I've just finished Steven Levy's wonderful new book "The Perfect Thing: How the iPod Shuffles Commerce, Culture, and Coolness." The Perfect Thing is a thoroughgoing treatment of the iPod from many different perspectives — social, economic, technical, psychological, packed with insights from one of the tech world's most astute observers.
I first read Levy in Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, a book that served me as both edification and inspiration, something that continued with new classics like Crypto. Levy's special gift is the ability to simultaneously find the fine lines of the story that are visible in the minor details of, say, Steve Jobs's maunderings about Bob Dylan, and the wide brushstrokes of the social changes unfolding for the entire music industry as the result of the iTunes Music Store and the iPod.
The Perfect Thing is arranged as a series of stand-alone essays ("Shuffle," "Personality," "Cool," etc) and these chapters are shuffled into a different order in several different simultaneous editions of the book, so that each read creates new, serendipitous connections between the different facets of Levy's story. This worked surprisingly well (in my edition, anyway — it's possible that some of the arrangements are less coherent).
The pieces are chock full of expertly selected, expertly told anecdotes, such as the L-train "iPod wars" in New York, where subway riders challenge one another to coolness battles that consist of facing off your iPod's current track against another rider's, to see who has the better taste. These are used as jumping off points for astute observations about the iPod and what it's doing to the world — Levy's inside story of how the music industry was lured into getting locked into Apple's proprietary file-formats is gripping and quite enlightening.
The book isn't perfect — neither is the iPod, of course. There was very little analysis of the way that the iPod is affecting the DRM wars in the US and abroad, and Levy is a little too sanguine about what it means for online music sales to be so thoroughly dominated by a single retailer, no matter how many images of Einstein and Gandhi show up in its advertising.
But Levy is onto something here. The impact of "shuffling," of carrying your collection in your pocket, of putting digital music in the hands of info-civilians who never would have put up with the crummy design and arcane interfaces of the early competitors — these are big stories that will play out for decades yet, and Levy's book does the best job I've yet seen of categorizing and taking the measure of these great shifts.