I am now blogging at a new blog: erdman31.com

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Thursday, July 31, 2008

space and ipod

Let's talk space.

Let us continue to explore the ipod phenomenon in relation to American culture.

The ipod commercials with the silhouette people have been crazy successful, contributing to the creation of an ipod cultural revolution. Everyone has ipods and earbuds such that we can now recontextualize Timothy Leary's "Turn on, tune in, drop out" for a new generation. [wiki]

The shadow people intrigue me. They are empty and undefined. They represent nothingness, save for the earbuds that connect the mind to the ipod.

From one perspective, the silhouettes represent the worst of consumerism. Interpreted this way, they embody the perception by Apple and other corporations that consumers exist as empty beings--empty and in need of products to fill the void. The space is space for the product; the space is the desire, lack, and emptiness that fuels capitalism and consumerism. The empty space is also a spiritual void that can be filled only when the consumer can connect with music.

The idea of filling a spiritual void is something that Christianity seems to have targeted in recent years. The idea is that there is a God-shaped hole that only God can fill. Real satisfaction/contentment/joy/peace/etc. can only truly be realized through a relationship or encounter with God. Perhaps this is true, I'm not sure; but what I am sure of is that God has become objectified and treated as a product for spiritual consumers to consume. God = the missing piece = filling the void. I find this working itself out in all of the very diverse strands of Christianity: God will make you happy, God will fulfill you through your misery/self-denial/repentance, God will make you materially wealthy, God will make you spiritually wealthy through material poverty, only with God in your life can you truly appreciate anything else, etc. Regardless of what movement of Christianity, the common theme seems to be that we (like the ipod shadow) need God to fill the Big Empty.

There is a sense in which the ipod shadows strike me as a very direct appeal to our desire to fill the Big Empty.

The ipod also represents the need to continually upgrade, so that one has more and more space to fill; more gigabytes. This means buying more songs and more videos....we buy bigger houses to fit more stuff in them.....we are continually appealed to by advertisers to buy more space, and then there are always more and more things to buy to fill the space. Upgrades. Upgrade to more space.

Tyler from Fight Club (1999) says the following:

Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes
working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don't need
we're the middle children of history
no purpose or place
we have no great war no great depression
our great war is a spiritual war
our great depression is our lives

.....but on the other hand....

I can also see a positive interpretation of the ipod silhouettes. What if the darkness is not emptiness and void? What if the space represents simplicity? I think there is a very positive perspective to the ipod shadow people. American life is cluttered and fragmented. We have too much junk in our homes, too many to-do's on our to-do lists, and too many activities in our schedules.

Can the ipod silhouettes represent a return to the simplicity of the self?

If this is the case, then the emptiness has redeeming value. If we were truly able to simplify, then perhaps we could empty our minds for spiritual and personal growth.

Consider: when a room is cluttered, no one object in the room needs to be labeled as "bad." All of the items in the room may be good and profitable; however, taken together as a whole they represent clutter. Sometimes too many good things become bad when they are taken as a whole. Such is the case in 21st century life: we all try to fill our lives with so many good things thinking that more is better....but sometimes less is more.

So, which interpretation is correct?

Do the ipod shadow people represent the desire of the Corporation to fill our voids with more "shit we don't need"? To create more voids so that we can be sold more shit? Or does the ipod represent the kind of space that cultivates growth and simplicity?

These are questions of interpretation: how do we define ourselves in relation to our excess of products in 21st century American society? It is a question of reflecting on and observing how we define ourselves as subjects and how we form and construct our identities (Michel Foucault).

Here are a selection of ipod commercials (that I think are particularly interesting) for your consideration:


Emily said...

What do the ipod shadow people represent? I don't think they were intended to represent anything in particular. The marketing department thought it would be appealing, and somehow it is. If anything, the fact that the people shown are mere shadows is meant to make them more relatable. I could be that girl dancing to U2 (if I had a fro).

So you think that viewing God as the spiritual void-filler is self-centered of us? Are you saying it's better to view ourselves as part of God's world as opposed to God inside of ours? Or are you saying something else?

daniel h said...

