Casey Neistat is a 22-year-old multimedia artist who lives in Lower Manhattan, so it almost goes without saying that he's got an Apple iPod, and that he loves it, because what young, self-respecting multimedia artist in Lower Manhattan doesn't these days?
But his love was tested when his iPod went cold, and he could not bring it back to life.
It is the essential talisman of our yoga-tech times: Ownership of an iPod -- a credit-card-size, white-and-metallic digital music player -- has grown a bit culty, especially when people talk about how it has completely changed their inner musical lives. This sounds like crazy talk, until you get one, and then you understand, because now you, too, are having an everlasting love affair with something very tiny. (Here, small is good.) An iPodder has a telltale white cord coming from his coat pocket to his ears and lives in sonic smugness; he walks around in a kind of perpetually happy glaze, with his entire music collection -- as many as 10,000 songs -- going with him.
Neistat bought his iPod in early 2002, not long after Apple introduced it. He would usually listen to it on his daily bike ride to TriBeCa, where he and his brother, Van, 28, have a small studio and work together on films and other art projects, professionally calling themselves the Neistat Brothers.
In late October -- after about 18 months of use -- the rechargeable lithium-ion battery in Casey Neistat's iPod would no longer work.
So he went to Apple's enormous and terribly chic megastore on Prince Street in SoHo and asked to purchase a new battery. He was calm about it, and so were the clerks who dashed his hopes.
"I explained that it wasn't charging up anymore," Neistat recalls, "and they said, 'We don't offer a new battery. You should just buy a new iPod.' " This offended him on a lot of levels, mostly their assumption that he could simply plunk down several hundred dollars for a new one. Neistat told them he couldn't afford that. They shrugged him off, and so he went home and called Apple's technical support number, three separate times.
This is where the trouble started, and how, a month later, nearly 1 million Internet surfers (and counting) have come to know the Neistat Brothers as the makers of a two-minute, guerrilla-style film about deceit and revenge called "iPod's Dirty Secret."
In it, Casey Neistat calls Apple's tech support, presses 1 and explains his battery problem to someone named Ryan, a minion of the computer company.
Like a doctor with zero bedside manner, Ryan pretty quickly gets to the point: Since Neistat's iPod is past the year-long warranty, the cost of parts, labor and shipping will nearly equal the cost of a new machine, and so, Ryan suggests yet again, Neistat should probably just relax and buy a new iPod, which currently costs from $299 to $499, depending on the memory size.
As the voice of Ryan drones coldly on about the iPod's internal workings, we see the brothers getting busy against the Man. With the rap group NWA's song "Express Yourself" as a soundtrack, they make a large poster-board stencil that reads: "iPod's Unreplaceable Battery Lasts Only 18 Months."
The Neistats' funky but wrathful movie (www.ipodsdirtysecret.com) shows Casey merry-pranksterly strolling around Manhattan, spray-painting dozens of Apple's pretty pastel iPod posters with his warning, which the brothers consider "a public service announcement" to counteract Apple's current iPod advertising campaign.
(According to Apple, which recently shipped more than 300,000 iPods in time for holiday shopping sprees, there are about 1.4 million iPods in current use worldwide.)
Within days, thousands of iPod owners had downloaded the movie and, somewhat horrified at the news, forwarded it around the world.
There is something both wonderfully renegade and depressing about "iPod's Dirty Secret." It provokes an ambivalent despair in iPod owners, many of whom had not yet considered the mortality of their new little electronic friend.
The Neistat Brothers, who swear by Apple products (the movie ends with a credit to Apple's iMovie software and the Macintosh computers on which the brothers work), say they feel a little cheated by the company in which they'd placed so much faith.
Days after the movie made the rounds, Apple announced expanded warranties for new iPod owners to purchase for $59, and also introduced a new $99 battery-replacement mail-in service for others.
Casey says he got a phone call in response to a letter of discontent he'd written to Steve Jobs, Apple's CEO, from still another minion, still advising him to just buy a new one. Days later, another Apple employee called, this time to make sure the brothers knew about the new battery-replacement price. "Are you calling because of our movie?" Casey said he asked. "And the person said he could neither confirm or deny that he'd seen it."
Apple officially denies that the brothers' movie had anything to do with the new battery price. In fact, says Natalie Sequeira, an Apple spokeswoman, the longer warranty and replacement price have been in the works for a few months.
"And I can't believe we're still getting questions about it," Sequeira says from the company's headquarters in Cupertino, Calif. She advises calm, and ably tries to deflect the idea that Apple would like to sell iPods as a disposable, pricey item that music lovers who get a taste of the iPod Kool-Aid will just have to keep replacing.
What the Neistat Brothers have done to Apple, however, is almost sacrilege to the Mac congregation.
"We got close to 1,000 e-mails the first couple of days," Casey reports. "A lot of people were in my exact position and had to buy the new iPod. Eighty percent of our mail was positive, people saying that they liked the sardonically irreverent way we did it. But there were die-hard Mac fans who were mad at us, who were panicking because they feel like we might cause somebody to not buy a Macintosh." (It is commonly known that Mac fans are always waiting for the sky to fall.)
