There’s no denying it — those iPods and their ubiquitous white earphones have had a strong influence on the business, entertainment, technical, and cultural landscape many of us grew up knowing. The adventure of the innovative iPod, from conception to consumer, is an exciting and enlightening story, chronicled by Steven Levy, senior editor and chief technology correspondent for Newsweek, in his book The Perfect Thing: How the iPod Shuffles Commerce, Culture, and Coolness.

Levy explores the impact of these personal digital music players on the music industry and on Apple Inc. He also delves into the idea of cool (namely, what is “cool” and how does an object get to be cool) and culture (what does it mean when we all “check out” with earphones). Levy’s affection for the object is clear — even to the point of writing each chapter as a standalone, enabling a shuffle of the book’s content in true iPod fashion, replicating the gadget’s feature that plays loaded songs in random order.

Levy’s fascinating inside look at how the iPod came to be is richer because of Apple’s cooperation with the project. The book includes numerous interviews with the people who made the iPod possible, including forerunners like Michael Robertson, the proprietor of MP3.com, one of the first efforts at legally selling music online. By covering how revolutionary the iPod was to the music industry (now selling individual songs a la carte instead of tied to albums only) and Apple (guiding the computer-maker’s foray into iPod-maker and then music-seller through iTunes), Levy sets the stage for turning the reader’s eye from the commercial to the cultural implications of the iPod.

Does putting on the white iPod earphones equate with tuning out and withdrawing from the world, or to being a more active listener? Levy’s book demonstrates that these are questions that have been asked since the dawn of the personal music device. Since 1972, when Andreas Pavel hooked up open-air headphones to a Sony cassette player, the implications of aural withdrawal from the surrounding world have been discussed, as the Sony Walkman took hold, then MP3 players in general, and the iPod in particular.

Levy presents both sides of the argument: that people are missing out on social connections versus fully enjoying their music by focusing on it. He builds on the idea of proactive enjoyment of music by citing that iPod users are now free of the restraints once placed on them by artist or record label limits via albums and CDs. The shuffle feature means the locked-in order of CD tracks no longer governs listening; the ability to buy songs individually from iTunes frees listeners from having to buy whole CDs when they want only one or two songs.

Levy further demonstrates this consumer-centric entertainment model by discussing the evolution of the podcast — digital media files, usually audio — that are distributed by syndication feeds and played on personal media devices like the iPod. No longer do people have to hope there’s something appealing being offered by a media company of any kind. People can make it themselves and get it out there via RSS feed. Plug in your iPod and download your podcasts for easy listening on your own schedule. Like zines and blogs before it, iPods make content delivery easier, another development in DIY (do-it-yourself) culture, leveling the cultural playing field and offering niche-creators access to a broader audience than they might have otherwise had.

This freedom — to enjoy your personal music library and digital files when, where, and how you like — is the crux of Levy’s examination of the ideas of culture and the iPod. 

The Perfect Thing is a compact yet broad view of the iPod’s impact on business, entertainment, and culture in about 250 pages. Levy weaves his narrative with lots of quotes and references to academic work on the subject. The book is never dry, however; Levy’s writing style is engaging and humorous (he refers to the record companies’ instruction to listeners to not download music illegally as akin to an etiquette lesson from the Green River Killer). He reports, interviews, and provides commentary in his examination of the ideas and issues surrounding widespread use of the iPod, although it is clear his book is only a measure of the iPod’s influence to date.

As popular culture continues to be distributed in an a la carte model (as witnessed by iTunes’ current offering of television series and episodes, film rentals and purchases, and audiobooks), and since acknowledgement of the iPod’s influence cannot be denied, it is anybody’s guess how future generations will view the iPod.

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