Through the Wire: Extended Cognition, Memory, and the iPod (Joseph Potischman)


This paper analyzes the iPod system (device, software, accessories) as a device that enables extended cognition, with varied affordances compared to the other music technologies which came before. It will include concepts important to understanding the differences between music and language processes, context for the iPod within the realm of other cognitive technologies, and lastly how the organizational capabilities of the iPod have altered the environment for music listening in the modern age.


Clark (1998, p. 13-15) wrote about artifacts of extended cognition as portable systems intertwined with our biological memory. The information stored in these systems are must be useful to the user whenever they want to retrieve it. For some, music listening is thought of as innocuous, a frivolous pleasure, or a distraction with little impact. Walking through bustling city streets we have become accustom to seeing humans with wires running into their ears, ‘tuned out’ from the rhythm of daily life. They are completely engaged in something else, and it is not clear what this type of musical immersion represents. If we re-classify music listening as an engagement with cultural memory and the iPod as an artifact for extended cognition, perhaps we can build a stronger representation for the meaning making behind music listening.

Music and Language Processing

To try and build on the meaning of what music is, especially as it relates to the iPod, we must first define what it is not. While music and language share similarities in some aspects, in many more they strongly differ. The meaning elements of music can be described as “stacks of sound moving in time” (Irvine, 2016, p. 1). How watching a movie is not implicitly the same as experiencing the actions on screen, listening to music is not the same as experiencing the moments which the musician signifies. Music instead serves as a conduit to personal memory, taking the themes expressed by someone else and ‘remediating’ them, or seamlessly sliding the music into a new context to fit one’s own experience (Bolter & Grusin, 1999).

By continuously experiencing a specific musical style, listeners can attain a fluency in that style in the same way they understand language. However, even though one language can be translated into another, musical styles cannot. Instead just as every individual learns the local language, they also learn the local variant of music, which functions more as a culturally specific meaning system (Irvine, 2016 & Jackendoff, 2009, p. 195). For instance, Spanish could be translated into Czech, but a Banda could not be translated into a Polka. This does not mean that musical styles cannot permeate cultural boundaries. In fact, musical influence can diffuse across cultures and take on new uses, in the same way that Banda music is derived from Norteno music which originated with Polka (Flores, 1992).

We also do not process music with the same logical directionality in which we process language. When we hear language we first analyze the sound (phonology), then the words in the sound (lexicon) and the structure of those words (syntax), enabling us to parse what they mean so we can think about them (Jackendoff, 2003). This same process does not occur when listening to music, or at least with musical instrumentation. Rather we respond to the simultaneous sound stack immediately, and try to parse out a semantic meaning within the context of our own cultural exposure to sound (Irvine, 2016, p.2).

Why the iPod

This paper specifically focuses on the iPod because of its market dominance and the significant differences between its functionality and the other portable music devices that existed before it. In 2008, approximately three million songs were sold per day through the iTunes store, capturing 83 percent of the market for all digital music sales. Even though there were cheaper MP3 players that had similar interfaces similar, most of those devices, like the iRiver, have faded into obscurity. This is mainly because the iPod held such a dominant spot in the market (Sundie, Gelb, & Bush, 2008, P. 179). It also must be noted that the iPod combined with the iTunes software created the first complete web-connected portable music system (Sydell, 2009). While the iPod is certainly not the first music device, it is unique in that it combines the portability of devices like the Walkman, and Cassette player, with the totality of a record collection, within a closed system. It is then important to look at the iPod within the existing research on cognitive technologies.



Otto’s iPod

Clark and Chalmers (1998) wrote that active externalism helps explain how the environment we make decisions in helps drive our cognitive processes. Like their example of Otto’s notebook as an external artifact for extended cognition, t he iPod can also be thought of as an artifact for extended cognition. Otto’s notebook would help him retrieve the locations of places he wanted to visits, so that all he would have to do is scroll through his book to find the directions he needs. The iPod enables Otto to scroll through his musical memories in the same way, anything he decides to save on his iPod will be available to him later.

The notebook acts as an indexical marker for the places Otto has already been. He can flip through the notebook, and all the experiences he has had at the locations he has visited become retrievable as well (Clark & Chalmers, 1998). This connects back with the concept of the iPod as an audio diary. When we listen to music we can go back to the moments in which we heard the music, but we can also go back to moments the music reminds us of (Bull, 2009). For instance, we might listen to a song because we heard it at a concert or a restaurant and we want to re-experience that moment. There is also a second level of meaning making that comes from the actual content of the songs ability to create a mood, a quality which will be discussed later in this paper.