We live in an age of the "commodification of everthing". This includes the commodification of time itself, specifically by means of the temporal arts and notably music.

I would contend that the marketers of the iPod and recorded music in general are asserting that the "big empty" is time, and the idea is to fill your time with music (not just any music of course, but the variety of recorded music they are selling).

People listen to music to enjoy the passing of time: time aesthetically transformed by the sound of music.

Live musical experiences are less and less viable and have become largely marginal to our lives, compared to other times in human history. Most music is experienced as a recording - and right now, on an iPod.

I've written a paper on the global music commodity culture, and published it on my blog, if anyone is interested in more of this perspective. It is called "music unbounded in conversation with the globalists". You can get there by clicking on (my web page) on my blogger profile.

chris van allsburg said...

We can define ourselves in relation to the excess of 21st century products we have by remembering that our identity is first of all centered in the image of God and renewal of our regenerated selves in jesus. Next, we should not escape from the world by dismissing technology and the products our culture produces, but keep in tension the idea that 1)wealth is an essential good, no matter the pragmatic uses of it (it's only good if used for the church, or missions, or philanthropy) and 2) we are called to not covet, to be content, and to consider that jesus came to give us an abundant life, in the sense that our lives would indeed be centered in knowing the one true god.

wealth is good, and so is contentment. this is what paul says in Philippians 4.

Jonathan Erdman said...


How do you reconcile your thoughts with Jesus' suggestion that "where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."

In The Master's Treasure, I tried to explore this question: is it possible to own boatloads (literally and figuratively) of stuff without becoming a slave to it? I suggested that the answer is "no."

The movie Fight Club explores this theme. Tyler says, "The stuff you owns ends up owning you," which is why he and the gang try to blow the whole modern world to hell.

Jonathan Erdman said...


Does it matter if the advertisers did not intend a particular meaning??? I would certainly be interested in what the advertisers intended, but I am more interested in the art (yes, I just called the ipod shadow-people commercials "art") they produce.

You may be right that they just thought it looked cool, but sometimes I think these kinds of things can represent more than just coolness. Just my thought, anyway.

Perhaps you could shoot a video of yourself dancing and put it on Youtube so that we can compare you with the fro girl. What do you think?

In regards to God being the void-filler....I wasn't really saying that it was selfish of us (or not selfish of us). I'm mainly concerned with how cheap it all is at this point. So much of Christianity seems to be mass-produced like ipods. So, the idea of having a "God-shaped hole" just becomes cliche after a while. And it's also something that most people don't want to question. Recently I was meeting with a few conservative pastor friends of mine, and they brought up this very topic, which I roundly (and perhaps too eagerly) denounced as ridiculous and not at all biblical.....I had obviously violated a sacred cow, because for the rest of the lunch, they went on and on about how right they were, how wrong I was, and everything in between. I couldn't get a word in edge-wise!

The point (I think) is to think more critically about how we perceive ourselves. What if God wants us to be empty sometimes? What if emptiness is meant to be a part of the faith process?

Jonathan Erdman said...

Good point, Daniel, about time. I focussed on space, but time is an important element in our consumer society. Time is money is power.

Good point, also, about music being individualized. With the ipod, music is purely a personal experience, not a communal one. In fact, for many, the ipod serves as a disconnect: no one disturbs us when we have the earbuds planted into our brains. Personally, I like the concept of tuning the world out....but that's just me!

daniel h said...

Yes Jon, in our society time and space are both commodified, at the expense of community. Music was formerly very much part of the public space, and had less of a rigourous attachment to a pocket of time (like the ubiquitous radio length song does today).

Obviously music of indeterminate length of time and in the public space is difficult if nigh impossible to sell, so selling music depends on packaging space and time.

The busker on the street challenges this system but people do not generally engage beyond dropping a few coins in the hat as common courtesy. What if we took the time to actually take an hour or two and listen to a street musician, and interact?

I'm talking about music here but there is a lot to be said of reclaiming time in our daily lives from the clutches of consumerist culture when it comes to our relatinship with God, and this may mean for example going beyond just getting a scripture verse on your mobile phone once a day that you've paid for.

