The Perfect Thing: How the iPod Shuffles Commerce, Culture, and Coolness
Simon & Schuster, 2006
304 pp., 25.00
Reviewed by Alan Jacobs
Present at the Creation
My first convert—and the one I'm most proud of—was my friend and colleague Roger Lundin. I had said enough to pique his interest, and eventually he agreed to come by my apartment to explore the matter further. Less than half an hour after his arrival he had seen the light, and just a few days later he made his change of heart public: he ordered his very own Macintosh computer.
That was in the summer of 1985. As the years went by and our commitment to the distinctive Mac experience grew deeper, I must admit that along with the pleasures of camaraderie I enjoyed the pleasures of priority: I had gotten there first. But those latter pleasures began to diminish on that dark day, about five years ago now, when Roger showed me his newest acquisition: an iPod. For it may well be that, when we're old men remembering our days of glory, our grandchildren will be far more impressed by Roger's early adoption of the iPod than by my discovery of the Mac. In the long run the little music player—now the little music and media player—could very well be a much bigger thing than any personal computer.
Stephen Levy's new book The Perfect Thing explores and celebrates the brief but eventful history of the iPod, "the most familiar, and certainly the most desirable, new object of the twenty-first century." Indeed, the introduction of the iPod seems at this point one of the landmarks of the new century, along with certain darker events: it seems very strange to me that Apple's CEO announced Apple's new gadget, the company's first significant foray outside the realm of personal computers, on October 23rd, 2001—just forty-two days after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Such are the oddities of memory: those attacks seem to me that they could have happened a few weeks ago, but my pre-iPod life seems to belong to a distant era, at least a decade earlier. Yet the attacks came first. "I think that we're feeling good about coming out with this at a difficult time," Jobs told Levy in a phone interview. "Hopefully it will bring a little joy to people."
It was not at all obvious at the time of Jobs' announcement that the new product would be successful. Everyone seems to have thought it very good-looking, and the idea of "a thousand songs in your pocket"—Apple's first advertising tagline for the iPod—was obviously cool. But given the gadget's price (four hundred bucks) many tech-industry analysts predicted limited sales and a niche market, if not outright failure. Boy, do they look silly now. But at the time their concerns were reasonable. There were already plenty of MP3 players on the market, and there was no reason to be confident that one more, even an exceptionally cool-looking one, would be able to make much headway, especially at a premium price.
But those skeptical analysts, understandably, failed to anticipate Apple's next moves, and failed to see what (besides good looks) set the iPod apart from other music players. After I got my own iPod and started showing it to curious family and friends, I noticed something extraordinary: even the most technologically illiterate person needed only about thirty seconds to figure out how to work the thing—it seemed to fall into a person's palm with the scroll wheel positioned just where a thumb could land on it—and in two or three minutes the novice was spinning through my music library like a DJ working a turntable. If the simple white form of the iPod with its wonderfully seamless assembly, which has gotten even more precise with each iteration of the gadget, was a triumph of design, its interface was more like a miracle. And interestingly, the idea for a scroll wheel interface came not from any of Apple's engineers, nor from the God of Industrial Design, Jonathan Ive—great is he and greatly to be praised—but from Apple's VP for marketing, Phil Schiller.
But the engineering proved crucial too. The original iPod—I'm holding mine right now (I still use it as a backup disk)—seems hulking in comparison to later models, but it does fit in a pocket, and in 2001 that seemed astonishingly small for a device containing a thousand songs. And some engineering decisions that may have seemed dubious at the time, notably making iPods compatible only with Macs that had a FireWire port for transferring data, proved to be brilliant. FireWire was relatively uncommon in 2001, but it transfers data almost forty times faster than the then-standard USB-1. Only that kind of speed made it truly feasible for people to see the iPod as a device onto which they could load, with regular updates, their whole musical library. Once other computer manufacturers saw how cool that was, they started implementing FireWire drives in their own machines, which hastened the arrival of iTunes for Windows and the expansion of iPod sales to the vast market of Windows users. (The iPod also pushed the development of the now-standard USB-2, which newer iPods use, and which is even faster than FireWire.)
Once the iTunes Music Store arrived—this was one of those unanticipated "next moves," because music-industry experts were unanimous in their agreement that record companies would never allow the purchase of individual songs from albums—Apple made buying music online equally appealing and straightforward. I now find it hard to say what comes easier to me: loading music onto my iPod, playing my iPod, or giving Apple Computer a significant percentage of my disposable income. Maybe that last one, since I had considerable experience with it before the iPod appeared.
