iPod: I love you, you're perfect, now change

Apple's ingenious music player is 5 years old -- gorgeous, exciting, tempting. So why do I often wish it had never been invented?

Published October 23, 2006 12:30PM (EDT)

The tech journalist Steven Levy calls his new book about the iPod "The Perfect Thing," a title that seems to skip past the boundaries of mere affection and into a land of wild-eyed cultish idolatry. Nobody's perfect, you know, and if there's perfection to be found in some earthly thing, the thing is not a six-ounce digital music player made by Apple.

Every honest iPod owner keeps a playlist of Pod-related pet peeves; mine begins much like yours, I bet, with a mournful dirge on its feeble battery, which weakens exponentially with age. The damn thing gets scratched too easily, too. What good is a beautiful white-plastic-and-steel skin if you've got to hide it in a thick slab of plexiglass armor? The iPod can't carry songs from one computer to another (unless you elicit outside help), and the music Apple sells on its online store won't play on any other company's devices. How perfect is that? Worst of all is that the iPod inflames my ADD and encourages my OCD -- it has me worrying, just about every time I'm playing a song, that there's something else somewhere on the enormous hard disk that would better fit the mood. In the age of iPod, listening to music is too often an anxious affair.

So you come to Levy's book with justified fear that this is going to be a valentine, one whose depth of feeling threatens to turn embarrassing. There's not only the hagiographic title but also the book cover, which mimics the look of the iPod, and the flow of the text itself: In order to "spiritually link my book to its subject," Levy has written a collection of free-standing pieces, allowing every copy to have a different -- that is, "Shuffled" -- arrangement. By the time you learn this, you're quite prepared for Levy to divulge that he's also named his kids Mini and Nano, so far does his iPod lust seem to go. You want to tell him to take his Shuffle and get a room.

But then, just a few pages into his introduction, the author mercifully and wonderfully steps back. "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.

There are very few consumer products about which you'd want to read a whole book -- the Google search engine, the first Mac, the Sony Walkman, the VW Beetle. Levy proves that the iPod, which turns five years old today, belongs to that club: It got so big, so fast, so unexpectedly, penetrating so deep into the culture (both the pope and Dick Cheney have one!), its success begs for probing analysis. Levy, who is Newsweek's chief technology correspondent, set out to write the definitive rumination. He asks the big questions and, as he's journalistically dogged and culturally astute, mostly manages to find good answers. How did the iPod change the music business? How has it changed the way we communicate with each other? What's it done for Apple? What does it say about CEO Steve Jobs? I'll suggest an answer to this last question -- Jobs comes off as a nightmare to work for but a true genius, with terabytes of soul -- but for the rest (and, really, for a whole lot more), do consult Levy's fine book. You won't be sorry.

At the moment, though, let's focus on the most important question occasioned by Levy's book and by iPod's fifth birthday: What's it done to the music? I mean to take a wider view here, because the iPod isn't just the iPod -- it's a stand-in for the more general phenomenon of media going digital, leaving the physical realm and coming under the dominion of computers. I wouldn't want to shortchange the transistor radio and the Walkman, but you can make a good case that digitization has altered how we experience music more fundamentally than any technology since the advent of audio recording. First Napster, then iPod: Music is now on-demand, instant, portable -- fast, cheap and out of control. Apple's current top-of-the-line model sells for $350, weighs five ounces, and holds 20,000 songs (it plays videos, too). It won't let you listen to anything you want wherever you want, at the exact moment you desire it -- but it comes damn close. And a device that will allow you infinite choice on demand is surely coming; we'll see it within the decade, from Apple or from someone else, and most of us will have one.

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.

And yet. Am I the only one who worries that for all its wonders, the iPod has also tremendously complicated our relationship to music -- has made us more mindlessly consumptive of songs, less attentive to the context and the quality of music, and concerned, constantly, with just always getting more, more, more? If you've spent enough time with the iPod -- over the years, I've had four, and there is a new Shuffle in Shanghai with my name on it -- you must recognize the vague worry of which I speak. The iPod is so good. But I can't be the only one who sometimes wishes it hadn't been invented at all.

Some lonely nights, I wonder if the most interesting thing I'll ever be able to say about my life is that I was there when Steve Jobs introduced the iPod to the world. I've written about this before: Five years ago, Apple invited a couple hundred reporters to a double super secret event at its headquarters in Cupertino, Calif. For a week before the press conference, the online Apple-fanatic rumor mill went into overdrive, dreaming up dreamy things that Apple might release. The trouble was, the fantasies proved too much for reality. People who've seen Jobs speak know well the power of his "reality-distortion field," his capacity for convincing the people who work for him, the people who write about him, and the people who buy his products that his ideas are far more important than they actually are. I am not immune (oh, I've repeatedly pounded the Kool-Aid) so the first thing I thought when Jobs pulled the device from his pocket was, My, that is beautiful. But the second thing was: Is that all there is?