While finding the proper directions for where he wants to go is the ultimate reason for using the notebook, there are other externalities from offloading cognition into it. With his iPod Otto no longer needs to remember all the musical experiences he’s had (although it’s also possible that he would not be able to even if he wanted). The iPod becomes the environment in which he can re-engage his cultural notebook. Just as the contents of Otto’s notebook are not simply records, they also represent his work, the contents of his iPod are not just songs, but memories.

iTunes Library as a Sign Vehicle

“A sign is something by knowing, which we know something more” – C.S. Peirce

The ability for individuals to manipulate signs and symbols changed with the popularization of the iPod. Rather than having a physical CD, LP, or record collection, every musical file a person owned would be indexed in their iTunes “library”, with text representing specific artists, albums, and songs. For this to work, the inner mind would have to be able to decide that these images represent music, but this interpretation is just a further representation (Barrett, 2013, p.  5).

Interacting with an iPod, the user undergoes the process of semiosis.  Specifically, humans interpret sound recordings, with meanings that are intersubjective and conform to a cultural category. The community that forms around these musical signs creates a dialogic culture (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy & Peirce, 2006). It’s not a community of practice in which people produce music, but rather one where they re-produce it. In the earlier stages of its ubiquity people would often ask to scroll through an iPod user’s library in public places. Mutual agreements on music could lead to friendship, while at the same time, possessing an iPod with contents considered within the category of culturally “un-cool”, could allow for the scroll-er to make unfair value judgements about the iPod owner (Levy, 2006, p.147). In this same way, DJs use their turn tables and records not to produce, but to reproduce music, their selections are based on how well they relate to the musical identity of the crowd they are performing to (Katz, 2004, p. 115). If they pick music that fits within the context of the event, then they are successful, if not than the crowd will share their distaste.

Associated Indexing and the iPod

The human mind jumps from point to point, and computers enable this rapid thought association on screen (Bush, 1945, p. 9). Associating indexing is the ability to take each point in succession and tether it. Where the memex would have accomplished this by storing articles in a desk, the iPod stores its content in a hard drive. It’s computing power works in real time so that the user can scroll on the click wheel (fig. 1) while determining a sequential selection (Licklider, 1962). The iPod user can put on a song and let the content of the music guide us to our next selection, making free associations within the iPod’s stored memory. The click wheel serves the same purpose as the graphical user interface system paired with the mouse, albeit with less autonomy (Engelbart, 1962). Users would rely on their thumbs to scroll through their music library and press down to select, rather than pointing and clicking with an entire screen as their backdrop.




Here is a breakdown of the main affordances pertaining to the iPod, not all of which are unique:

  1. The iPod is portable

In 2006, Olympic Snowboarder Hannah Teter, tucked her iPod into her winter jacket and boarded her gold medal winning run to the tune playing in her earbuds. However, while there are many instances of other well-known figures using an iPod, we are just as likely to see anyone running down the street with headphones in their ears as they move synchronized to the beat of the music and not the rhythm of the street (Levy, 2006 & Bull, 2009, p. 85). This was much harder to do with the bulkier CD players that pre-dated the iPod. Although it was portable, the iPod would only enable playback if it was charged.

  1. The iPod is battery powered

In the top-right corner of the iPod is an icon representing a battery. The charge indicated in the battery displays to the user how much longer there iPod will last. All iPods were built with rechargeable lithium ion-batteries inside of them. These batteries have a life span of 8 to 12 hours before they would need to be charged again depending on usage. Fully charging the battery from no charge would take the approximately 4 hours, so users would need to be aware of the status of their device (Apple, 2016). It is the dock connector interface which makes this charging possible, as users could plug their iPod into any three-pronged outlet to charge. This is different from past music devices like phonographs and turntables which were completely stationary, as well as cassette and CD players which were mostly powered by non-rechargeable batteries. The dock connector was also multifunctional in that it could be plugged into a larger speaker system for playback.

  1. The iPod enables the MP3/MPEG playback

As previously mentioned, when the iPod was first released, it was not the first portable system to play MP3 or MPEG files on. However, The iPod coupled with the iTunes software and iTunes store created the first legal system to listen to and download songs from the internet (Sydell, 2009). At the time of its release, the two components were also inoperable without the other, ensuring that any user fearful of punishment for copyright infringement would use the iPod (Sundie, Gelb, and Bush, 2008).

Steve Jobs brokered a deal with the major record companies to legally license and sell music through the iTunes store, thus creating a digital music store with most of the same capabilities as its local, physical iteration. This does not mean that iPod users could not violate copyright law, as they would often circumvent the iTunes store by downloading music from illegal services like Napster, LimeWire, or Pirate’s Bay and upload these files to their iPod (Knopper, 2013). This development was somewhat inevitable as MP3 and MPEG’s are non-rivalrous resources; consumption of these files by one person does not limit the consumption of another and the sound does not degrade when copied (Katz, 2004, p. 163).

