As I entered the grocery store checkout line, I immediately let out a sigh. Not only were there several packed carts in front of me, but the checker was involved with an unhappy customer—an apparent dispute over the charges on her receipt. I felt my impatience rising, certain of the long wait ahead of me. Then I had a flash—my iPod was in the pocket of my jacket. I eagerly drew it out, popped in the ear buds, and now, with the background of some favorite tunes, the oppressively long line no longer seemed so intolerable.
Critics of the iPod might say that I’m just another person who is zoning out the realities of life. Encased my own pod world, I’m missing out on the opportunity to be present and interact with other people around me. Proponents might just as well argue that most people aren’t going to be striking up conversations while standing in line anyhow. With the iPod, I’m able to transform what started out as an unpleasant experience into a pleasing musical interlude. What could be wrong with that?
These are just some of the cultural and social implications of the iPod that Stephen Levy explores in The Perfect Thing: How the iPod Shuffles Commerce, Culture, and Coolness. The author of Newsweek’s “Technologist” column, Levy brings his interest and knowledge of technology, as well as a genuine love of music, to examine the ways the iPod has profoundly influenced not only the computer and music industries, but our fashion, social lives, and even our lexicon.
To mirror how the iPod “shuffles” music by randomly selected a song from a playlist, Levy has shuffled the chapters of his book. Related but independent of each other, the chapters can be read in any order. Pick up two copies of the book off a bookstore shelf, in fact, and you may find the chapters in completely different orders. It might sound cheesey, but Levy’s shuffled format succeeds at keeping the reader constantly connecting different strands of his explorations, much as a playlist on shuffle might allow a listener to make unprecedented associations between different songs.
Levy traces the history of the iPod through many interviews with Apple execs, employees, and other tech mavens involved with its development. What emerges is in many ways a business story: the product that resurrected a struggling computer company. Yet the release of the first iPod in October 2001 proved to symbolize another, new kind of rebuilding. The digital music world, much like the outside world, had changed forever.
Apple banked on an interface designed for a wide audience (“easy enough that your grandma could use it”), a sleek, appealing design, and the technology to easily deliver hours of music to the user. The strategy appears to have paid off—sales of the iPod have catapulted Apple to the forefront of the digital music industry, with no competitor even coming close to its market share.
Levy explains that this has meant big changes for a company that was once defined by its niche status. The Apple company has transformed from a small, select computer maker to a major player in the music industry. Tellingly, Apple recently announced the dropping of “Computer” from its corporate name. With Apple’s unveiling of its iPhone (after the release of Levy’s book), it will be interesting to see whether Apple’s strengths—and limitations—can also lead it to a dominant position in the cell phone industry.
Perhaps the most groundbreaking aspect of the iPod—even more so than its beloved click-wheel—has been the single-song delivery model of its iTunes store. Levy explores how Apple attempted to find a happy medium between a download-shy record industry and users accustomed to programs like Napster by making music available on a song-by-song basis for 99 cents each. To appease record companies, Apple slapped on digital rights management (DRM) to limit the copying and distribution of such songs, and to entice users it delivered the iTunes store directly into the iTunes software itself, allowing a user at any time of day to obtain and load a new song into an iPod in a matter of clicks.
With the single-song delivery method of digital music and the “shuffle function,” Levy argues, the iPod is making obsolete the concept of the packaged album of songs designed to be played in a certain order. Like Levy, I remember the album’s heyday, where you’d know a CD so well that as soon as one song ended, you’d immediately start thinking of the next. But does the order of songs really no longer matter? Users of the iPod can still listen and create playlists to be played in a specific order. Perhaps the difference is that instead of an artist- or company-defined order of songs, the one-song delivery method has put the user in the role of artist, creating their own musical arrangements and meanings.
Levy also notes that although the purchase of CDs—complete with album art and packaging—may be declining, a lust for another kind of physical packaging is on the rise. The iPod has sparked a number of spinoff businesses that produce accessories designed to highlight and interact with the iPod. You can have your iPod engraved, purchase an iPod armband for running, bring Bose speakers to dock your iPod at a party, or even treat your iPod to a Christian Dior designer case. In a way, the iPod itself has become the package, a blank canvas primed for personalization and self-definition.
In spite of its enormous popularity, Levy admits that the iPod is far from being the perfect thing, but I wish he had spent a little more time on some of the very real downsides of the iPod: its short battery life, delicate LCD screen, relatively high cost, and the limitations that DRM often has on music quality and availability. I would have also liked a more international perspective on the iPod phenomenon: is the iPod as ubiquitous outside of the U.S., or are Americans unique in their widespread embrace of individual iPod enclosures?
Still, Levy does an excellent job of exploring how, in spite of its flaws, the iPod has become an irresistible object of desire. He gives the telling example of an apartment complex that used the lure of a free iPod to attract new renters. This offer enticed more renters than the previous promotion of two months free rent, even though the free rent was worth thousands of dollars and the iPod only cost $250.
Yet perhaps the most thought-provoking section of the book is the chapter entitled “Shuffle.” “Is shuffle truly random?” Levy asks. How else can it be explained that his iPod has taken a liking to Steely Dan, despite the relatively small amount of Steely Dan music in his iTunes collection? Levy isn’t alone—dozens of other users report similar “preferences” from their iPods. Some attribute mystic, even religious significance to an apropos song or order of songs their iPod selects to play at a particular time.
Apple engineers assure Levy the shuffle is truly random, and mathematicians confirm that his suspicions fall well within the realm of random occurrence. They explain that human beings are lousy judges of randomness—we look for patterns and meaning where there are none. Yet it’s this mathematical certainty that is perhaps most disturbing. We don’t want to believe that an iPod can do just as good a job at playing the perfect mix of songs through randomness as we can on our own personally constructed playlist. We resist the idea that computers might be able to mix music to our preferences just as well as a live DJ. Because where does that leave us if we come to prefer the experience of life delivered through two white earbuds?
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