The Perfect Thing, Steven Levy

Simon & Schuster, 2006, 284 pages, C$32.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-7432-8522-3

I am not an Apple fanboy.  In the great PC/Mac debate, I will forever be against the paternalistic walled-ecosystem paradigm represented by Apple.  I held out as long as I could before buying an iPod Touch, and it was only because I had to admit that it was the best PDA available on the market.  But you know what?  I love my iPod.  I jailbreak it as soon as I can as a matter of principle (I feel entitled to access the file system of every computer I own), but I love it.  It does what I expect of it, and quite a bit more.  I started ripping MP3s in 1999 and have owned a variety of MP3-playing devices from the RioVolt SP250 to the Palm Tungsten T2, but my iPod Touch 2G (and now, 4G) has easily been the best.

Such a sentiment is widespread enough that it is the bedrock of Steven Levy’s The Perfect Thing, a book dedicated to what was then the iPod in its classic scroll-wheel form.  (Not even the touch version, introduced a year after the book.)  Levy, a technology journalist with an interest in cultural issues, makes a convincing case that the iPod represents a fundamental shift in our relationship with music, and doesn’t miss a facet of the iPod culture in the way he studies the history and development of the iPod, its impact on music listening and its consequences on our own individuality.

Levy is so fascinated by the concept of “Shuffling”, in fact, that The Perfect Thing comes in numerous versions, with autonomous middle chapters “shuffled” in a different order from one copy to the other.  (We are wisely warned of this in the book’s opening “Author’s Note”.)  However novel, this idea ends up being a clumsy experiment.  As a reader, I believe in the development of ideas, in arguments building atop each other, in context being established before an explanation of consequences.  However independent Levy has designed his chapters, some of them still read as out of order in my copy of The Perfect Thing: The “Apple” chapter describing Apple and Steve Jobs come late in the book, setting up Job’s formidable reputation too late to be effective; tragically, it follows the Origins chapter that details how Jobs’ incessant attention to detail was a major factor in the iPod’s polish.  Some chapters about the second-order effect of the iPod’s feature are at the beginning of my copy of the book, which takes away from the development of Levy’s thesis.  So, conclusion: no shuffling in books, okay?

This nit put aside, The Perfect Thing is, even five years and two technological generations later, still one of the ultimate books about the iPod.  It’s filled with interesting, even little-known information.  It draws conclusions about the behaviour of iPod users that have been validated by the time since then.  In fact, I suspect that the book is so good that it makes assumptions that are completely self-obvious now.  One of the most interesting things about consumer electronic progress is the way their constant daily use quickly overwrites our memories of how things used to be.  Say that the iPod was not for sale until the end of 2001 and your audience will furrow their brows and say “Really?” The iPad?  Introduced in April 2010, not even 18 months ago as I edit this review.  The iPod and its inspired competitors have been a part of our daily lives for so long that it’s hard to remember previous modes of music consumption.  Shuffle, as Levy loves to point out, is an almost-entirely digital-music concept: Before then, you were lucky (and well-off) if you owned a CD jukebox that could slowly shuffle between five or ten CDs.  Otherwise, it was a strictly linear listening experience, even if you were a mix-tape whiz.  (I had to laugh in recognition when Levy described how memories of one song could blend with the memory of the transition between the previous and next song on the same disc)

The chapter on the development of the iPod is a crystal-clear example of good tech journalism, and it’s an eloquent testimony about the need for end-user polishing in the development cycle.  Levy builds the product’s features into a platform that changes the way people think of themselves and others (especially if music is an important part of their self-identity), the way Apple have taken existing technological trends to fashion a workable ecosystem for media delivery (something that’s even truer now than in 2006) and the self-expression possibilities of the podcast, something now obvious that wasn’t even practical to any but a privileged few a decade ago.

The proof of The Perfect Thing’s thesis and conclusions could be found all around me as I enjoyed reading the book on my daily bus commute.  It took me six rides to read the book, and every single time, in the small universe of the twenty people lodged at the back of the bus where I sit, I could never see fewer than two (and often as high as seven) personal devices either branded Apple or inspired by it.  The iPod is indeed the perfect thing of our time.

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