Why don’t iPods enable us to share music?

On a train ride the day before christmas, I observed a group of four people sitting around a table: A mother with her two teenage sons, and a not-too-geeky twentysomething. The teenagers had an MP3 player, one of the cheap USB-stick-like things; the twentysomething had a laptop and a bunch of CDs. Within relatively short time, the twentysomething and the boys had connected, and started talking about music, and started sharing it — or, attempted to share it, going through various technical problems. The story these four people tell is about the social dimension of music and culture, and more specifically, about the social dimension of sharing it.This dimension is not about positioning some product as a cultural movement, marketing-wise: Rather, it is at the very basis of the culture we live in.If anyone was to design a truly cool (as in, cooler than iPod) portable music player, that gadget wouldn’t just be a player that is made a “cultural movement” by marketing. Instead, it would be desinged to connect people by letting them share the music stored on it. It would be designed to strengthen the social fabric that sharing of culture can be. It would be easy to extract stored music. It would be easy to share music between devices, wirelessly. It would be easy to share whatever you listen to currently, by broadcasting (podcasting?) a stream over a local wireless network. It would be easy to tune in to whatever music the others at the table (in the room, on the train, on the plane, …) listen to, if they want to let you in.Obviously, the iPod isn’t that kind of device today, and the social fabric that culture provides is alien to its “cultural movement” of cool, white-headphone-wearing solitude. Apple doesn’t even want you to extract the music stored on it, and the headphones won’t make it easy for you to share whatever you listen to with your seat neighbour. (Nevertheless, iPods are rather nice and quite addictive gadgets.)The technology you need to build the music-sharing gadget I’m dreaming of is there today. But, unfortunately, culture’s social dimension is thoughtlessly denounced as “piracy” these days, so I don’t expect to see that cool device I imagine in the marketplace any time soon.In particular not if the studios get what they want next year.