The Perfect Thing by Steven Levy

From a certain point of view, I’m in the sweet spot of The Perfect Thing‘s audience: My wife and I have five iPods between us — a shuffle and a nano each, plus a 3G that’s starting to age a little. It’s a minor miracle that our three-year-old doesn’t have one yet — though he does know how to work the SoundDock’s remote, and he does own shares of Apple. I wander around our campus wrapped up in my headphones frequently enough that the provost has teased me about avoiding colleagues, and a vice-president thinks I only listen to the Strokes, because he caught me twice listening to First Impressions of Earth. And our fondness for the iPod is leading us inexorably into the wider universe of Apple, switching our family PCs for Macs. On the other hand, I’ve never had the impression that my iPods’ “shuffle” feature was sentient, which is apparently the ne plus ultra of true iPod love.

So smitten is Steven Levy with the way iTunes and the iPod implement shuffle that The Perfect Thing is itself shuffled: After the introduction, the body chapters have been shuffled throughout the print run, such that each physical manifestation of the book may well be different from the next. The result is something significantly less than a sustained argument, yet something slightly more than a kaleidoscopic series of paeans to Apple, Steve Jobs, and Jonathan Ives (the “industrial design ninja” most responsible for the iPod’s look-and-feel), as some reviewers have claimed. The Perfect Thing is, more or less, the apotheosis of newsmagazine-style technology and trend reporting, which shouldn’t be a surprise: Levy is, of course, the author of five previous books about technology (including Insanely Great, about the Macintosh, and Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution) as well as the chief technology correspondent for Newsweek. Levy was one of the select few who received the first iPod on the day of its debut, October 23, 2001. Expecting him to write a book that moved beyond a discussion of the iPod’s design and cultural cachet into a discussion of Apple’s environmental and labor practices is a kind of category mistake: Levy does not propose that we consider the iPod to be a perfect or ideal thing; rather, he begins from the premise that the cultural marketplace has already rendered this verdict, and tries to sort out what this says about our relationship to technology. This seems like a perfectly reasonable approach to take.

The Perfect Thing would probably be more impressive as an extended article than as a book. At this length, Levy uses his unparalleled access into the inner circles of Apple to provide what is, at times, a kind of condensation of the company’s self-image. It’s pretty hard to defend sentences like: “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”. What’s frustrating about moments like this is that they obscure the two ways in which Levy’s reporting is most useful. First, the image of the nano descending from on high is at odds with his account of all the thought and care that went into improving and miniaturizing the design. (And at the end of the day, one remembers lines like this, not the reporting.) The other thing that one loses sight of here is that Levy’s not really saying something about the iPod, but rather about our reaction to it — the way, that is, the nano literally makes visible technological improvements that most casual observes wouldn’t otherwise attend to (such as the development of flash drives). As a result, though the book is almost unfailingly interesting, it oddly gives the impression of being more cultish than it in fact is.

I have two main reservations about Levy’s approach. First, while I appreciate that the device of “shuffling” the chapters means that an argument can’t unfold across the book in a conventional sense; however, there’s no reason why that should be true of individual chapters, which sometimes make odd decisions about what’s important and what’s not. For example, the chapter on “Identity” essentially argues that “Playlist is character”, discussing how downloading and sharing music and playlists through iTunes frames others’ perception of you. What’s funny about this is that he begins with an account of an “iPod war,” wherein strangers compare what’s playing on their iPod to see who’s got the coolest sensibility. In his example, borrowed from Trace Crutchfield, a woman dressed as a punk and playing a Rezillos song “humiliate[s]” a guy playing “a pathetic Pet Shop Boys tune, the sort of thing that Nick Hornby would listen to on a bad day” . Without defending either the Pet Shop Boys or Hornby’s musical honor, which one probably could, one can observe that it’s strange that this should be the only mention of Hornby in the chapter. After all, he literally wrote an entire book, High Fidelity, about this idea, wherein “what really matters is what you like, not what you are like”. Rather than pad out a 20-page chapter on the differing ways we can now find out what everyone else around us likes, and the ways we can practice “impression management,” it would, perhaps, have been interesting to see some more sustained engagement with pre-iPod versions of this idea. After all, in High Fidelity Rob partially outgrows the idea that “playlist is character” — if such a conception is inadequate for Hornby, why ought we embrace it so eagerly now?

That brings up my second reservation: Levy tends to treat as pathological any resistance or aversion to technological change. He claims, for instance, that “wailing and moaning about the iPod’s effect on human interaction is actually part of an old story. The complaints fit into a long tradition of neo-Luddite discomfort about the way people tweak their environments — and mess with their minds — to alter their mental and emotional state”. While I’ll concede that there’s an element of truth to this line of argument, there might also be reasons besides snobbery, moralistic bullying, priggishness, or the love of stuffed shirts (all of these epithets are Levy’s) to value traditional means of interacting. To close with the example that I started with: I started to wear my iPod around campus when I started walking to work, which is probably an unassailable reason. And I suppose it lets me seem lost in thought as I go from the building with my office to the one where I usually teach. But it also probably makes me seem unapproachable or distant, which isn’t exactly collegial. And the iPod’s cachet works against me, too: The least appealing thing in the world is a professor who gives the impression of trying to be cool. While there are good answers to these reactions — else I’d have given up the iPod on campus long ago — they shouldn’t be reduced to panic in the face of change.