What the Death of iTunes Says About Our Digital Habits

We started the 2010s obsessed with our electronic hygiene—and ended them a nation of digital hoarders. Eleven ideas about the decade that killed iTunes.

Mega Pixel / Shutterstock / The Atlantic
  1. One of the great cultural events of the 2010s was the slow abandonment and ultimate death of iTunes. By the time the software was euthanized earlier this year, it had become an embarrassment, a mess of greasy preference panes and grayed-out, unreliable content. We were glad to see it go.
  2. When iTunes launched in January 2001, Apple’s software was a place to organize the MP3s and other music files on your desktop computer. (It was not yet even a tool to sync an iPod, because the first iPod didn’t come out until October 2001.) But within a few years, it became a “digital hub,” a place to organize your music and movies and, eventually, iPhone, which debuted in 2007. (Note for younger readers: An iPod was like an iPhone, except it could not make phone calls, or search the internet, or sext, and the sexts would have been terrible, because it had a black-and-white screen.) But iTunes kept guzzling other functions: digital movies, TV shows, and then apps.
  3. In 2011, Apple started to let people update their iPhone’s operating system without using iTunes at all. Within a few years—I would peg it at 2014—iTunes became so lugubrious that people stopped using it to sync their iPhones at all. Without the help of iTunes’ drag-and-drop interface for organizing app icons on a desktop computer, Americans’ home-screen discipline deteriorated. It was possible to organize apps on an iPhone, but it was not nearly as easy. So the apps piled up on home screen after home screen.
  4. This breakdown fueled the creeping sense of disorder that haunted the late decade. (I have no data to support this.)
  5. How total was this change? Whereas most iPhone users once had only two or three home screens, with apps neatly categorized into folders; they now had six or seven panes, their most-used apps arbitrarily distributed amid forgotten and barely used trivialities. Most iPhone users could not tell you where the most-used apps on their phone live. (I also have no data to support this.)
  6. “You could not remove a single grain of sand from its place,” wrote the German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte in 1800, “without thereby … changing something throughout all parts of the immeasurable whole.” He was not writing about iPhone apps, but he could have been.
  7. The abandonment of iTunes heralded a broader shift in how Americans are assumed to approach their digital lives. You could call it the victory of Gmail. When it debuted in 2004, Google’s email software offered Americans a revolutionary new way of thinking about their digital footprint: Don’t. Instead of encouraging people to file their email into folders or delete it—which is how you have to deal with paper mail—it encouraged an approach that, anywhere else, would be called hoarding. “With tons of storage space, you’ll never need to delete an email,” said a recent Gmail tutorial. “Just keep everything and easily find it later.”

    In the ensuing 15 years, that basic assumption has spread to other online Google products: Google Drive, Google Documents, Google Spreadsheets. But it has also influenced user interfaces down the road from Mountain View. Most iPhone users, instead of tapping on a favorite app, now just search for it from the top bar. Even on Mac OS, the top sidebar item in the Finder file system lists recently used files, not one’s documents or desktop. (A note for older readers: More time separates us today from the debut of the first iPod than separated the first iPod from the debut of the first Macintosh computer.)
  8. Another way to understand this: The computing realities of the 2000s have displaced the dreams of the ’90s. Instead of the libertarian-communitarian global village that Wired magazine and other prophets of the California ideology once imagined—where people control their individual digital domicile, then freely distribute the fruits of their orchard—we have been displaced to a kind of rentier’s frontier, where there’s enough space for everyone as long as you pay a low monthly fee.
  9. Perhaps the change was inevitable. A friend compared looking at a smartphone home screen to looking at the messiest closet in someone’s house. “I would never ask to see either of them,” she said. But trying to organize your phone (or computer) is like trying to organize a closet that can always get larger. Now there’s essentially no hard limit on what you can store on a personal device, be it phone or computer—since 2010, the cost of a gigabyte of hard-drive space has fallen from 10 cents to 1 cent. Why spend your one wild and precious life organizing app icons on a home screen? Why throw out books when you can always buy a new bookshelf?
  10. So what really failed, maybe, wasn’t iTunes at all—it was the implicit promise of Gmail-style computing. The explosion of cloud storage and the invention of smartphones both arrived at roughly the same time, and they both subverted the idea that we should organize our computer. What they offered in its place was a vision of ease and readiness. What the idealized iPhone user and the idealized Gmail user shared was a perfect executive-functioning system: Every time they picked up their phone or opened their web browser, they knew exactly what they wanted to do, got it done with a calm single-mindedness, and then closed their device. This dream illuminated Inbox Zero and Kinfolk and minimalist writing apps. It didn’t work. What we got instead was Inbox Infinity and the algorithmic timeline. Each of us became a wanderer in a sea of content. Each of us adopted the tacit—but still shameful—assumption that we are just treading water, that the clock is always running, and that the work will never end.
  11. In 1940, the German critic Walter Benjamin wrote about an angel in a Paul Klee painting. The angel looked “as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. … The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward.” It is now clear, 80 years later, that the angel is looking at his phone.