Apple warns: iPods are shocking!

On Wednesday, Apple warned customers that earbud headphones, when used in conjunction with iPods and iPhones, could cause "small electrical shocks." The warning, which appeared on Apple's support page, immediately prompted a series of snarky headlines and playful commentaries. This is hardly surprising: frankly, there's something fundamentally funny about the image of an iPod user queuing up Black Sabbath and getting a little electroshock therapy. Macworld, for example, had a field day with the story.

Personally, I can't get past the image of Apple throwing in a free copy of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest with every iPod purchase.

Apple noted that the shocks are basically the same as the zaps that one gets when touching metal in the winter, mainly happen in dry areas. Essentially, users build up static electricity, which they discharge when inserting the headphones. To avoid them, all one has to do is touch metal (or a friend's earlobe) to harmlessly discharge static electricity. Moreover, Apple emphasized that the shocks do not indicate problems with the iPhone or iPod: the discharge of static electricity, while annoying, is a common natural phenomenon, and can happen with any product that uses earbuds.

Ultimately, the static shocks are not a big surprise. After all, anybody who has ever touched a metal doorknob after walking across the floor in woolen socks knows that they are a basic fact of life. In a larger context, however, the story is interesting because of what it says about customer service, legal liability, and Apple's concept of good corporate governance. Basically, the electronics giant has decided to warn users that a perfectly natural electrical phenomenon could potentially cause a split second of discomfort. Although these shocks could happen with pretty much any electrical item (or, honestly, any piece of metal), Apple felt compelled to issue a warning.

Admittedly, this could be the first step in a marketing campaign for a branded humidifier -- I think "iWet" would be a great name -- but it seems more likely that it's an attempt to protect against potential litigation. After all, it is easy to imagine a customer getting a shock, getting in a car accident, and suing Apple. However, if the legal system has reached a point where companies need to explicitly protect themselves against natural phenomena, then the repercussions become truly terrifying. Has the time come for gravity warnings on bowling balls? Is it necessary to put humidity warnings on boats? Perhaps water bottles should come with warnings about the potential for drowning.

At some point, it seems likely that consumer warnings will begin to fly in the face of human evolution. While there's a certain grim satisfaction to the revelation that the legal profession may be the ultimate cause of the death of the human race, it also might be time to recognize that some things should just be obvious.

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