The Perfect Thing for Holy Week

Aside from the Bible for Christians, that is.

“It’s the symbol of media’s future, where the gates of access are thrown open, the reach of artists goes deeper, and consumers don’t just consume — they choose songs, videos, and even news their way. Digital technology gathers, shreds, and empowers, all at once. Mix, mash, rip, burn, plunder, and discover: these are the things that the digital world can do much more easily than before — or for the first time. The iPod, and the download dollar-store that accompanies it, makes sense of those things without making our brains hurt.

“It’s a six- ounce entanglement of cultural signifiers, evoking many things to many people. Headline writers and cultural critics talk of an “iPod Generation.” This can mean a number of things — sometimes it’s just a shorthand way of saying “young people” — but generally it’s used to depict a mind- set that demands choice and the means to scroll through ideas and ideologies as easily as a finger circles the wheel on the iconic front panel of an iPod. “It seems to me that a lot of younger listeners think the way the iPod thinks,” wrote Alex Ross in The New Yorker. “They are no longer so invested in a single way of seeing the world.” Sometimes the object’s name is used simply as a synonym for anything that plays music; when Dartmouth neuroscientists isolated a cranial source of music memories that fills in the gaps when you’re listening to familiar music and the song temporarily cuts out, headline writers knew just what to call that function of the auditory cortex: the “iPod of the brain.

“It’s a journalistic obsession. Sometimes the iPod gets media coverage not because there’s any particular news but just because it’s, well, there, and it reeks trendiness, and media types feel good when they write about it. “Nothing fits better in the ‘timely features’ slot than a headline that includes the word ‘iPod,’ ” wrote William Powers in The National Journal. Powers later elaborated in an e-mail: “Journalists tend to be liberal- arts types, fairly techno- illiterate. When we encounter a machine that is easy to operate, we like it. When we encounter one that is easy and fun to operate, we are besotted. We ‘get’ the iPod, and getting it makes us feel tech- ish. 

“It’s also a near- universal object of desire. Some people complained about the cost of the iPod, which was originally $399. (The price tag eventually came down to about half of that for a model — the nano — with equal storage, a color screen, and a slim profile one-third the size of the classic iPod.) But the allure of the iPod is such that even a princely sum is considered a bargain compared to its value. Take the dilemma of the burgeoning dot- com called Judy’s Book, whose goal was collecting local knowledge on neighborhood businesses. How could they get a lot of reviewers, really cheap? By offering an iPod to anyone submitting fifty reviews. Figuring the $249 cost of an iPod mini, that’s five bucks a review — and, if a sweatshop critic drops out before reaching fifty, Judy’s Book pays nada! Laid out in cash terms, it’s a lousy deal. But it’s not cash — it’s an iPod!”

Three years after the book’s publication, I chanced upon an old copy of The Perfect Thing on the “Below P300” sale section of NBS-MOA. Guess it’s never too late to read what Newsweek technology editor Steven Levy had to say about the perfection and success of iPod, pre-iPhone era, or maybe what makes something perfect.