January 25th, 2006

I, Pod: We Will Rock You

by Philip Baruth

Edmund Burke believed that it was impossible for humans to imagine anything fundamentally new — what we really do, he argued, is combine and reassemble old things that have been around for centuries.

I don’t know if that’s right in general, but I know it’s true in the case of Steve Jobs and Apple computers. The genius of Steve Jobs is not that he gives you the utterly new, but that he packages and recombines the old in ways that seem utterly new.

Take the Ipod, for instance. There’s a reason it feels homey and familiar and comforting in your pocket, and that’s because it combines two wildly successful technologies from the ‘70’s: the portable sound of the Walkman, and the unconditional love of the Pet Rock.

Because the Ipod is a Walkman that remembers and learns and communicates, and never ever tells anyone that you downloaded “The Pina Colada Song” or Barry Manilowe’s “Mandy.” No, the Ipod will never talk.

Except to you. With you it communicates the way an infant communicates, and you feed it with a little umbilical that connects it to your computer terminal.

When I first got my Ipod, I figured I’d store it in my glove compartment — that way, my kids wouldn’t get their hands on it, and it’d be waiting for me when I went to work in the morning. But it was cold that night — near freezing — and when I picked it up in the morning, it wouldn’t play a single song, just cycled crazily through my playlist. It didn’t know who it was.

I panicked.

Now, I’m no technician, but I’ve raised a couple of kids, and I know that when they’re really sick, sick with things that threaten their mental stability — high fevers, bad bumps to the head — they need their mother. If they’re infants they need to nurse, but even older children need to huddle in and recharge their emotional batteries, bring their map of the world back into true.

And so I did the only thing I could think of: I took the icy-cold Ipod into my office, and plugged in the umbilical.

And in an hour, the Ipod knew who it was again, it knew me. Same thing happened when my dog snagged one of the lines to my headphone, and sent the little blue machine crashing to the floor. After an hour on the umbilical, it came out of its tiny coma and it remembered all of the songs associated with all of my best memories. It was ready to be the soundtrack of my life again.

Of course, that soundtrack has its admittedly weird aspects. Since Apple’s ITunes program allows you to buy songs rather than whole albums, you can jettison the four or five songs from Queen’s classic album News of the World that you never really liked that much, and keep just “We Are the Champions/We Will Rock You.”

That way you can walk around reliving that high-school basketball game where the coach finally sent you into the game in the last three minutes and — even if you didn’t score or anything, and your team eventually lost — it was still really cool just to be up off the bench.

The problem is that since you’re only reliving songs attached to highlights in your life, those highlights get played with no build-up, and no tail-off. It’s just highlight after highlight. And after awhile it begins to seem like Groundhog Day, or really, Groundhog minute.

And so you develop a habit: you need new memory highlights every day, or at least as often as you can afford them. Pretty soon you’re taking an extra job just to buy new songs, just to feed the Ipod. But you never count the costs.

Because emotionally it just feels so very right, when you look down into your Ipod’s trusting little screen, and you see you yourself looking back up at you.

[This piece aired previously on Vermont Public Radio.]