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Sunday, November 5th, 2006
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The Perfect Thing: How the iPod Shuffles Commerce, Culture, and Coolness

by Steven Levy

Pet Sounds

A review by Kevin Drum

Back in 2001, before the iPod was introduced, I became fascinated by the idea that you could, literally, hold your entire music collection in a device not much bigger than a pack of cigarettes. So, I bought one. It came from a company called Archos, and though it was sort of clunky looking and jittered a bit when it played the MP3s I had illegally downloaded from Napster, it really did hold an astonishing amount of music.

A few months later, though, it was collecting dust in a desk drawer. My fascination with the technology had momentarily blinded me to two things: I find headphones uncomfortable and irritating, and -- this is obviously the real killer -- I don't listen to music very much. You see, I spend most of my time writing essays and analyzing figures, and I'm one of those people who find it nearly impossible to do those things while I'm distracted by music.

Long story short, this means that I'm probably the perfect person to review The Perfect Thing, Steven Levy's new history of the iPod. I still love the idea of the iPod, but I have no particular axe to grind. Mac vs. PC, Mini vs. Nano, Kazaa vs. iTunes -- I don't care. I'm just curious about the remarkable subculture -- a word I use advisedly -- that Apple has managed to build up around its device. This makes Levy's book close to a perfect thing, too, since it's as much anthropological expedition as it is technological history.

In that spirit, I even decided to test one of the book's cultural assertions myself. Levy is convinced that "perhaps the most revolutionary aspect" of the iPod is its shuffle mode, which allows you to simply start it up and let it randomly select songs from among the hundreds (or thousands) that you've downloaded. Everyone uses it, he says. It's the "techna franca of the digital era."

But is it? Since I write a blog, I asked my readers. Do they mostly leave their iPods on shuffle or do they choose selections themselves? It turns out that fewer than half say they rely on shuffle mode, and even the ones who do mostly shuffle only within genres or within playlists they've created themselves. For a lot of people, it's apparently just too disconcerting to hear Rachmaninoff one minute and Three 6 Mafia the next.

But guess what? It turns out that it doesn't really matter whether Levy is right or wrong about this. It doesn't even matter that shuffle play has been a commonplace practically since the invention of the CD player. Like much of the book, the chapter on shuffling is just a springboard that allows him to riff on the iPod subculture. It starts with a question: Is the iPod's shuffle mode really random? It turns out that it is, but apparently an awful lot of people refuse to believe it, all the way to the point of convincing themselves that their iPods somehow understand what mood they're in and then pick just the right tune for that mood. This leads into a reflection on the ability of the human brain to make connections even when none exists, and from there Levy meanders into the very meaning of creativity. A great DJ, he says, can "weave an intricate series of song sets, each one as perfectly constructed as a Raymond Carver short story." But what does it mean if it's all an illusion? "What a cruel joke if this magic could be duplicated by software inside a plastic box. Yet I had to admit it -- I was getting the same excitement from the juxtapositions of the iPod's shuffle function as I did from the truly great DJ."

Levy himself seems to perform this same mind reading trick. In the chapter called "Personal," for example, he asks, "Has the iPod destroyed the social fabric?" You know the drill: All those twenty-something slackers plugged into headphones and shutting out the rest of the world instead of engaging with the raw urgency of social life. My almost immediate thought was: give me a break. I heard the same nonsense 25 years ago when Sony introduced the Walkman. But within about three paragraphs of thinking that, guess what Levy is talking about? The fact that this is an old story. He read my mind!

Or how about the chapter called "Identity"? (Yes, all the chapters have precious one-word Apple-esque titles. Deal with it.) Levy starts by describing "iPod wars," in which people walk up to total strangers in subway stations and display the currently playing tune on their iPod. Once called out, you have to display what's playing on your iPod, and whoever is playing the coolest, most outré tune is the winner.

Yawn. Even people who aren't music snobs know what that's all about. You just need to have seen High Fidelity, where Jack Black stole the movie as Barry, the pretentious, more-indie-than-thou record store clerk. But it's not a yawn, after all: Within seconds of thinking this, I find that Levy is deep into exactly this subject. Does the iPod actually make it too easy to find hip, edgy tracks that no one without a nose stud has ever heard of? Is indie cred a thing of the past, a victim of the ease of downloading multiple gigabytes of formerly obscure music in a matter of minutes? From there the chapter segues into a bit of academic research about the nature of playlists, followed by the humiliation Levy suffered when he traded playlists with a newfound acquaintance. "A few days after receiving the Shuffle, the recipient gently informed me that what I had thought was a respectably edgy set of tastes was really the musical equivalent of a stuffed, comfortable couch."

The whole book is like this: a nonstop collection of random connections. In fact, more random than you think: In another paean to the Apple aesthetic, Levy decided to turn his book into the equivalent of a printed shuffle play. The chapters are in random order, and the book you buy may have them in a completely different sequence than the review copy I read. Again: deal with it.

Of course, this decision also gives the game away. The Perfect Thing isn't really a book at all. It's a collection of stand-alone essays, all of them variations on the theme of the iPod being the coolest device ever invented. But that's a feature, not a bug, and The Perfect Thing made a believer out of me. The essays are loads of fun, jammed with entertaining connections, unexpected riffs, and endless stuff you've never heard of before (Andreas Pavel? Who's he?). For the moment, anyway, I'm a believer: The iPod really is the coolest device ever invented, and I want one. And when I eventually return to my senses, at least I will have loved and lost, rather than never having loved at all.

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