(Ok we have that in South Afica, not sure if you have that in the USA, but you know what I'm getting at - commodification of our spiritual lives.)

I don't disagree with Chris but basically I get suspicious when I have to pay for something that should be free (like reading my Bible, or making music).

Its certainly better to spend your money on a random sms Bible verse than on the other temptations of the marketplace, and I'm not denying that this can be part of "the abundant life"... or maybe I am!

See therefore how ye walk carefully, not as unwise but as wise, but as wise: redeeming the time, because the days are evil. Ephesians 5:15-16

Jason Hesiak said...

a) "space" IS empty. always was. by "always" i mean that "space" is a relatively new thing.

b) more to the reason why i turned my computer back on when i was half way out my car to go to work, for which i am running late...when you say that the whole "god shaped whole" thing isn't biblical at all...are you denouncing augustine as a blasted pagan, so to speak...or are you saying that augustine has been translated in modern/postmodern and protestant times into a commodofied (modern/postmodern) and crossless (protestant and modern together) gospel?


Jonathan Erdman said...

Personally, Jason, I disagree with Augustine.....but I have more of a problem with the god-shaped-hole sell-job of contemporary Christian culture (ccc) than I do with Augustine. A was thoughtful, reflective, and passionate about his life and faith. Ccc is just looking for something that can be consumed by the American market place, so the god-shaped-hole idea is now a cheap parlor trick that is hard to take seriously....But A's thought process is something that could be taken seriously and discussed.

Re: space......Yes, space is "empty," but the question I was wondering is how to interpret the emptiness. Emptiness can be construed in a positive or negative light. In American culture, emptiness is generally a negative thing to be avoided. This tends to be the western view....eastern thought (generally speaking) embraces emptiness as a part of a process on the path to enlightenment.

Jason Hesiak said...

erdman...on augustine...cool. did your pastor friends you met with who said you were wrong...did they mention augustine?

and this emptiness stuff...is that about this...(more about man's relation to space and his environment)


...or...(more religious/about Christ)


...and what is the relation between the two?

Melody said...

So entirely off your point, but the shadow people aren't entirely empty. If you look closely at the posters or commercials you can see that there are little bits of faded detail.

It makes me happy that it's not just another silhouette design.

I agree with Emily that the idea seems to be more that it could be anyone in those commercials. Well, anyone that can dance (ex. it could not be me).

Although, some of the dancing in the second commercial reminds me strongly of the Breakfast Club.

The brilliance of the silhouettes is that there are only three things in those commercials. You, your music, and your ipod.

No extras, no distractions.

I can imagine the marketers sitting around talking about how many times they see a commercial and there's so much junk in it that they have no idea what's being sold. They decide not to leave the thing to chance.

I dislike the commercials that stray from the silhouettes and have famous people just partially shaded. They probably found that people were getting a bit tired of the plain silhouettes, but in fixing that they've cluttered their approach.

Melody said...


I'm confused about what was brought up with your conservative pastor friends...the "life without Jesus is like a donut" theory or that people don't question it or...?

I have a hard time imagining you not being able to get a word in edge-wise...you must have had them pretty riled up!

Jonathan Erdman said...


Good point. Yes. The sleekness and simplicity of Apple is one of their strong selling points.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Melody: I'm confused about what was brought up with your conservative pastor friends...the "life without Jesus is like a donut" theory or that people don't question it or...?


M: I have a hard time imagining you not being able to get a word in edge-wise...you must have had them pretty riled up!

Yes. You are correct! In most conversations, I manage to get my points across

Emily said...

For the most part, no, it doesn't matter if the advertisers didn't intend for a particular meaning. As individuals we are going to have our own opinions of what an image means, what it means to us, or at least how it makes us feel. Hopefully they didn't intend a negative meaning, which I don't think is the case... (Oh, no! The shadow people are dark! Are they saying we should all be filled w/ darkness and evil?!?)

Perhaps I will skip posting a video of me dancing. If someone else volunteers himself/herself first, maybe I'll change my mind.

Jon: The point (I think) is to think more critically about how we perceive ourselves. What if God wants us to be empty sometimes? What if emptiness is meant to be a part of the faith process?

