"The iPod is not perfect, of course," Levy writes, and proceeds to list many of the flaws I put down above. He suggests that the "perfect" in his title isn't supposed to mean "flawless," but something more like (I'm paraphrasing for concision) incredibly interesting and unbelievably awesome in ways you've probably never even thought of. What's perfect about the iPod is the "seemingly uncanny alignment of technology, design, culture, and media" that made it the biggest thing in the world, "the center of just about every controversy in the digital age," Levy says.
It has given reason to contemplate this ingenious gadget, which I feel that I couldn’t live without. I bought in during the second generation and am on my third iPod. One of my main issues, especially while traveling or even hanging out in a café is this from Michael Aggers piece in Slate:
What about all those iPod-wearing people zoned out in trains, planes, and cafes? Surely they represent a new solipsistic turn in the culture, a million tiny bubbles. True, but the iPod people are not exactly new. The Perfect Thing, in its chapter on the history of the personal stereo, demonstrates how iPod culture is essentially a continuation of Walkman culture. The original Sony market research was amazingly prescient. They identified two types of Walkman users: those who sought "escape" and those who sought "enhancement." Some people wanted to avoid contact with others, while another subset wanted to augment their everyday moods with a personal soundtrack—or do both at different times. That's exactly what people use an iPod for, except a few have taken escape to the next level and claim that their iPod can read their minds.That’s me; I like to think it’s more about the soundtrack to my life than avoiding contact with others. Btu I must admit it can be a deterrent from people practicing their English on you in a train or avoiding an uninteresting conversation on a flight. But sometimes I wonder if I’m missing some elemental thing, say, if I am walking through the weekend market in Bangkok with my iPod playing, or visiting a gallery with them on. (Incidentally I read on a blog that someone who turned off their iPod, but had the buds in their ears was told to turn it off in a gallery because it was rude to the artist or something). Rarely does this thought actually provoke me to stop listening though.
Here’s another interesting insight from Manjoo:
There's undeniable joy in this new situation. Levy writes that "just about anyone who owns an iPod will at one point -- usually when a favorite tune appears spontaneously and the music throbs through the ear buds, making a dull day suddenly come alive -- say or think the following: 'Perfect.'" What he's describing is the euphoria of free music -- unconstrained music, not stolen music. It's this freedom -- the freedom to boogie, let's call it -- that iPod's marketers are getting at in those ubiquitous dancing silhouette ads. Freedom is iPod's biggest selling point.
This goes back to Aggers' statement about the iPod reading your mind and playing just the right songs while on shuffle. I have had these moments of bliss. But all too often I find myself skipping along until something feels right. (I remember a friend telling me that he felt guilty when he skipped songs!)
Here’s more about the magic and power of the iPod from Manjoo:
It would be a bit much to say that the iPod helped us heal from the wounds of 9/11 –- or would it? There are probably millions of people for whom the iPod has turned a dark day bright. Because here's the thing about the iPod, its transcendent reason for success, more important than its design, its interface, Apple's marketing, or Jobs' charisma: Sometimes, it can just stop you cold. This is more a function of the music than the device, perhaps, and if you think about it the chill really has to do with your mood, and where you are, and what you're doing, and who you're thinking about, and probably the weather... But sometimes, things align just right, and a song comes on, and the music and the world around you seem to sync up in a kind of cosmic way.
Levy writes that when this happens, the music becomes a "soundtrack" for the scenery, which is a good way to put it. The iPod turns ordinary life -- riding the bus, waiting in line at the post office, staring at a spreadsheet for 12 hours a day -- into cinema. Levy describes the work of sociologist Michael Bull, who, when studying the habits of fans of the iPod's great ancestor the Sony Walkman, found that people liked to think of themselves "as imaginary movie stars" playing out scenes dictated by the music in their ears. One subject who listened to music from spaghetti westerns said that the Walkman turned him into a "verbal bounty hunter" bent on firing "short cool blasts of verbal abuse" at his co-workers. The science fiction writer William Gibson once described the Walkman as having done "more to change human perception than any virtual reality gadget. I can't remember any technological experience that was quite so wonderful as being able to take music and move it through landscape and architecture." The iPod, with its greater capacity, alters perception even more profoundly; when the right song comes on, the world actually feels different.
