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Book Review – The Perfect Thing

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People looked at me in a strange way when I told them I was reading a 300-page book about the iPod. “No, seriously. It’s a whole book about the iPod!” Steven Levy, author of The Perfect Thing is senior editor and chief technology correspondent for Newsweek magazine and the author of five previous books. Levy is a technophile and over the course of his career has seen many products, many technologies, come and go. But I doubt any new product has aroused his interest like the iPod. Levy is absolutely in love with the iPod and with Steve Jobs, the man responsible for overseeing its creation. This book often reads like a hagiography of the man and his little technological marvel.

Interestingly, the book is “shuffled” so that different copies of the book will have the chapters in different order. While this is a neat idea, and a unique one that fits well with one of the iPod’s most popular features, it means that there is no flow from chapter-to-chapter and also that there is some repetition. I can only imagine the logistical nightmare this represented for those who had to edit and proof the book!

In some ways it seems silly to write a biography of the iPod since it is, after all, only five years old (having released on October 23, 2001). It seems akin to writing a biography of an actress like Dakota Fanning. Sure she’s a fantastic little actress, is highly sought after in Hollywood, and has already made her mark in Tinseltown (and we loved her in Charlotte’s Web), but the fact remains that she is only twelve and her career is only beginning. Surely it would be too easy to write her biography. And surely it is too early to write seriously about the iPod. Then again, the iPod is not going anywhere soon and seems to be gaining both acceptance and prominence so perhaps a book is in order.

Despite displaying more than a little bias (how is this for hyperbole?: “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. It wasn’t really much bigger than a large mint left on your pillow at a fine hotel.”) this is an interesting and even an important book. The iPod is a significant device that has been accepted and embraced by countless millions of people. It may well come to define a whole generation. And if not that, it will surely speak volumes about a generation. It also represents a technology that Christians would do well to consider. After all, when we listen to our iPods we tend to tune out the world around us. In some ways I think the iPod is representative of the self-centered, individualistic culture we live in. By parking the little white buds in our ears, we can enter a little world all our own. We can turn off and tune in. We can listen to what we want to hear while ignoring everything around us. We can easily allow this good invention to become destructive to our relationships and even to our faith.

I was disappointed that the author spent the vast majority of the book looking at the past and the present with very little time dedicated to looking to the future and attempting to understand what the iPod’s long term effects will be. Maybe a philosopher or historian or sociologist would be more qualified to attempt to predict how the iPod will be remembered ten or a hundred years from now. Is it a piece of technology that will be lost to history or will it be remembered as groundbreaking and as a product that changed the world? In the absence of such analysis, the most interesting chapters are those dealing with the history and development of the iPod. Ones dealing with identity, coolness and the personal nature of the iPod are also well worth reading.

One awfully tedious chapter deals with the “shuffle” feature and whether or not it is truly random (the answer being yes and no – no because computers cannot be truly random because they need to have some kind of a starting point, but yes because the songs are chosen as randomly as is possible). Levy decides, and this is true, I’m sure, that the human mind just doesn’t cope well with randomness. Thus when our iPods seem to favor a particular song or artist, it is really just our minds playing tricks on us (which, of course, rings hollow when we hear a song for the third or fourth time in a day!).

Despite a few less-than-stellar chapters which seemed to be little more than filler, this was a valuable read as I sought to understand the iPod generation. The Perfect Thing is far from a perfect book (you probably saw that line coming!). Still, it is interesting enough for the most part and raises some interesting questions and concerns. At the very least it helped me understand the incredible, growing phenomenon that is the iPod.


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