Empty as in not having everything we think we want right now / not feeling completely fulfilled / realizing we're lacking / feeling broken? Or a different kind of empty?

What if we can feel empty but realize we're not? We can be broken but know that God's got us, know that His grace remains...

"Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us" (Rom. 5:1-6).

"The law was added so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord" (Rom. 5:20-21).

Andy said...

Masking is a common technique in many mediums, whether advertising, comic books, or prose: don't put too much detail on the main character, because then it's easier for the viewer to imagine themselves there. It's a subtle technique that tends to work rather well. In this case, it's been taken to an extreme... but that hasn't diminished its effectiveness.

tamie said...

I think I would trust a God more who wanted me to remain empty sometimes. I would trust a God who did not fill up all the gaps in my life, who not only met me in emptiness or silence, but who actually emptied me out more. Some of the mystics talk about having this sustained wound of desire that never gets healed, and they don't want it to get healed. I don't want all my desires to get met either, though on some level I do, of course. But there seems to be something going on ontologically, with desire, emptiness, silence, space. These things (non-things) seem profoundly significant, not as just as emptinesses in and of themselves, but they are important in their very lack. And it seems simplistic (and incredibly self-absorbed) to suggest that God's role is to fill them all up.

At the same time, it does seem that there is an ache in each of us that the Divine alone meets. But I don't think the meeting takes away the ache. And I despise the commodification of the whole thing; I hate how companies manipulate our deepest desires to get us to buy shit we don't need.

As for the ads. Ah, Bono, why did you have to sell out? Alas. Alack. Actually, I got nothing else on the ads. But I sure do wish I could hang out with Bono!

Oh, but I do have something on iPod. I own an iPod, as it happens...I've owned it for a couple years, and I've never carried it around. I've only listened to it once, on a long road trip. Thing is: I love walking around, or biking around, and listening to the world. Birds, people, birds! Yes, I know, I am clearly far cooler than the rest of the mindless masses who buy into the advertisements...yes, I am the shite. You can say it. I rock.

I don't know about y'all, but I crave silence. I live in the mountains, but in a town, and sometimes I feel like I will drown if I don't get out of town, into the mountains proper, and just let all the noise slide off me, into the earth that can absorb it, and be still.

ktismatics said...

Good post, good comments, I agree with everyone. A further thought...

"They are empty and undefined. They represent nothingness, save for the earbuds that connect the mind to the ipod."

Why doesn't the Ipod represent nothingness? It too is monochromatic, flat and featureless -- heck, it doesn't even move except when the dancing silhouette makes it move. Is it because you regard blackness as empty undefined nothingness, whereas white stands for full and defined totality? Is this stereotypic imagery part of your Indiana Protestant heritage, Erdman?

Maybe what you've got here are complementary iconic images. Let the white Ipod be fullness, etc., but blackness is transgressive, hip, mysterious, noir. Feeding the stereotype, isn't it only black people who really know how to dance, to feel the music? Ipod is made for the white nerd who imagines him/herself transformed into the iconically black hipster.

jhesiak said...

doyle...that was funny. lol.

Melody said...

I go through phases where I need a lot of noise and then it flips and I need a lot of silence.
There's good things about both.

Jonathan Erdman said...


I agree with the thoughts on iconic imagery.

samlcarr said...

Picking up on your theme of filling up the big empty, there's also the thought of plugging-in to be (really) alive. Both thoughts have been used to good effect by ideologies of all hues.

Reward or benefit of some sort is what is used to sell a lot of stuff including religion. At least ultimately (in heaven?) you can find peace, joy, vindication etc.

One of the themes of the NT is precisely an avoidance of overt enticement. Seek first the kingdom and what will you get? Look at Jesus - probably more suffering. Now that's a message that's guaranteed not to sell well, I wonder why it did?

daniel h said...

Watching some of the commercials, esp. the U2 one, a message comes across that by playing an iPod you become like the musician, you get into the musician's headspace.

Of course this needn't be true to be effective.

It is illustrated by The Edge playing his guitar, followed by the guy with dreadlocks and iPod. Or Bono singing, followed by the woman with iPod.

