Steven Levy came to Sylvia Paull‘s Berkeley CyberSalon at the Hillside Club tonight to talk about the iPod and his new book, The Perfect Thing: How the iPod Shuffles Commerce, Culture, and Coolness. I haven’t read the book yet (Farhad Manjoo has, and his Salon review is a wonderful meditation on what, both good and bad, the iPod is doing to the experience of listening to music). There’s a nice excerpt online in Wired; Levy’s also got a blog on the topic.
Levy started off by largely disavowing his superlative title. Of course, he admitted, the iPod is far from perfect, from its too-easily-scuffable skin to its too-confining conception of digital rights management. He said the device represents more of a “perfect storm,” a perfect summation of all the issues that arise when a medium goes digital.
I have to say I didn’t find this too persuasive (maybe he makes a better case in the book!); it might be better just to say, “Book titles are chosen to get your attention,” and move on. Because everything else Levy has to say about the iPod is fascinating, amusing and important.
Levy sees the iPod’s shuffle mode as the key to its meaning — so much so that he got playful with the book, writing each chapter as a discrete unit so the whole book could be put on shuffle mode. There are four different sequencings of The Perfect Thing out there; no telling which one you’ll get. (Once upon a time, in my previous life as an arts critic, I did something similar in channeling the spirit of John Cage for a review of a celebration of his music.)
He asked the Hillside Club crowd how many listened to their iPod with shuffle on; I’d say about half the audience raised their hands. I wasn’t one — though I find shuffle an amusing novelty, mostly I love digital music for the control it offers me, the chance to be my own DJ, so why would I want to go random? After listening to Levy, I think I’ll try it more; he made a good case for seeing what interesting juxtapositions turn up between the music you’ve chosen and the moment you’re experiencing.
I asked Levy whether the pro-shuffle and anti-shuffle tribes divide by age, hypothesizing that maybe a forty-something like me is still rebelling against growing up listening to bad radio, whereas a younger person who grew up with digital music might be craving more serendipity. But Levy said he hasn’t noticed an age skew between pro- and anti-shuffle-ites (he’s a bit older than me and is a shuffle-ite himself). He guessed that it’s more like the division between people who have the patience to organize their lives around PIM (personal information management) software and those who can’t be bothered. That makes sense — the PIM devotees (I’ve long been one) would also have the patience to program their own listening.
Levy also talked about the strange experience people have when they find that their ostensibly random shuffle mode seems to play favorites; for him, Steely Dan just kept on showing up. A column he wrote on this topic evoked a torrent of amusing email, some of which he read. Deeper investigation among mathematicians led him to conclude that Apple wasn’t lying when it said that shuffle really is random — and that the experience people had of shuffle “favorites” is actually a statistical phenomenon known as “clustering” that turns up in nearly any random distribution.
Lee Felsenstein asked Levy about what the iPod’s triumph has done to narrow public space, now that so many of us are walking around with our own private soundtracks. Levy’s answer made sense for a New Yorker: “When I’m on the subway, I don’t really intend to do much social networking.” But what about outside of dense urban conglomerations (the kinds of places Steven Johnson celebrates in The Ghost Map)? Do we need more alienation in the cookie-cutter exurban communities where human connections get more and more tenuous? The “don’t bug me” message is useful on mean streets; but out in the vast wasteland, iPod-induced solitude may be worth worrying about.
[tags]steven levy, ipod, shuffle[/tags]
- August 4, 2010 @ 12:35:28 [Current Revision] by Scott Rosenberg
- October 29, 2006 @ 23:26:40 by Scott Rosenberg