological somersaults required to get free - I think the technical, legal term is "stolen" - programming for my iPod. Instead, I have become the gift that keeps on giving for Apple. The company has my credit card and I will continue to fork over $1.99 an episode to find out what is around the bend in season two of "Lost." When that ends, I will probably give "Monk" a try.
Apple is working on the next version of the iPod, which could involve taking the vertical device and tipping it on its side, for a larger, horizontal image. And now that the precedent's already out there - Apple convinced the networks to come up off of a half-century-old business model - the supply of programs will only get deeper.
Until then, look for me on the bus. Just don't try to talk to me.