My experience with Beats Music yesterday triggered an unexpected pang of performance anxiety. I began, as I always do, by looking through the list of recommendations served up “just for me” by the Beats Music algorithm. But as I made my way through this tour, I found myself surrounded by mile markers of all too obvious influences.
Front and center was far more hip hop than I would self-describe. Thankfully, the usual suspects were comfortably couched by a fair amount of old school credibility. While I couldn’t begin to guess when I last listened to Eric B & Rakim (or will again), my inner music snob found it nice to have them around.
On either side of this rap heap were towering totems of (recent) life phases.
On one side there was a lineup that I’ve carried with me from my collegiate years, along with each and every other person who went off to school in the mid-90’s. As I scrolled past Pearl Jam and Smashing Pumpkins and Jane’s Addiction, I began to quicken the pace as I searched for the recommendations that would validate the peerless music knowledge that I (thought I) had during those years. Where was the Mary Lou Lord b side? How about the rare Pearl Jam bootleg that would prove that even though I liked the biggest band on the planet at the time I did so in a clever way? Alas, the only faint nod that Beats gave to my collegiate self-estimation was an Air album.
Flanking these juggernauts of college rock was the soundtrack from nights of my twenties. Browsing lounge dwellers such as Portishead and Basement Jaxx and DJ Shadow, I could almost feel myself staying up past midnight once again.
This walk down my musical memory lane was impressive in its accuracy and unnerving in its honesty.
Nowhere to be found was the rare jazz cut, the emerging artist, or the instrumentalist from a country’s whose name I can’t quite spell. While I’d like to explain this away by blaming the inherent logic of every recommendation engine (built to please, not surprise), I knew I couldn’t let myself off this easy. Because behavior doesn’t lie. Algorithms serve up what you have demonstrated that you will enjoy: not necessarily what you’d like to tell others that you enjoy.
The unexpected wrinkle within the algorithms that are working their way into more and more facets of our everyday lives is the fact that we’re going to care about how we look like in all of these virtual mirrors. We may even find our decisions swayed by the desire to shape the recommendations that will get played back to us. Will your next Netflix viewing be a decision made for you, or a decision made for what will get reflected back to you?
Here’s a track that I’d like to see the next time I glance in the Beats Music mirror. I think you’ll enjoy it as well.