04 January 2007

A great object relation theory

The Perfect Thing: How the iPod Shuffles Commerce, Culture, and Coolness by Stephen Levy was a quick, tumbling read through the iPod's meteoric rise to popularity interspersed with reflections on how some of the iPod's design paradigms have influenced social discourse today.

I was reflecting upon Levy's book over Christmas when opening some gifts; some of the packaging reflected more of an Applesque esthetic, for example the iRobot Roomba; the minor set up instructions were clear out of the box and the packaging was inviting and easy to work with. OTOH, some items like my new pedometer were cryogentically sealed in hdpe plastique and required a hacksaw, sock, and a vacuum cleaner to remove from the encasement, a'la a certain User Friendly comic strip I heard about recently. Setting the darned pedometer up took longer than the walk I was trying to track with it. Back in the day when I first started using an Apple IIe, the idea that the intuitive interface, helpful - nay, cheerful - attitude, and user-centered design of the product might percolate into mainstream consciousness was addled fantasy. A couple of million iPod sales later, it seems to have become a reality, and Stephen Levy is positioning himself to chronicle the event.

One exciting option Levy introduced into his book is that he's published the chapters in no particular order, and each can stand on its own; in fact, different publication runs of his book may have the chapters in a different order. First of all, my sympathies for his printing company - having some experience in that industry I can imagine all too well how much paper was wasted perfecting this scheme. Second, don't choose this as your book club's assigned reading unless you create a syllabus too. Finally, I admire that, with this publication tactic, Levy's pushing the shuffle concept Apple incorporated into the iPod to yet another logical conclusion. I wonder how long it will be until another author takes up the challenge of creating a shuffleable book? Will this lead to a new format of novel, similar to the imabic pentameter's relation to free verse? Artists often do their best work when their are constraints on them. I'm imagining now a re-read of Asimov's End of Eternity, with the chapters out of order. It could work quite well.

So - back to Levy. I'd recommend this book to folks interested in trend analysis, social dynamics, and the relationship of technology to this axes of change. If you're looking for a detailed technical history of the iPod's development or a user guide, look elsewhere. Levy does incorporate some discussion of this detail, but more so as to elucidate the design process and guidelines and esthetic involved.