Book review: The Perfect Thing: How the iPod Shuffles Commerce, Culture and Coolness

Book review: The Perfect Thing: How the iPod Shuffles Commerce, Culture and Coolness

Summary: On October 23, the iPod phenomenon turns five years old. My old friend, Newsweek's Steven Levy, interviews Steve Jobs about the iPod in the latest issue of the magazine.


On October 23, the iPod phenomenon turns five years old. My old friend, Newsweek's Steven Levy, interviews Steve Jobs about the iPod in the latest issue of the magazine. The interview doesn't have much to offer, but I just finished reading Steven's book on the iPod, "The Perfect Thing: How the iPod Shuffles Commerce, Culture and Coolness" (due to be published on the 5th anniversary), which perfectly captures the spirit, context, evolution and impact of the iPod and Jobs' role in transforming the music industry and listening experience. 

Steven, who has adroitly chronicled other technology trends in his previous books, such as Hackers and Crypto, is a self-confessed music junkie. In the book he cringes at having his iTunes playlist exposed as "baby-boomer comfort food."

He describes iTunes surfing as "not merely a revelation of character but a means to a rich personal narrative, navigated by click wheel." Checking out someone's playlist is like stumbling into their brain, he writes. Perhaps, you should twice before you scroll through your friend's playlist.

In the book, Steven quotes Jobs' explanation for how the iPod exemplifies Apple's success. "If there were ever a product that catalyzed what's Apple's reason for being, it's this. Because it combines Apple's incredible technology base with Apple's legendary ease of use with Apple's awesome design. Those three things came together in this, and it's like, that's what we do. So if anybody was ever wondering why is Apple on the earth, I would hold this up as a good example."

Typical Jobsian hyperbole, but not off the mark in describing the Apple magic. Jobs leads a design-obsessed culture at Apple, with chief designer Jonathan Ive, who talks about "shocking neutral" colors and "getting design almost out of the way."

The Perfect Thing author and Steely Dan afficionado Steven Levy

Steven reaches his own hyperbolic heights, describing the iPod nano in the following terms:

"The iPod nano was so beautiful that it seemed to have dropped down from some vastly advanced alien civilization. It had the breathtaking compactness of a lustrous Oriental artifact." 

The chapter on shuffling, in which the little machine supposedly randomly orders song selections, goes deep into the mysteries of this iPod feature. Steven tries to answer the question of whether shuffling is truly random, querying cryptopgraphers, mathematicians, economists, DJs and people decoding the DNA of music. Ultimately, after much probing, Steven reluctantly concludes that nonrandomness is in our heads, not in the iPod shuffle. 

As an additional homage to the iPod and iTunes, each of the nine chapters of The Perfect Thing is self-contained, and they are shuffled, remixed in different editions of the book.

Steven also views the iPod and the amazing changes technology has brought in the last few decades in a larger context. At the beginning The Perfect Thing (or at least the beginning in my pre-publication copy), Steven writes: 

"I have often expressed the thought, to the point of boredom to those close to me, that hundreds of years from now, if humanity survives its penchant for self-destruction, people will look back at these decades and wonder what it waslike at the time everything changed. Now, living in a city where an awful smell still wafted uptown into my apartment window from the World Trade Center site, that condition about survival was suddenly looming larger. Could it be that the biggest story of our time was not how digital technology was taking humanity to another level but how the same dark impulses of war and violence were driving humanity to a based level?" 

It is a question we cannot yet answer. The same spirit of discovery that gave birth to the Walkman, PC, cell phone, GPS, gene splicing, the iPod and podcasting also leads to negative consequences. In the meantime, my iPod is playing "In the Heart of the Moon" by Ali Farka Toure & Toumani Diabate. 

Topic: Apple

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  • God is perfect. Things are idols.

    As an industrial designer I have over the years designed way more products than I have fingers toes many fold, and after a while one gets to a point of philosophic surrender to the idea that even the best designs don't remember their maker, nor does it have any value at all in the end.

    The thing that keeps one involved is the realization of the opportunity to affect the human condition in a positive way. In that sense, the ipod certainly has made its mark as a cultural icon more than anything else. Perhaps more than a cultural icon, a thing for a time, this time and a culture, this culture. In a few years, it too will have passed.

    Now that all the fluff is out of the way, in closing I have to ask, as a designer, is everyone so enamored by the design that they can't see or they don't care that the iPod is a closed product, which shares nothing and is forever prisoner to iTunes music store, forces one the inability to use iTunes downloads anywhere else except on iTunes or iPods? Isn't anyone noticing the basic flaw in the system that smacks of none of our cultural or individual expectations and values? Maybe someone can clear it up for me.

    While I listen to Hendrix, All Along the Watchtower.
    • iPod persists

      W boy,

      Yes, a closed system it is. However, it works very well. The
      demands and wishes you speak of are the far next level that we,
      as participants, in the state of this product usage have not
      descended to just yet. What you speak of is a public utility,
      which the iPod is not classified as such at this point.

      Remember, Apple must compete just as all others in tech have,
      namely Microsoft. iPod is almost a publci utility now. However
      the point is is that it is useful beyond almost any other product
      of the sort to the masses. There is no close equal, and likely will
      never be. So why knock a product that offers far more than any
      other product company like it? What's the alternative?

      Apple deserves the right to keep it closed at this time. Look at
      MS and it's "closed" OS as it has been for years. Is this not a
      public utiility? No other company has provided a product that is
      used on mass scale, yet has been allowed to use its abuses in
      the way it has to create a disgustingly medicore product, for
      huge profits for itself. How many millionaires in that company?
      David Schachtner