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Spooky Serendipity

From the Magazine: Wednesday, November 29, 2006

When you use the iPod’s shuffle feature, the machine seems to know what is taking place around it. Is randomness part of Apple’s grand scheme? Can cell phones do it better?

Efforts to explain the extraordinary commercial success of the iPod digital media player usually cite Apple’s keen sense of design and obsessive attention to detail. But there is an ironic wrinkle to the story: the iPod’s popularity is as much about randomness as it is about elegance. According to Grant McCracken, a cultural anthropologist and business consultant, much of the device’s appeal is rooted in its “shuffle” feature, which picks songs at random from the user’s library.

McCracken says listeners “often report an eerie coincidence between the music served up and the experience of the user. It is customary for people to say that the machine ‘seems to know’ what is taking place around it.”

I myself had this experience recently. Like many iPod owners, I listen to it while jogging for exercise. With the shuffle feature on, I found myself listening to a British pop ballad called “You’re the One for Me, Fatty.” It’s a love song about a fat friend. About 20 seconds into the song, I spied a generously proportioned woman (to put it charitably) walking towards me on the jogging path. She was the first—and only—person I’d see on the trail that day.

The coincidence was comic. We smiled at one another as we passed, my grin a bit tongue-in-cheek; she had no idea what song I was hearing at the time (a good thing, that). That tune coming on at just that moment made for an utterly unique and unforgettable media experience. A mundane run became, thanks to the shuffle feature, something much more.

Listeners often report an eerie coincidence between the music served up and the experience of the user.

In his new book about the iPod, The Perfect Thing, Steven Levy reports what iPod owners experience as a “spooky just-rightness” in random song selection. “Here’s an example of what I’m talking about,” Levy writes. “I start a shuffle with a song by the Mendoza Line, a Brooklyn-based indie rock group named after the notoriously low batting average of a shortstop named Mario Mendoza. Amazingly, [the iPod] finds a song to follow it that also has a baseball theme: Ry Cooder’s ‘3rd Base, Dodger Stadium.’ This subtle link makes two very disparate songs illuminate each other and adds a weird excitement to the listening process, almost as if the selection itself were a kind of performance.”

In the late 1990s, the writer and critic Neal Gabler published a book called Life, the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality. In it he argued that our society has become so saturated by entertainment and media values, that people tend to view their own lives as performances. The iPod is now a part of the phenomenon Gabler described. Users report that listening to their iPods while waiting for a train, walking to work, or exercising creates a kind of personal soundtrack, as if they were in the opening moments of a movie.

In having these experiences we are, to quote the title of a financial book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Fooled by Randomness. Humans tend to impart significance and meaning to events that are entirely arbitrary, he writes.

Shuffled iPod But perhaps the randomness is itself a part of Apple’s careful plan. Levy claims that Apple’s Steve Jobs “experienced a sort of epiphany” over the shuffle feature. Apple introduced a stripped-down version of its player, called simply the “Shuffle,” that took away the display screen, the click wheel, and other features while leaving the shuffle feature intact. “What the iPod was really about, the move implied, was jumbling up all your songs and feeding them back to you in unexpected ways.” The ad campaigns that introduced the devices said, “Embrace Uncertainty” and “Life is Random.”

This is where opportunities exist for potential iPod stalkers. One industry well-positioned to attack Apple dominance is mobile telephony. Like Apple, the industry is fanatical about marketing a sense of cool and is obsessed with design. Mobile service providers already possess a platform on which to sell music and multimedia. With their geographically extensive networks, mobile providers can offer all sorts of experiences (that the iPod can’t) which build on these serendipitous happenings.

Consider my jogging experience. As soon as I finished my run I wanted to contact the friend who bought me that Brit-Pop album to tell him the amusing tale of the random adventure with my own “Fatty,” possibly with a picture. Had I been listening to music on my phone or on a PDA, I could have done that right away. But iPods aren’t connected to larger mobile networks, so my ability to share the experience was limited.

Verizon Wireless earlier this year announced “Chocolate,” a phone developed by LG that doubles as a music player. Samsung has produced a phone that holds twice the amount of music as Apple’s popular iPod Nano music player. Cell phone giant Nokia recently purchased Loudeye, a music-rights clearing house, suggesting Nokia is eager to get a piece of Apple’s pie. And Microsoft’s new digital music player, Zune, will offer the ability to share songs with other Zune owners wirelessly. Any of these new products could become the next iPod by helping users share the serendipity their daily lives create.

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