Apple generally enjoys positive PR in print media and perky goodwill in the marketplace, especially from younger, hipper demographics trained from birth to shun expensive labels or corporate identity, and who view the Apple as both superior product and finger gesture toward the prevailing Microsoft/PC worldview.
Hollywood adores the Apple computer -- the counter-terrorism agents of "24" as well as the speechwriting staff of "The West Wing" appear to be Mac loyalists, as does almost any character on television or in movies using a laptop. In interviews with glossy magazines, celebrities are frequently asked, "What's on your iPod?" (And not: Do you have an iPod . . . because the conclusion is somewhat foregone.)
The iPod seductively oozes cachet, just out of reach of most people's budgets for such a thing. There are other and cheaper MP3 players, but, more than anything, iPodders like to proselytize. They effuse online at iPod fan sites, talking about their favorite, personalized playlists; they post pictures of their iPods to a communal gallery, as one might do for a beloved breed of pet or a newborn.
When you buy an iPod, nothing in the fine print of the owner's manual prepares you for the eventual, final power drain, or gives you any estimate of how far down the road death awaits. This appears to be less an omission or deceit on Apple's part and more of a callous assumption: All electronics go to heaven, kids. Apple and other manufacturers are carefully pushing consumers further away from the battery age, when consumers could try to fix broken things, or replace their power sources.
"There's a whole culture evolving," says Stan Ng, Apple's director of worldwide marketing for the iPod. "The iPod is a labor of love for everyone at Apple, but we still don't really understand just how much of a role it's playing in people's lives, how important it's really become. It's this emotional, visceral field."
Ng says everyone is learning together: Apple doesn't yet know how often consumers will want or can afford to replace their iPods, nor has the product been around long enough for the company to know accurately how long most iPods will last. (It's commonly thought the battery is good for about 500 full recharges. "We're hearing from people who bought theirs in November 2001 when it was first released," Ng says, "and they're still listening to their music.")
He's also not entirely sure they'll avail themselves of the battery-replacement service. The company has not yet made provision for a deluge of 1.4 million returned iPods awaiting service. "You're right, there are people who are running into the situation [of the battery dying] and who will use our replacement program," he says. "But there are also customers who, at that point, could decide, 'Wow, look at those new products,' which have new capabilities."
This is a notion Sequeira heartily seconds: "We're just not expecting this to be a big issue."
Maybe it's a little issue, then, in a bigger culture.
Anyone who wears disposable contact lenses knows how these things evolve: At first, having lived through the days of crawling on hands and knees in shag carpeting looking for a lost contact lens, you cannot immediately adapt to a future in which we now blissfully wash month-old contact lenses down the drain. After a while it doesn't seem like such a costly tragedy. People now spend a few hundred dollars every other year or so on disposable lenses, but it took a slight mental shift to get there.
Same with electronics: Cell phone owners can replace their lithium batteries with relative ease, since phones are designed for batteries that snap on and off, but many consumers opt instead to get a newer, cooler, smaller phone at that point. (The iPod, by its irresistible design, is sealed tight like an alien spaceship from the Planet Groovy, with no visible seams or openings.) Laptop computers, meanwhile, almost seem born with a genetic disposition to chronic fatigue syndrome when it comes to the life span of their rechargeable batteries. To own one is to immediately suspect that something is wrong with the spark in the relationship; indeed, things are petering out faster and faster. Televisions and VCRs have been showing up in people's weekly trash for years -- no one even stops to examine them or salvage them.
Sony's Walkman and Discman models, no matter how sturdy, came to be viewed as semi-annual replacement purchases for people who became addicted to personal music on the go, and somehow we all got used to the $30 or $75 or more that new Walkmans eventually came to cost. Consumers hungrily purchased millions of AA-size batteries to pop into gizmos like pills. And that woman who claims to have been trampled in a Wal-Mart melee for $29 DVD players? She seems, at least on some level, foolish for having partaken in the mad rush -- cheap DVD players have become the snack of Christmas 2003, everywhere, plentiful, have one, take two.
"I certainly wouldn't want to compare the iPod to contact lenses," says Ng, who says that Apple never envisioned the iPod as a disposable item. He only wants people to feel the love. "It's like when you first heard your favorite song from junior high. We're seeing that we're getting into those kinds of feelings."
Some of the e-mail the Neistat Brothers received from "iPod's Dirty Secret" came from people who were quick to tell them "that we're [bleep]ing imbeciles, [because] you can buy a battery online and do it yourself," Casey says.
The brothers already tried that.
They Googled around and ordered the battery from a different vendor that came with complicated instructions and "these two plastic gigantic toothpicks," Casey says. It took a while to pry the back cover off the iPod's impenetrable design. Beneath that was "a gummy adhesive" which covered the mini hard drive, "and there were these two very tiny connectors with three prongs," in a work space "about the diameter of a needle."
He felt as if he was performing amateur neurosurgery.
The patient died on the table.
And soon enough, Casey Neistat went back to the Apple boutique and bought a new iPod for $400, which, he says, "is totally unfair." He took it back to the office and showed it to his brother, and they vowed to find a way, Casey says, "to get back at them." But the beat went on, and that's what counts most in a world gone iPod.