Over past few months, I have become strangely obsessed with reconnecting to music, listening, curating and most importantly experiencing it, much like I used to about a decade ago. In the years that intervened, like many, I too succumbed to the charms of streaming music…. the sheer ease of accessing music, anytime, anywhere on any device made perfect sense.
The downside of streaming was that the music was optimized to meet the vagaries of the broadband networks, and as such, we moved away from the idea of music from say a compact disc. But the end of our love affair with music began even before shitty headphones and low-resolution audio streams. Formats and devices have nothing to do with music, art, and creativity — what matters is the human relationship to creativity. At the turn of the century, I had ripped my vast collection of CDs as MP3 and FLAC files and listened to them on my iPod and laptop home-server-fi music system. First MusicMatch, then iTunes and WinAmp became my most used applications. The music was still blissful, and the speakers and music system were in harmony.
And then I moved to San Francisco, the speakers were damaged, and the amplifier fell into disuse and it was sold for a few hundred dollars. CD player met that same fate. The music blared from my laptop or on headphones that came with the iPods. They were poor quality and slowly and slowly, convenience trumped quality. I bought some noise canceling headphones from Bose for travel, and frankly, they were good enough for listening to music.
Music lost a bit of personal connection and became Muzak. I didn’t know the albums by heart. There were no liner notes, no way to learn the story. There was no getting up and changing the CD, a simple effort that brought me closer to the music. Playlists went on forever, and the music just played in the background. Endlessly. I didn’t know who was playing. The snippets became a way of identifying the song, but I couldn’t tell you the name of the song, without looking at the screen. And then the algorithms took over.
Earlier this month, Spotify launched a feature to showcase my year in music. It was dominated by old jazz favorites, the electronica from the late 1990s and early 2000s, and a few new songs that the algorithm had recommended, and I liked and played them again and again. I might have liked the songs, but the list didn’t feel personal. I had made no effort in developing a relationship with the new songs. I had no clue who made them, what was their story and why they were recommended to me. I am the only person in America who hasn’t listened to Jay Z, Rihanna, Drake or The Wknd this past year. I know of Justin Bieber’s new hit, but don’t ask me it’s name.
Music, movie, food, and book recommendations are supposed to be very human — they mean much more when they come from a friend. They allow us to build a memory, which in turn then makes them valuable. For example, I have been best friends with Tito for nearly four decades, and it all started by exchanging tapes of music, making mixtapes. Had it not been for him, I wouldn’t have ever heard Yeke Yeke by Mory Kante. Or Peter Gabriel’s So. Growing up in India, we were limited by access to music and had friends with music.
Tito and I later became roommates in New York, and our friendship will soon turn 50, just because we exchanged a few tapes and geeked out over African music, Tom Petty, and Peter Gabriel. As a jazz and blues lover, those three artists were not on my menu, and honestly, no algorithm would have introduced me to that music.
There is a story behind the songs, and it is why Yeke Yeke is on my Spotify Time Capsule. Much like Just an Illusion of Imagination, which always takes me back to Ghungroos, a long-gone night spot where I danced the night away in my late teens. In comparison to so many recommendations made by Spotify that make me ask – “but why?”, Spotify Time Capsule gets so much — but not everything – right. It is as close to algorithmic delight as one can get. And the reason is not the algorithm but the stories behind the components of the playlist.
The two different feelings generated by Spotify’s algorithms is also reflective of the rudimentary nature of what is being marketing as artificial intelligence. The hype around the magic of AI is at an extreme, mostly because it is a convenient phrase to get headlines, create fears of dystopia and raise capital. Instead, no one takes a pause and think – personalization of software and services that are driven by software and data has just begun.
The algorithmic world we live in puts convenience and speed ahead of these abstract concepts of human consciousness and connections. Facebook has blunted the idea of friendship, and relationships, LinkedIn has turned business relations into a spectator sport of likes, follows and recommendations. Algorithm writers forget that we all need narratives, stories we need to tell each other to have a real connection.
December 23, 2017, San Francisco