- Jul 4, 2004
Move over Michael Bull, there's a new "Professor iPod" in town.
Bull, a lecturer at Sussex University, is considered a leading academic expert on the impact of digital entertainment devices, earning him the "Professor iPod" moniker -- but now he has some competition.
Markus Giesler, a 28-year-old assistant professor of marketing at York University in Toronto, is fast becoming a bright light in high-tech consumer research.
A former record producer and label owner, Giesler has researched and written extensively on technology, consumption and marketing. He has published papers on topics as varied as the gift economy of Napster, risk taking in online file sharing and "post-human consumer culture."
Giesler is currently conducting a study of iPod users and their music-listening habits. He has set up the iPod Stories website to solicit tales of iPod consumption, which he will craft into an ethnographic study called "iPod Therefore iAm."
Russ Belk, a consumer behaviorist at the University of Utah, said Giesler is one of the best-recognized experts studying high-tech consumer behavior.
"Perhaps it was his earlier success as a musician synthesizing jingles for advertising, but Markus has a way of seeing harmonies and disharmonies between people and technologies," said Belk.
According to Giesler's preliminary research, the iPod isn't simply an updated Walkman. It's an entirely new beast: a revolutionary device that transforms listeners into "cyborgs" through a process he calls "technotranscendence."
Unlike the Walkman, the iPod taps into a "hybrid entertainment matrix," in which functions like random shuffle are a key construct, not just a cute marketing device.
"IPod and user form a cybernetic unit," said Giesler. "We're always talking about cyborgs in the context of cultural theory and sci-fi literature, but this is an excellent example that they're out there in the marketplace.... I have seen the future, and it is called the cyborg consumer."
The cyborg consumer, Giesler said, is one that uses several different technologies -- from cell phones to Viagra -- and is highly connected, technically and socially.
The iPod, for example, isn't just an MP3 player. It's an extension of the memory: storing the soundtrack of a lifetime, as well as names, addresses, calendars and notes.
Giesler notes that users give their iPods names, and carry them close to their bodies -- the vibrations of the hard drive makes the device feel alive.
"Consumers often say the iPod has become part of themselves," Giesler said. "The iPod is no longer just an instrument or a tool, but a part of myself. It's a body extension. It's part of my memory, and if I lose this stuff, I lose part of my identity."
Giesler argues that technological products like the iPod allow consumers to become "technotranscendent." Consumers transcend the here and now through the use of technology, like kids playing video games.
"They're not sitting in front of the TV, they're inside the game," said Giesler. "They're technotranscendent. They have transcended their existence in front of the TV through the technology of the game."
Giesler said that the iPod plugs into a "hybrid entertainment matrix" -- a complex network made in part of the iPod, a computer, the internet, online music stores, file-sharing networks and so on.
"The consumer is plugged into all kinds of technologies and networks that affect consumer behavior," he said. "As a result, consumption patterns change: from materiality to information -- the internet; from ownership to access -- file sharing; and from pattern to randomness -- the iPod."
Apple Computer exemplifies this new paradigm with its troika of the iPod, the iTunes software that manages it, and the online store for buying new music.
"Apple understood this," Giesler said. "It's selling a hybrid entertainment matrix -- iPod, computer and music store. The iPod is important, but it's only really useful when it's interconnected. It becomes great when it is interconnected."
Giesler notes that jacking into the entertainment matrix changes consumption patterns. Random shuffle, for example, isn't just a novel way to listen to music; it's one of the key constructs of digital entertainment.
Giesler said that instead of trading individual songs, users are starting to trade entire hard drives: giant libraries of music or movies. When interviewees are asked how they dip into these libraries, picking items at random is the most common answer.
"Shuffle mode used to be a gimmick. Now it is the most viable strategy to access information that would otherwise be lost," he said. "It reduces the complexity of consumption. It's a cyborg consumption strategy."