Retro tech: First-generation iPod Shuffle

10 07 2010

I was walking to a Midtown sushi place today when my coblogger and I stopped into a weekend church flea market. Between the “videophone-enabled” modems and Precious Moments figurines, I spotted a misshapen manila envelope and pulled it out. On the front was a printed return address label and the scrawled epigram “MAC iPOD SHUFFLE.”

It was a first-generation Shuffle, complete with charger and earbuds and with enough power that we could still listen to the renditions of “Jupiter, Bringer of Joy” and “Sing Sing Sing” that were loaded on it. The woman at the counter wasn’t entirely certain what it was, and gave it to me for two dollars. So wherever you are, Mr. Philip I. Rafield, thank you.

I’ve never had one of these before, and I’m inordinately excited. There’s something really fascinating about the idea of technology that’s deliberately limited, since I’m used to getting the most functional thing that I can. Being at the mercy of your device for songs is an odd feeling.

Further notes: The manual is quite thick–at least sixteen or twenty pages. It’s a tribute to how much more revolutionary these things were than even the iPhone: People were so unfamiliar with the idea of a device that played music from your computer that they included an entire booklet on how to do it. I miss that, especially in video games (the Deus Ex manual took me longer to read than the training section of the actual game.)

But on the other hand, I’m pleased that these devices have become commonplace, because my smartphone really does improve my quality of life. It lets me find restaurants, or talk to friends, or read anything in the public domain, including Bruce Sterling, Machiavelli, G.K. Chesterton, and John Stuart Mill to name just a few. Not all devices are created equal, ethically, and there are a lot of problems with the negative effect that electronics manufacturing has on the rest of the world (factories in China; mines in Africa), but that’s a problem with the process, not the theory. I disagree with plenty of electronics, but not the idea of electronics in general. My phone is not a device designed for sucking my time into some nebulous idea of “screen time;” it’s a facilitator–a book, and a telephone, a drafting board, and a map. That’s what computers are, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

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