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  • Writer's pictureDominic Cincotta

The iPod through the Lens of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: A Literature Review


This paper seeks to show the evolution and marketing of the iPod was a normal science. The engineers at Apple recognized a cultural shift. They used this shift as a market advantage by creating a device that would facilitate the paradigm shift of “music as community” to “music as individual.” This idea spawned a revolution and imitators.


The technology examined in this position paper is the iPod. I will use the concept of the iPod to represent the greater mp3 mobile music player concept and the shift to individualism. An article in Phil’s Stock World claims, “Microsoft Corporation’s (NASDAQ:MSFT) foray into the MP3 market with Zune, along with countless other failures, has still not been able to crack Apple’s overpowering music market position.” (2011) Therefore, I am justified in using iPod as the pervasive digital music icon. Because the iPod is the most prevalent form of the mp3 player, I believe it can be used to describe this phenomenon as a whole. I will be examining the iPod in terms of its replacement of the portable personal compact disc player, boombox, and walkman. This will be done through the lens of the development of the iPod as a normal science. Thomas Kuhn as defines this normal science as, “predicated on the assumption that the scientific community knows what the world is like.” (1996, pg. 5) In this sense we will be taking the perspective that the scientific community developed the iPod technology in an effort to satiate a cultural desire to make the listening experience more individual and less materialistic.

Review of the Literature

The personal compact disc (CD) player, allowed humans to take digital music with them wherever they went. Along with the player and a listening device, one would be required to either 1) carry a portfolio of music with them or 2) create pirate CD’s with play lists of choice. In the early 2000’s science noted and attempted to capitalize on a societal move away from materialism in music consumption. This can be noted in Paolo Magaudda’s article, “When materiality ‘bites back’: Digital music consumption practices in the age of dematerialization.” (2011) In this article Maguadda explores the idea that the consumer in the 2000’s wants the same level of engagement in their music (if not more) but wants to reject the outward signs of consumerism related to this engagement. The only logical solution was to make the technology for music reproduction smaller in order to hide it. Maguadda explores the material assumptions of owning first a phonograph, then the 8 track tape, and finally CD equipment and the status that these material objects connoted. Magaudda’s sums up, “Consequently, we have witnessed many changes in the world of music consumption because of the shift from a fixed materiality of music consumed--represented, for example, by audiotapes or compact discs (CDs)--to the fluidity of intangible digital formats.” (2011, pg. 18) Hence the scientific development of the mp3 music format and the need for the iPod was imminent.

The iPod is defined as, “A portable MP3 player sold by Apple Computer. More recent models allow you to store and view photos and video.” (Glasser, 2006) or “a pocket-sized device used to play music files” ( What this device created was the ability to store large quantities of music, photos, and media on a single digital device that operated independently of extraneous hardware while in the playback mode. The scientific community took note of the cultural move to more mobility, convenience, and the technology bubble. To this end, they looked to create a device that allowed the portability of media without the need for extraneous material. The scientific community enhanced the shift to this mobility with the development of the iPod.

In Michael Bull’s article, Iconic Designs: The Apple iPod, we can examine the technological advancement in the terms of history. Bull reminds us, “With the invention of the miniature transistor and hand-held, battery powered radios made possible in the 1950’s, a new culture of mobile sound emerged, re-imagined in the 1980s with the Sony “walkman” (equipped with privatizing earphones” and ghetto boomboxes (outfitted with loudspeaker quality sub-woofers).” Bull goes on to claim that through this continued technological development path we have freed ourselves from the “establishment” of music through the development of the iPod. Clearly, Bull cites that the development of the iPod started this scientific revolution towards privatization of our musical experience.

The anomaly with the normal science revolution in the iPod came in the form of the dematerialization. As we can see, with all of the replaced technology there was some subconscious reference to how this piece reflected or impacted those around you. “Privatizing earphones,” notes a luxury in having your music to yourself, however, these earphones were fairly large and cumbersome. They were not the micro in-ear buds of today. In this sense, by wearing these large earphones, you were telling those around you, “I have my own music and I want you to know.” In the form of the boombox and its “loudspeaker quality sub-woofer,” we can blatantly see the reference to loudspeaker and the connotation of wanting a large group to hear what is being played. This phenomenon is seen during the break-dance era of the 80’s and 90’s with large groups of people crowded around this device, sharing in a communal experience. The iPod subverted all of these trends by trying to hide the personal music experience.

The move to private music with mobility defines the paradigm shift that the iPod began. An iPod user in Bull’s article notes, “It truly is my own personal jukebox, and puts the soundtrack to my life in my pocket and at my fingertips.” (2006, pg. 2) He crystallizes this definition of the paradigm shift when he writes, “In sum, the iPod puts them in tune with their desire to eke out some aesthetic control as they weave their way through the day.” Bull and Maguadda work together to show us a world that is becoming more and more person centric and moving away from social activity. The science community oriented itself to this shift through the development of a technology that allowed the user to partake in music and create a “soundtrack” on a very private level and without any social interaction. (This point is reinforced by the fact that you do not even have to go to a store to buy an iPod or music.)