The iPod was not the first digital music player on the market. It didn't hold more songs than others already available. It was expensive ($400). It worked only on Macs. Jobs gave each reporter an iPod to take home, but I traded mine away. It seemed like a remarkable music player, but even a great music player is just a music player. You wouldn't expect it to change the world.

Reading Levy's account of the months that followed iPod's introduction, I was reminded why many in the tech industry greeted the iPod with skepticism. This was the fall of 2001. At just about the moment Apple was mailing unmarked white press-conference invitations to reporters, some still-unknown fellow was mailing envelopes of lethal white powder to news organizations and politicians. Levy, who is usually enamored of the redemptive capacity of new things, says that he was so down on tech after 9/11 that when Apple asked him to come to the iPod launch, he decided to stay in New York. He says he asked himself, "How could you devote your energies to documenting the Internet, cool gadgets, and the future of music when all this darkness was afoot?" (Apple had a messenger drop off a unit at Levy's office.)

It was the iPod that brought Levy back. In the subway one day shortly after the launch, "I plugged in the iPod and the world filled up with the Byrds singing 'My Back Pages,'" Levy writes. "The faces around me suddenly became characters in a movie centered around my own memories and emotions. A black-and-white moment of existence had sprung into Technicolor. I held my iPod a bit tighter." He adds, "I wasn't exactly forgetting about 9/11, but I was getting excited -- once more -- about technology and its power to transform our world."

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.

There is, however, a problem with the way the iPod encourages you to listen to music -- on the move, as you're out and about in the noisy world. Music portability has changed -- for the worse -- the way engineers record music. To ensure that people can hear new songs in noisy settings, record labels now use a very low dynamic range when they're mastering new albums. This means they set everything in a track -- the vocals, the various instruments -- to be at more or less the same volume, making for few interesting variations during a song between quiet moments and loud moments. To be sure, this is chiefly an audiophile's complaint, one that doesn't bother even most ardent music fans. It goes along with that other common snooty-sounding complaint about the iPod -- that the digital compression required to make the thing work ruins music, especially classical and jazz.

Neither of these problems frustrate the iPod-loving hordes very much, and Levy doesn't address them in his book. I suspect a more widespread issue, though, has to do with the way the iPod seems to work against listening to new music, which has become my chief complaint about the machine. Like many others in the so-called iPod generation, years of surfing the Web have reduced my attention span to not much more time than the length of a typical YouTube clip; consequently, my iPod, stocked with 4,124 songs, routinely turns me into a hyperactive freak show. If you have an iPod, I'm sure you know what I mean. You put on something that you've been wanting to listen to all day. Lucinda Williams' "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road" album, say. But you're three-quarters of the way through the first track, and even though you're really digging it, something about the scratchiness of Williams' voice reminds of something else entirely -- the Carter Family. And, hey, don't you have a copy of "Wildwood Flower" on here? Why, yes, you do. So you switch. But of course, putting on the Carter Family is going to remind you of Johnny Cash. And you have the feeling that you must, just this minute, play Cash's version of "In My Life" now. So you switch again. But you're a minute into Johnny and you start to wonder about the Beatles' original version of the track...

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.

The irony here is that digitization has made acquiring new music particularly easy -- file-sharing networks still work really well, friend, and Apple's one-click purchasing system encourages many impulse purchases. Levy points out, too, that the iPod has eliminated the gap between rock-snob music collectors and the rest of us poseurs. If you've got a friend whose iPod always has the latest, coolest songs on it, all you have to do is plug it in to your machine to acquire the fruits of his taste. (As the New Republic's resident rock aficionado Michael Crowley has noted, this situation greatly concerns the tribe of snobs: "We are being ruined by the iPod.") Thus it's possible, these days, to sort of mindlessly collect music without ever coming to appreciate it.

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.

Levy addresses few of these complaints in his book, and I don't blame him for the omission. It's possible that bitching about the way the iPod has changed the way I listen to music isn't a legitimate gripe about the iPod at all. The iPod is a large portable hard drive that plays music -- it is a logical end-point to decades of technological trends. It arises from the modern condition, and it's the modern condition, more than the iPod itself, that I'm really complaining about. And there is, of course, no going back.

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."

Jobs is right. His machine is amazing. I just hope he comes up with something better.

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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