A musician hear music inside their head before giving it expression. Now so can the audience. The barrier is broken down. Before this ad, a person dancing to the music in their headphones was considered ridiculous, now it has all legitimacy!

The iPod is an external musical brain.

It doesn't matter if the rest of the world doesn't know what's going on in your space, or if they can't hear the music you are rocking to: rock on!

P.S. I watched the ads without sound. Try it.

Crystal McCoomb said...

I agree with the comments regarding emptiness as not always having to be perceived as a negative spiritual reality. Jesus poured out His life for us, giving up His will to His Father before He was crucified, which lead to spiritual freedom for millions of people.
I think emptiness can lead to an appreciation and a hunger for what really matters in life. Just like it says in Proverbs about someone who is full not being able to enjoy good food, so when a person becomes empty they are more able to enjoy simple pleasures in life.

God is more able to meet our needs when we are in a place where we actually need Him. It's not that He fills every void in us, but He teaches to go to better things that fill us. When we focus on God and following after Him, He gives us the good fruits of the Spirit that ultimately do satisfy us.

Eastern thought does empathize emptiness in a light positive as well, but they seek to embrace the vacuum- to "become one with the universe." Their goal is not necessarily to seek having the vacuum filled within themselves, but to empty themselves so as to full the void in the universe. What void could possibly need fulling in the universe? It seems pretty well ordered and under control already!

Instead of filling it up with meaningless electronics that probably will need to be upgraded in a year or too anyway and distance yourself from contact with the world going on around you. It's impossible to tune the world out for any great length of time. Eventually you get lonely or you go insane.

daniel hutchinson said...

Crystal, that was an excellent post.

At the end of your post, when you speak of the world, I take it you mean other people.

daniel hutchinson said...

Just asking, because the Word tells us God so loved the world He sent his son Jesus Christ to the world, not to condemn the world but to save it.

If as you suggest we need to be more in touch with the world, I would say we are following God's own example in this way, and that yes iPod culture insofar as it represents escapism takes us further away from God.

Even if you're listening to "Christian" music.

Crystal McCoomb said...

Yes Daniel, I mean people. Being in touch "with the world" shouldn't be solely or mainly with the culture per se, but with the people who are in the culture. People are the ones who ultimately influence and evolve culture anyway, not the other way around.

If we all escape into our own little worlds, with our sleek gadgets, thinking we don't need any input from anything other then what we have plugged into our ears, eventually we'll be so isolated that we won't know how to go after better things in life. We'll be more and more going after things that we think will satisfy us, but only give a momentary rush, such things as are mentioned in Gal 5:19-21. If you try to stay away from these things on your own, instead of relying on God's grace and power to walk towards better things, you will keep failing, eventually lose hope, and stop trying. Insanity is doing the same things over and over again, but looking for a different result.

It's interesting to think that Jesus might have felt empty at some point and didn't want to go through with what God was asking Him to do. Kind of goes along with the verse that talks about Jesus knowing all of our temptations.

ktismatics said...

See, it wasn't my fault after all: this well really has run dry.

parody center said...

I would say that the i-pod tries to replace God with a biotechnological Deity (''pod''). The design is highly reminiscent of David Cronenberg's Existenz, in which video game pods are presented as organic. Because it is white against transparent figures, it penetrates the inner workings of the organism so that you're quite literally plugged into a bio-organic network.
Both your points are valid, though the simplicity of the design can be explained in more utilitarian fashion; namely, simple straightforward design is easier to register than baroque and overly decorated. The shadows are there, I think, because they function as a Roschahch test - you can project anything you want into them. It was interesting how in Pixar's WALL-E the Eve character (the robotic version of the Biblical Eve) looks like an i-pod.

parody center said...

Oh yes and the shadows also work as a suggestion of cult, a conspiracy. Shadows always have an ominous effect in design.

Crystal McCoomb said...

parody center- that is so Matrix.

parody center said...

''that is soooo Matrix''

well, yes! because we ARE living in the Matrix, Crystal

Jonathan Erdman said...

I recently read an essay that argued that it is more likely than not that we are living in a matrix. The guy made some good points.