Zach Woodill thought it only fitting that he received his first iPod last year while a senior at Canisius College.
"College is about finding yourself; so is the iPod," said the 22-year-old Lancaster resident. "It's not just another piece of technology; it's part of your personality."
The iPod has transformed the music-listening experience from the controlled and predictable to the ultimate personal choice. It has melded mind and machine into a blend of emotion and personal history.
An iPod turns a music collection into part of everyday life, instead of hundreds of CDs or records sitting in library storage cases. It allows each individual to carry around songs that trigger memories and play them at will. It creates mood swings and musical inspiration that can be turned on anywhere at anytime. And anyone can create his own iPod shuffle to randomly listen to the music of his life.
Put it all together, and you have a technological advance combining with human spirit.
"The iPod is an extension of self," said Markus Giesler, who teaches entertainment marketing at York University in Toronto and has done extensive research on the iPod. "Everyone who owns one invests some of himself into the iPod. For some people, this experience helps restore meaning and feeling."
Giesler believes the iPod is creating the first "real cyborg marketing experience," where machine and a human being become one. "They are connected to each other," he said.
Unlike Arnold Schwarzenegger's "Terminator," the current army of walking iPod cyborgs are the real thing. "Cyborgs aren't science-fiction anymore," Giesler said, "iPods are marketed as consumer technology and accepted by the masses."
Apple has sold about 21 million iPods since the devices were introduced nearly four years ago. Users can digitally download MP3 song files from Apple's iTunes Web site to the machine's hard drive. Apple charges 99 cents per song.
In addition, there are "podcasts" offered by everyone from established radio personalities such as Rush Limbaugh to unknown individuals who want to put themselves on the air. iPods can be connected to stereo systems at home and hooked up to car radios.
And iPods have done more than make Apple millions of dollars. The little machine "can dramatically alter the mind of its user," Giesler said. In his research, he talked to a marathon runner, who only used the iPod for the final 20 minutes of the run.
"That's when he needed a boost, and the iPod became a source of emotional energy," Giesler said. "The rhythm and beats of the music gave it to him."
Then there was a soldier in Iraq, who not only listened to music, but also voices of his wife and child back home. The soldier could take it anywhere at anytime in a war zone. "It gave him a sense of himself and his personal identity back home," Giesler said.
> A learning experience
Many Americans have learned to be cautious about technology. Some worry that machines like the iPod may override the human element, meaning listeners can tune out the world.
"Technology can isolate people, but this kind of technology increases communication," Giesler said. "People can share music and the experience."
That's exactly what Buffalonians Tim and Lorraine Gerland do. The Gerlands are in their early 30s and have been married for three years. They are a two-iPod family.
"We don't go anywhere without our iPods," said Gerland, who plays in a band and works in the computer industry. "The other night we went out shopping, and my wife's iPod needed to be charged. She wouldn't go unless I gave her mine."
The Gerlands are typical iPodders, with distinct musical tastes. Lorraine was a more traditional music fan when they married, favoring such artists as Sarah McLachlan. He favored obscure indie bands, such as Death Cab for Cutie.
Now, thanks to the iPods, Tim and Lorraine make beautiful music together.
"For us with music, it used to be a love/hate thing," Gerland said. "What I loved, she hated. But once Lorraine started listening to that stuff on my iPod, she started to like some of the stuff I like."
The joy of surprise, or hearing something new, is part of the iPod game.
"It's kind of like moving to another level of your life," Gerland said. "Without the iPod, the music experience becomes very corporate. You have to listen to the same 15-song playlist on the radio. You buy a CD, and there's only one song on it you like. You only hear what they want you to hear."
An iPod user can instantly download songs to iPod from iTunes. "That's part of the attraction," Gerland said. "You have the song the day it comes out. It's a way to keep ahead of everybody else."
Gerland admits being obsessed with music. "In my life, everything has to do with music," he said.
The iPod world goes beyond a listening experience. It's a place to create your mental atmosphere and musical landscape in a city filled with noise and distraction.
"Life is too hectic," Gerland said. "When I'm out in the garden, I don't want to hear traffic and noise, I want my music to go with what I'm doing. I put on the Grateful Dead, Phish, Sinatra or Burt Bacharach." And when he's fixing a floor or painting a wall, Gerland turns to Frank Zappa or Helicopter.
> An age barrier
iPods have a way of coloring moods.
"It really is a soundtrack for your life; it plays to the way you feel," said Rebecca Rueger, 22, of Boston, N.Y. She has one playlist for jogging and another for quiet study time. Her playlists includes such artists as Coldplay, Incubus, and Dave Matthews, along with indie bands like the Shins.
"It all has to do with attitude," Rueger said. "It's a way to relieve stress or pump yourself up. The iPod is a very personal piece of equipment."
Not everyone loves iPods. Giesler said older people have trouble relating to the machine but younger ones who have grown up with technology "are more open and accepting of the cyborg experience."
Zach Woodill showed his iPod to his grandmother recently, and she was less than thrilled.
"What's so great about it?" she asked.
"I can play any music I want all day," he replied.
"Big deal. I can do the same thing with a record player," she said.
Woodill didn't argue. He plugged in his iPod and listened to the Beatles.