Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The iPod and the Virgin

In 1900 Henry Adams, American historian, 62 years old, visited the Paris Exposition, a world's fair celebrating the end of Adam's century and the beginning of a New Age. Again and again he was drawn to the Gallery of Machines, where huge 40-foot-high dynamos spun at vertiginous speeds, scarcely humming as they generated quantities of a silent, invisible new force -- electricity.

Adams did not quite know what to make of the dynamos. He recognized he was in the presence of something of historical importance, as significant as the great cathedrals of the Middle Ages, but he was baffled by his inability to find in these huge machines anything recognizably human. He had spent fifty years educating himself. He had published a dozen volumes of history, and he thought he understood the force behind the building of the cathedrals: homage to the Virgin. But in the hall of the dynamos he was reduced to ignorance by forces that he could neither see nor understand. The great wheels spun, power surged through wires, and there was nothing he could detect with his senses.

Now, as we begin a new century, a different sort of invisible power defines out times. Perhaps the quintessential symbol of the new power is the spinning disk inside Tom's iPod that I spoke of yesterday. The entire works of Bach are stored there, plus lots of other stuff. That's right, the entire works of Bach on a spinning disk in a handheld box that can turn those ones and zeros into breathtaking sound. Not the Virgin, not physical power, but information.