Levy skillfully tells the story of the iPod's development, with any number of memorable anecdotes. My favorite: it was Levy who gave Bill Gates his first look at an iPod. Gates grabbed it and immediately tried every button in every combination. Says Levy, "I could almost hear the giant sucking sound." Eventually he handed it back to Levy and said, "It looks like a great product. It's only for Macintosh?" Along the way Levy explores various themes that seem to radiate from the little white box: the question of what makes something cool (Gates makes a return appearance here, insisting on a connection between coolness and market share—of course); how the Sony Walkman inaugurated the history of the portable music player; and, perhaps most intriguingly, why so many people see their iPod playlists as essential markers of their identity.
This tendency—mon iPod, c'est moi—is irrational, perhaps, but irresistible: having just noted the last ten songs played randomly by my own iPod, I am deeply disappointed to see one of U2's most famous songs there, and even a little annoyed that the Beck song it pulled up is one of his more accessible. I would feel much cooler if it had pulled out something by the Dirty Three, or Charlie Patton, or Yo La Tengo. But as things stand I feel ordinary. This little electronic gadget, like a pocket-sized Freudian analyst, has somehow revealed—worse, allowed me to reveal—my inauthenticity, as though its famously fingerprint-attracting polished metal back had lifted itself before my appalled face and cried, Behold!
Shuffling is what most fascinates Levy about the iPod. Very early in his experience with the machine, Levy discovered the Shuffle setting that allows your iPod to play your music library in random order, and that became his habitual mode for listening to music. He remains obsessed by the curious connections and transitions that seem to emerge from the Shuffle mode. Among other things, Levy is convinced that his iPod has a perverse fondness for the music of Steely Dan. When he wrote about this experience for Newsweek he got an avalanche of email from people who believed that This Is No Coincidence with the fervor of an Agent Mulder. One man's iPod surveys his collection of Beatles music and chooses to play "Get Back" over and over again. Another complains that his iPod plays Christmas music often in the summer, almost never in December. Another believes that his iPod's choices reflect its moods, ranging from euphoria to deep melancholia. And one woman feels that her iPod senses her moods and chooses appropriate music in response. Which is nice of it.
Levy considers the possibility—raised by several cultural commentators, including Andrew Sullivan—that the iPod is isolating us from one another. Sidewalks and subway cars that were once filled with lively noise are not populated by hordes of silent people with white earbuds in their ears whose inability to hear their surroundings seems to be accompanied by a glazing-over of their eyes as well. Or so says Sullivan; I think he's grossly exaggerating, as he is prone to do. But those white buds surely seem to be everywhere, and it's hard to say what social effect they're having. Consider this: on the evening of November 3rd, 2004, something strange happened in the Waterloo Street station of the London Underground. Dozens of people, mostly young, arrived on the platform and began dancing. But there was no audible music, and no two of them seemed to be dancing to the same beat. That's because they were all wearing their earbuds and listening to their iPods. Each was in his or her own musical world; but all had agreed to meet at that time and that place, and were clearly engaged in a social activity that they all very much enjoyed—an activity unimaginable without the iPod, and the electronically connected world of which it's an integral part.
Draw your own conclusions. And if you're going to be in London anytime soon, or in any other big city, feel free join the dancers. Check out http://www.mobile-clubbing.com for more information. As for me, I'm headed for the local Apple Store to get the awesome, and awesomely tiny, new iPod Shuffle. Hope I beat Roger to it.
My iPod History
- original iPod (5 gig capacity)
- 3rd-generation iPod (15 gig capacity)
- iPod Shuffle (1 gig capacity)
- iPod nano (4 gig capacity)
Last Ten Songs Played on My iPod (Shuffle Mode):
- Tom Waits, "Lowside of the Road"
- Beck, "Lost Cause"
- U2, "Walk On"
- Kelly Willis, "Got a Feelin' for Ya"
- Bill Frisell, "Baba Drame"
- Uncle Tupelo, "Effigy"
- Martin Simpson, "There's a Great Change"
- R. L. Burnside, "Mojo Hand"
- Modern Jazz Quartet, "No Moe"
- Steve Earle, "Conspiracy Theory"
Alan Jacobs is professor of English at Wheaton College. He's at work on a history of original sin.
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