Gustavus Stadler discusses the meaning of the move to a digital technology in his 2010 article, Breaking Sound Barriers. “It is worth reminding ourselves, especially having embraced a constructionist view of technology and sound itself, that the various phenomena that construct them nevertheless bear specific traits, patterns of use, and symbolic resonances, even as they are never fully defined by them.” Stadler claims that the most prominent of these concepts is that of “liberation.” This quote nicely shows this technology development as a normal science in reference to a constructionist view in that there was a base of personal music, science noted a culture shift, and the iPod was constructed to enhance the users experience and fill a coming tech gap. The liberation concept that Stadler discusses is the exact dematerialization and mobility which I am discussing in this paper. The iPod allowed people to feel freer because they now had less cumbersome “material.” They were now free to roam anywhere on earth and have their “life’s soundtrack” resonating in their ears.

Apple took this individualization to a psychological level in their early advertisements. The first advertisements consisted of a silhouetted body, dancing on our screen with earbuds in and iPod in hand. At no point does this being interact or share their music. Apple was defining the “new cool” and this cool was a form of solitary elitism. They were saying that if you can have this solo experience, you are cool and part of an elite sect of humanity. Apple continued this advertising campaign for years, until the technology had become so prevalent that the message was no longer relevant. They had created a culture of I and Me. There was no way to stand out against the culture because the culture did not care that you were standing out. Each person was concerned with their world and their soundtrack more than they cared what you were doing. But this was not the end of the dematerialization and individualism paradigm shift.

This individualism brought on by the iPod can be seen culminating in its name. The “i” in iPod is seen as standing for individual. Here we are getting into some semiotics but this lower case “i” in today’s culture is a symbol. It stands for Apple, individual, luxury, and elite, among many other concepts. It rejects proper English. It defines Apple’s products as something different that do not have to follow the rules. These “i” products are for those who live by their own rules and they do it alone. This is a meaning that has been cultivated by Apple and their line of “i” products that have evolved from the iPod and iMac. The “i” revolution is the definition of the paradigm shift that the iPod technology defined. It put the “i” in individual and then provided a line of technology that allowed the user to be an individual anywhere and everywhere.

Maguadda offers the only counter-argument to the dematerialization shift and iPod development. “Moreover, ‘re-materialization’ in musical practices also highlights the increasing relevance of the appropriation of technology devices and shaping the changing consumer experiences.”(2011, pg. 33) Through this he is referencing the cultural drive to have the newest, smallest, and most technological iPod device. This is materialism at its pinnacle. From this idea we can conclude that this individualistic paradigm shift is not pervasive through all aspects of life. What this idea helps us to understand is that we want to appear individual and free of material things, but we do this by acquiring the newest device so that we can hide our materials. In one sense, this is like buying offsite storage for our household items just so that we don’t appear to have them in an effort to seem free of these items. But this storage must be the most up to date and technologically secure storage available, or else we feel behind the times. In essence, we are living in a paradox of trying to hide material and technology through the use and development and acquisition of more technology.

We continue to see the move of ever-decreasing size of iPod devices and the increased capacity for storage on these devices. We see the evolving to an ever more private music experience in Bluetooth and smaller earphones. This paradigm shift will continue until the next normal science move comes along to fulfill the newest technology demand.


In conclusion, we can see that the evolution and marketing of the iPod was a normal science. The engineers at Apple recognized a cultural shift. They used this shift as a market advantage by creating a device that would facilitate the paradigm shift of “music as community” to “music as individual.” This idea spawned a revolution and imitators. However, Apple remains the front runner of this format with the iPod. The iPod has also staked its claim as the product of a normal science through its evolution into the iPhone and multiple iPod generations. This informs us that this shift and science is on-going and continues to push the bounds. The paradigm shift evidence is enhanced by the adoption of the iPod into the education and business systems as a legitimate form of knowledge and information transfer through podcasts. The iPod certainly is a technological innovation, driven out of cultural desire, which facilitated a paradigm shift out of natural need ,and therefore it is rightfully considered a product of normal science.


Bull, Michael (2006, March). Iconic Designs: The Apple iPod. Third International Workshop on Mobile Music Technology. Conducted at University of Sussex, Brighton, UK. 2-3 March 2006.

Glasser, Mark (2006). Media Shift, [definition of iPod]. Retrieved September 1, 2011, from

Innovative Bird Keeps All the Worms. (13 July). Phil’s Stock World [Phil’s Stock World – BLOG], Retrieved August 31, 2011, from Research Library. (Document ID: 2397075051).

Kuhn, Thomas S. (1996). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago, IL. University of Chicago Press.

Maguadda, Paolo (2011). When materiality ‘bites back’: Digital music consumption practices in the age of dematerialization. Journal of Consumer Culture. 11(1). 16- 35. Retrieved from, WordNet Search. [Definition of iPod] Retrieved on September 1, 2011 from

Stadler, Gustavus (2010, Spring). Breaking Sound Barriers. Social Text 101. 28(1). 1-12 Text 101. 28(1). 1-12.

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