Friday, June 19, 2009

"The Perfect Thing" by Steven Levy; more iPod worship

After reading "iPod and Philosophy," edited by D.E. Wittkower, I was curious about other books on this topic of the iPod and the impact it has had on American society.

That led me to "The Perfect Thing" by Steven Levy, part of which I had read in Wired a couple of years ago. Levy, a senior writer for that magazine after serving as the chief technology writer for Newsweek, writes an engaging introduction about the behind-the-scenes intricacies of the launch of the iPod, only a month after Sept. 11, 2001, and how even Apple didn't know quite what they had (the iPod originally was touted as a music player and, in almost the same breath, an alternative hard drive for computers).

Dylan Wittkower, editor of iPod and Philosophy, will be a guest in my Texas Tech class next week, and reading Levy's work, as well as reflecting back on Wittkower's collection, I wonder about the techniques used by writers in this rapidly-changing field to avoid commodification of their work.

Wittkower's book was published last year, but there are only two mentions of the iPhone, sort of an extension of the iPod, which actually might turn out to have an even bigger impact on society. The raves (and there are many, many statements that gush) about the iPod now seem almost quaint in the wake of the iPhone, G1 and the like.

Levy's book, written in 2006 and updated in April 2007, seems even more in a time capsule, because it talks about the iPhone in prerelease state (first ones were sold in June 2007). Unfortunately for Levy, though, without the foresight, he whiffs at its potential and implications.

Levy did get to use an iPhone, in highly controlled circumstances, before he wrote about it. He did praise its improvement of the cell-phone experience, its sensors, antenna and such. Levy also criticized the lack of storage on the phone, which already has been corrected, and the AT&T collaboration, which hasn't.

Here is one of his strongest comments about the potential of the iPhone, misunderstanding its impact just like so many people discounted the iPod before it:

The iPod "made us want to hear more songs. ... Will the iPhone encourage us to ... make more phone calls? I don't want more phone calls. I want fewer; and when I'm on the road, or staring at hummingbirds in my garden, I don't want any. In fact, if you take into consideration the universal loathing that comes from being around people who talk on cell phones, it can be argued that if the iPhone encourages more conversations, it will have done us a universal disservice. At least iPod users keep to themselves."

And "It will be tough for Apple to match the iPod as a life-changing, and world-changing, phenomenon."

Levy does use qualifying phrases, such as "it can be argued" and "it will be tough," that temper the mistakes he makes. But I wonder, and will ask Wittkower next week, how he approaches the ever-changing nature of writing about technology and cutting-edge concepts. Particularly with the publishing cycle of a book, which can take a year or more to get to shelves, how do technology writers deal with this aspect of their work, to keep ideas fresh and engaging, even when they get dated almost before the ink dries)? Besides disclaimers, any ideas?

1 comment:

Rich said...

I thought Dylan's answers to our questions about publishing in today's world were about as good as could be expected. Indeed, the technology is over-running the headlights, so to speak, and scholarship on that technology must bend toward the theoretical or philosophical in order to stay caught up. Much of what was said about iPods can be applied to iPhones; however, there's an entirely different collection of essays on iPhone Philosophy needing to happen.