The Perfect Thing?

Berkeley’s Hillside Club was the venue for a well-attended talk by Stephen Levy about The Perfect Thing, his new book about the iPod and its influence on our culture.

The iPod came at exactly the right time, the convergence of storage, DRM, battery life, and media. More than that, the shuffle metaphor is right for our time.

Stephen described getting on the subway (not the ideal place for social networking) and being shuffled to the Byrds’ version of My Back Pages. His world went from monochrome to color, and he was happy in his cocoon.

Stephen went into a long but entertaining riff about randomness. His iPod seemed to favor Steely Dan. He wrote an article about it. And read us some email responses. One person with two Patti Smith songs among 2,000 tunes on his iPod keeps getting Patti again and again. Another person wrote that his iPod played blues every Thursday morning. His ‘pod also played a sequence of Bob Dylan songs sung by other people. Stephen followed up on this and found that “there’s a whole industry that thrives because people don’t understand randomness.”

Randomness got into Stephen’s blood. Did his book need to be in the order he had written it? Not at all. He wrote the numbers of the middle chapters on ping-pong balls and had his children pick out combinations. There are four versions of Stephen’s book; life is random.

A few days after Stephen received a comp Nano from Apple, he found himself sitting next to Bill Gates. “Seen this?” Bill hadn’t. He grabbed the Nano and began pushing buttons. In a minute, he totally grokked the machine. “Nice project,” he said.

Is podcasting killing radio? Well, yes. People want choice.

Podcasting is gaining in popularity faster than blogs. Corporations are jumping in, but blogger favorites like Dawn and Drew are still in the game.

Stephen LevyLots of good stories about Steve Jobs but you had to be there. Levy is convinced that the whiteness of the iPod is related to the chapter in Moby Dick about whiteness.

Though in many natural objects, whiteness refiningly enhances beauty, as if imparting some special virtue of its own, as in marbles, japonicas, and pearls; and though various nations have in some way recognised a certain royal preeminence in this hue; even the barbaric, grand old kings of Pegu placing the title “Lord of the White Elephants” above all their other magniloquent ascriptions of dominion; and the modern kings of Siam unfurling the same snow-white quadruped in the royal standard; and the Hanoverian flag bearing the one figure of a snow-white charger; and the great Austrian Empire, Caesarian, heir to overlording Rome, having for the imperial color the same imperial hue; and though this pre-eminence in it applies to the human race itself, giving the white man ideal mastership over every dusky tribe; and though, besides, all this, whiteness has been even made significant of gladness, for among the Romans a white stone marked a joyful day; and though in other mortal sympathies and symbolizings, this same hue is made the emblem of many touching, noble things– the innocence of brides, the benignity of age; though among the Red Men of America the giving of the white belt of wampum was the deepest pledge of honor; though in many climes, whiteness typifies the majesty of Justice in the ermine of the Judge, and contributes to the daily state of kings and queens drawn by milk-white steeds; though even in the higher mysteries of the most august religions it has been made the symbol of the divine spotlessness and power; by the Persian fire worshippers, the white forked flame being held the holiest on the altar; and in the Greek mythologies, Great Jove himself being made incarnate in a snow-white bull; and though to the noble Iroquois, the midwinter sacrifice of the sacred White Dog was by far the holiest festival of their theology, that spotless, faithful creature being held the purest envoy they could send to the Great Spirit with the annual tidings of their own fidelity; and though directly from the Latin word for white, all Christian priests derive the name of one part of their sacred vesture, the alb or tunic, worn beneath the cassock; and though among the holy pomps of the Romish faith, white is specially employed in the celebration of the Passion of our Lord; though in the Vision of St. John, white robes are given to the redeemed, and the four-and-twenty elders stand clothed in white before the great-white throne, and the Holy One that sitteth there white like wool; yet for all these accumulated associations, with whatever is sweet, and honorable, and sublime, there yet lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness which affrights in blood. This elusive quality it is, which causes the thought of whiteness, when divorced from more kindly associations, and coupled with any object terrible in itself, to heighten that terror to the furthest bounds. Witness the white bear of the poles, and the white shark of the tropics; what but their smooth, flaky whiteness makes them the transcendent horrors they are? That ghastly whiteness it is which imparts such an abhorrent mildness, even more loathsome than terrific, to the dumb gloating of their aspect. So that not the fierce-fanged tiger in his heraldic coat can so stagger courage as the white-shrouded bear or shark.

God, I’m glad no one can ever force me to read Melville again. Tonight’s audience? Dave Winer, Steve Gilmour, Scott Rosenberg, Dan Farber, and other locals.