There's a strain of oldster, Luddite criticism out there that goes after iPod listeners for cutting themselves off from the sounds of the everyday world. But, as Levy points out, "escaping" the real world is only part of the reason that people insert their earbuds in public places. The main jag isn't escape, but, instead, enhancement. There are moments when you're out in the world and circumstances seem to demand a certain particular song -- nothing else will do. You've just had a fight with your girlfriend, and as you're sitting on the bus you realize the only thing that will console you is putting on that devastating Postal Service duet "Nothing Better." This is what Levy means when he describes the iPod as enhancing your world: It lets you use music to polish up an otherwise inadequate existence. When it works, the iPod seems to confirm Arthur C. Clarke's third law of prediction: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. The iPod puts a spell on you.
Here Manjoo touches on one of the aspects of the iPod, which is somewhat troubling for me as well:
The plethora of choice makes taking in something completely new particularly difficult. Listening to an album you've never heard before is work; it requires time, patience, and attention. You can't do it half-assed. But when you play your new album on your iPod, there's always the lure of all those other tracks, and your mind drifts to all that familiar music, all that stuff you know and don't need to work to appreciate. So you inevitably start playing the same stuff over and over. The numbers seem to bear this out -- though iPods can store thousands of songs, the average iPod user's library numbers just about 500 well-worn tracks.I have more than 4000 songs, but I find listening all the way through a whole album difficult. There are few albums that I can listen to all the way through (Yankee Foxtrot Hotel by Wilco is among them). So I have cannibalized some albums by ripping only certain songs and deleting others. The exception would be getting a new album, but as Majoo says it is hard work. I think it must take 8-10 listens to an album before I know truly how I feel about it and which tracks are my favorites and sometimes more. For example I am having trouble deciding how I feel about The Killer’s new album, Sam’s Town. I have the feeling that they should have stayed true to their original sound-this one might be overreaching. My favorite track is “Read My Mind”, because it sounds the most 80s to me. However, I can’t be sure since I’ve only listened to it 5 times so far.
Here’s another problem that Manjoo points out that I have experienced as well:
I remember what I did the first time I heard "Lua," that dreamy Bright Eyes single of a couple years ago. I went to a BitTorrent site and downloaded Conor Oberst's entire oeuvre, more than a gigabyte of music that I've never since played. My iPod's got a whole lot of unplayed Ryan Adams, too, a plunder inspired by the time "The West Wing" featured "Desire" in an episode. A month ago I bought a Dan Reeder album that I've only played one time. I also bought the new Yo La Tengo album -- but every time I try to listen to it, my fingers start to switch to their older stuff. In the past week, I got at least three new albums from various sources; I can listen to them whenever I want, but I don't know if I ever will. More and more, I'm pretty much always playing "OK Computer" -- an album that, not coincidentally, I first came to love when the main thing I used for music was a Discman, and, despite my attention-deficit problems, played constantly for weeks on end.
The availability of the discography of an artist is overwhelming. In the past you would buy an album and then go back and one by one get the previous albums, but here bang you have it all and it takes time to sift through and find what you want and like. Honestly I don’t need three versions of the same song. I have been trying to get through the Paul Westerberg and Nick Cave discographies. Luckily I have several Nick Cave albums the Westerberg example has been more difficult, but enjoyable since I am finding that I like most of his solo work.
One last quote from Manjoo, which sums it all up nicely:
Indeed, we ought to be thankful that if we have to live with something like the iPod, the thing we got is as good as it is. The iPod's not perfect. But for all its flaws, the iPod is just about alone in our world of things in at least striving for perfection. Think about the millions of objects you interact with every day: the computers, the cars, the cookware, the books, the bedding, the furniture, all those clothes. Unless you own a Mercedes or regularly totter about in Manolos, the iPod surely stands out amid your dreary workaday existence: for its beauty; for its sublime function; for the obvious thoughtfulness with which it was made -- the way every detail, from the earbuds to the interface font to the packaging in which it arrives, seems to have been fussed over. "If there was ever a product that catalyzed what's Apple's reason for being, it's this," Jobs told Levy. "Because it combines Apple's incredible technology base with Apple's legendary ease of use with Apple's awesome design... So if anybody was ever wondering why is Apple on earth, I would hold this up as a good example."