Outstreched arm

Monday, May 28, 2007

The excellent Perfect Thing

Nesweek technology writer Stephen Levy's The Perfect Thing is a compact but thorough tour of the history of Apple iPod, blended with an analysis of the cultural impact of the device and some guessing about the magic ingredients that made it the Walkman, Nike sneakers, and hula hoop of a generation.

Levy's written on the history of Apple before (Insanely Great), and he's a knowledgeable and well organized pop-historian, armed with numerous anecdotes and memorable quotes. The titles of his books should clue you in to his attitude toward Apple. While he adds a very brief disclaimer about iPod not being really "perfect", that's just semantics. He's impressed by the company and he truly loves his little white bundle of musical joy.

Which is fine with me, since I share his excitement about this new digital entertainment era the Babel-like construction of which we've been watching for the past few years. Dreams of this new technology are becoming mainstream market realities - it's a new world of content that's overwhelming, but channeled simply and with authority; ubiquitous, but special; personal, but shared. Those conflicting qualities always appear to have been best married by people in Cupertino. Whether that's just perception or the true state of affairs in 2007 becomes clearer when each new sub-field Apple involves iPod and iTunes in - audiobooks, podcasts, portable video, jewelry-like electronics - gets quickly associated with Apple in terms of both market share and meme share.

Levy's history of events leading up to the popularization of "MP3" and digital music is clear, and at times, surprising to those of us who haven't seen it on a timeline before (who would've thought that iPod and Windows XP were launched at virtually the same time, weeks after 9/11?) His attempts to explain the cultural and market phenomenon that is iPod are admittedly modest - at some point, the sheer quality and appeal of the darn thing have to be worked into the equation in a major way.

Perhaps the most interesting chapter is "Personal", wherein Levy rolls his eyes at the curmudgeonly cultural critics who bemoan the "iPod culture" with its de-socializing white headphones and darn kids who dare listen to their Wilcos and Bjorks and Fergies instead of suffering quietly the urban white noise of the subway, the bus station, or the walk to the grocery store. Levy almost comes across as a rebellious fighter for his right to party alone if he damn well feels like it. It's not the only point at which he sounds younger than he must be (how about informing the reader of an insane 1966 Batman-branded album by Sun Ra and The Blues Project?) but it's a good one to learn to like the guy's style. Right on, dude. Right on.

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