One of the trade-offs that listeners make when using the iPod is that some musical frequencies are drowned out by other sounds on a track. There is a loudness factor that is lost in MP3/MPEG listening. With traditional vinyl, the sound of a slammed piano key in a jazz piece will briefly cover the sound of the other instruments playing concurrently. However, when coding those sounds into a digital format, the background sounds are assigned fewer bits of data than the foreground sounds, and the listener hears less variability (Katz, 2004, p. 160). “Portable device audio decoding and amplifying technology [like the iPod] is not designed for music but for low-quality ‘functional’ sound,” and while this is true, the iPod fools our ears just the same (Irvine, 2016, p. 5).

  1. The iPod is automated

Whenever you press ‘play’, you receive an uninterrupted sequence of music because the iPod is an automated device. This self-operating principle means that when a track ends, the iPod does not stop playback (Denning & Martell, 2015). This is markedly different from past musical devices. The phonograph, turntable, cassette player, and CD player were all limited by the physical contents which they were playing. Vinyl records and cassette tapes contain two sides, so that when one side ends the listener must get up from what they are doing, go over to their phonograph (and later turntable, followed by cassette player) and flip the record or cassette over. With the popularization of CD’s, users no longer had to flip from side to side, but they would still have the problem of an interrupted music experience. iPod users can hear an uninterrupted stream of music provided their iPod is charged.

Organizational Capabilities of the iPod

According to Blichfeldt (2004), “social identity can be explained as the way we present and understand ourselves in relation to other people. In the same way that you need to organize the world around you, for it to give meaning, you also have to organize how you view yourself” (p. 43). If music acts as a cognitive system to tailor our surroundings to our desired psychological state of mind, then the ways in which we organize music can have a similar effect on our musical identity and mood.

There is a scene in the film High Fidelity (Frears, 2000) where the main character, an audiophile, decides he is going to re-arrange every record in his collection autobiographically. If he wants access to a certain song, he’s going to have to remember the album, and the context in which he first heard it. He sits in a sea of vinyl trying to remember the order he listened to his music (figure 3). With the iPod system, it would merely take a click of the mouse to rearrange his library to reflect the order in which he first downloaded his music. While this encounter is humorous, and it should be, it presents an interesting take on the way we functionally think about music, and illustrates how the different affordances between an iPod and a record collection work in action.


Source: High Fidelity (2000)

When new symbols are inserted into a gallery they recursively modify the course of the constructed history by changing the meaning of the symbols that come before it (Irvine, 2016). Just as museums function under this principle of recursive modification, so does media on an iPod. The organizing principles someone takes when using their iPod will greatly influence their listening experience.  If someone decides they are going to listen to music by bands that start with the letter M, they would have a very different experience from someone who decides they are going to listen to music based on genre.


Choosing a different organizing principle to guide a listener could also greatly influence the style of music they hear. With the ability to change someone’s entire library with just a few letters typed into a search there has emerged a divergent approach to music listening. This occurs when users search for mood, rather than artists, albums, genres, etc. (Katz, 2004, p. 168). Type the word ‘cry’ or ‘tears’ into the iTunes search bar and one would receive music that relates to sadness. They could also type in the word ‘blue’ and have an entirely different shift in melancholy sounds.


Of course, listeners could decide to operate with no organizational principle. By using the shuffle feature can go through the entire contents of their iPod at random. You can go from the relaxed sounds of George Harrison to the cold trap music of Rick Ross, with no commonalities between songs, except for the fact that they are in the same library. The mood shift between the two is extremely abrupt and further illustrates how music can create a personal soundscape, but can also disrupt it. This is not possible with a record player where music is ordered sequentially, and the user must initiate playback by physically changing from vinyl to vinyl.


Ultimately music functions as an affect to the thoughts which words convey (Jackendoff, 2009). Certain types of instrumentation, a lonely harp plink, or a violent cymbal crash, can direct a listener to a certain mood. Of course, most songs do not exist in a pure instrumental format, but are filled with signs and meanings. When we can curate those feelings instantaneously, we have more power to experience the world as we want to see it. In a series of interviews conducted by Bull (YEAR) on the iPod’s ability to individualize one’s immediate surroundings, one respondent said: “there is a song for every situation in my life, even if I might have forgotten about a certain time, person, or place, a song can trigger memories again in no time” (p. 87). If music is a way to capture memories in the form of an auditory diary, then the iPod is the most accessible device for memory retrieval in a closed system that humans have had.


With headphones firmly pressed around the ear, there is a paradox of isolation and intimacy (Bernstein, 2016). We are now able to create our own personalized soundscape anywhere we want, giving us the ability to engage in the dialogic culture in ways never possible. At the same time, it cuts us away from reality, so we do not hear what’s going on around us. The first model of the Sony Walkman came with an orange button that could be used to contact other people’s headphones enabling conversation, but the company phased this feature out (Levy, 2006, p. 212). The whole point of headphones, of portable music listening, is to mediate reality, not to connect with people. However, it would be too easy to say that this is separating us from others, as this paper discussed the act of music listening is to engage in a historic cultural dialogue. People have always tried to mediate their surroundings to fit their own narrative, and the iPod is just one of the latest in a long line to enable them to do so.


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