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Oh No, Pono: The Trouble With Neil Young's New Player
Robert Barry , March 13th, 2014 09:21

Neil Young claims that his newly-announced, 'ultra-high resolution' Pono music player is designed to help restore the "soul" to the music listening experience. What a load of crazy pony, says Robert Barry

I have long bemoaned the mp3 and its oft-times accomplice the iPod. I buy music mostly on vinyl and listen to it on bespoke speakers that dominate my bedsit like twin sarcophagi in an Egyptian tomb. So in many ways I might be thought the ideal customer for Neil Young's newly-launched 'Pono' portable music player, with its hi-fidelity promise. Pono promises lossless audio files, up to "ultra-high resolution" 9216 kbps. A difference, the promotional website promises, that you will not only hear but "feel". Yet all I could think upon seeing the device when it was finally unveiled was: no-one wants something that shape in their pocket.

It looks rather like a Toblerone Chunky would look, had anyone thought to invent such a thing. But nobody has ever considered inventing a Toblerone Chunky, because something that bulky combined with angles that pointy is doomed to be an awkward fit, however you might wish to transport it upon your person. Like many a mis-judged project, I rather suspect Young and his design team were thinking less of practicalities and more of being 'iconic'. But as the good people of the Bauhaus school recognised many years ago, truly iconic design is a natural product of harmony between form and function.

Unfortunately, angular shape and pocketable portability are not the only things ill-matched about the puckish Pono. For all my misgivings about mp3 and iPod, one must admit that they are in many ways a perfectly suited pair. The format seemed to anticipate the player much as mass-produced orange juice once eagerly looked forward to the Tetrapak. Because the mp3 knows you are not really listening. It knew in advance that you were too busy to pay it much attention. The assumption is built into its codec.

There is an irony in Neil Young's decision to promote his PonoPlayer with the promise that it will allow the listener to hear "what we hear", as if it were a free entry pass into the mind of the grizzled old rocker (a place that I can only imagine being as craggy and uncomfortable as the device it has fostered). For the mp3 would have been impossible to develop without a detailed model of the human brain.

As McGill University professor Jonathan Sterne has detailed in his two pioneering histories of sound media (The Audible Past and MP3: The Meaning of a Format), the development of the telephone relied on a particular model of the tympanic mechanism in the human ear. The mp3, on the other hand, relies on a psychoacoustic model of the way sound is processed in the brain. "The mp3 format," he writes, "is designed for casual users". The way it compresses sound is predicated on the gaps in our hearing in a 'normal' listening environment – that is, one in which there is a bunch of other stuff going on: traffic, air conditioning, the hubbub of other people talking.

"The mp3 plays its listener," Sterne wrote in an earlier article for New Media & Society. "Built into every mp3 is an attempt to mimic and, to some degree preempt, the embodied and unconscious dimensions of human perception in the noisy, mixed-media environments of everyday life … [It] puts the body on a sonic austerity programme. It decides for its listeners what they need to hear and gives them only that."

What that means is that, under any circumstances when you might actually use a portable music player – whether it's an iPod or a Pono – the difference between formats will, to all intents and purposes, be imperceptible. If we are to complain, as Young does, of the loss of "soul" in contemporary music listening, simply upgrading to a lossless format will do little to change that. We need to look beyond the codec, to the habits and culture of portable music use.

Sociologist Michael Bull has written extensively about what he calls "iPod culture". He might just as well have called it Walkman culture – or, indeed, Pono culture. The device and its format are not the point. As Bull notes, the iPod is just one of the latest stages in "an acoustic history of increasingly mobile privatised sound." It is just that the iconic status of the iPod, its enormous popularity, have rendered it practically synecdochal for "a culture in which we increasingly use communication technologies to control and manage our experience of the urban environment."

In his 2007 book Sound Moves: iPod Culture And Urban Experience, Bull compares the rapturous "polyrhythmic" descriptions of urban life from earlier in the twentieth century by the likes of Robert Musil, Joseph Roth and Henri Lefebvre, with the responses of his own interviewees, such as 'Tracy', an enthusiastic iPod user who describes using music to filter out the intruding voices of Mexican immigrants as she does her shopping. Or 'Ivan', who says his iPod makes it "easier to avoid guilt-inducing encounters with the homeless". This kind of "auditory filtering" Bull claims, is "a central strategy of iPod users", who use the device to create what one quoted user calls his very own "privacy bubble".

Within each sonic bubble, the iPod becomes not just a music player but a kind of regulatory – even therapeutic – device. "I keep some slow music that gives me a calm, peaceful feeling when I'm in busy or chaotic settings, like on the subway," says one of Bull's interviewees. Another speaks of a a specific mix of 80s pop "that wakes me up and gets me motivated for my day." The spontaneous practice of iPod users then comes to very closely resemble the model developed by researchers working for the Muzak Corporation in the mid-twentieth century.

The wartime research of Muzak vice-president Harold Burris-Meyer recommended just that, "bright, snappy music at start of work" and the selection of music "to create a progressive mood" in order to give "the worker a gentle push". This may seem like common sense today, and the point is not really the specifics of what kind of music people use for what effect, but rather the way iPod culture instrumentalises music in the service of capitalist rationality. It becomes less a source of aesthetic pleasure and contemplation, more a kind of mood regulator to make us fit and productive workers.

If, then, this is the source of the loss of "soul" in music listening that Young is so worried about, what will the Pono do to change this? Absolutely nothing. Young talks about Pono as an "eco-system for music-lovers" but finally, it is just one more device to reduce music to a background environmental hum. In fact, after its much-touted boost in sound quality – next to irrelevant anyway, given that any such change will be unnoticeable in the context of a portable music player participating in the culture of portable music players – it seems like the major difference between an iPod and a Ponoplayer is the price, which is around four times as much. It may be worth recalling that the Hawaiian word 'pono' from which Young's device takes its name means not just 'righteousness' as the music player's publicity bumf notes, but also 'wealth', 'prosperity', 'fortune'.

There is a great deal in Pono's promotional literature about realism and nature. Pono, we are told by its founder multimillionaire Neil Young, is a "grassroots movement", it is about bringing music "back to life", re-imbuing its lost "ambiance" and "texture". It sounds like it should be on sale at The Body Shop or one of Alex James's cheese and twats festivals. And check out the line-up of artists who are backing it: Mumford and Sons, Arcade Fire, Sting. With its prohibitive price tag and promise of even greater control, even more extensive filtering, the Pono, essentially, is the gated community of music players, a miniature Poundbury in your pocket.