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The Perfect Thing

The Perfect ThingToday’s New York Times Book Review features an interesting review of Steven Levy’s new book about the iPod, The Perfect Thing: How the iPod Shuffles Commerce, Culture, and Coolness.

While Critic Ben Cisneros praises Levy’s storytelling, he’s more than a little skeptical of the arguments Levy lays out both as promotion and explanation of the iPod’s cultural importance:

Apple’s tiny digital music player, ubiquitous only five years after it was introduced… “is more than just a hunk of electronics,” Levy argues in “The Perfect Thing.” It’s “an elusive mix of style, performance and status” whose innovative features offer us “an entire way of viewing the world.” Like the train, telephone and personal computer before it, in other words, the iPod represents the ability of technology to transform civilization, and with it human nature.

Or so the boosters of “the Order of White Earbuds” would have it. “Just what is it about the iPod?” Levy asks, in a tribute so enthusiastic it sometimes reads like an advertisement for Apple Computer.

If Cisneros had written his review on an Internet forum, he would have certainly labeled Levy’s enthusiasm for the iPod as fanboyism.

Interviewing Jonathan Ive, Apple’s design guru, he says, “was like being escorted on a secret tour into the caverns of coolness.” His treatment of Jobs is no less obsequious, eliding important facts to portray him as a hero.

However, to Cisneros’ credit, he goes on to recognize that there must be some special quality about the iPod that would cause so many people to praise it, and its creators, to the point of irrationality.

What is it about the iPod, indeed, that causes such breathlessness and credulity? Is it really its sleek design, its ability to store lots of music and retrieve it quickly? Or is it perhaps the appealing underdog myth of Apple and Steve Jobs, laboring in secret to attain that impossibility, perfection?

But Cisneros can’t answer. Because as much as Levy may be overly an enthusiastic fanboy, it’s also pretty clear that Cisnero just doesn’t “get” the iPod. At least not in the way some of us do. And that’s just not something you can learn from a book.

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