Music app

My music app knows me too well. Am I stuck in a groove?

A die The music streaming apps that I use create personalized playlists for me, and it’s awfully good at predicting which songs I’m going to like. Does it make me boring?

– Play it safe


Dear, play it safe,

I once read somewhere that if you want to slowly drive someone crazy, decide, for a week or so, to mumble every now and then, “I knew you were going to say that” after they made a remark. casual. The logic, as far as I know, is that by convincing a person that their thoughts are fully predictable, you gradually erode their sense of action until they can no longer conceive of themselves as an autonomous being. I don’t know if it actually works, I’ve never been sadistic enough to try it. But if its premise is correct, we must all slowly lose our minds. How many times a day are we reminded that our actions can be precisely anticipated? Predictive Text successfully guesses how we’re going to respond to emails. Amazon suggests the very book we wanted to read. It’s rare these days to finish typing a Google query before autocomplete ends our thinking, a reminder that our medical anxieties, creative projects, and relationship dilemmas are entirely unoriginal.

For those of us who grew up in the melting pot of late capitalism individualism, we who believe that our souls are as unique as our fingerprints and as induplicable as a snowflake, the idea that our interests fall away. in easily discernible patterns is deeply, perhaps even existential, disturbing. In fact, Playing It Safe, I’m willing to bet that your real anxiety isn’t that you’re boring, but you’re not really free. If your tastes can be so easily deduced from your listening history and the data feeds of “users like you” (to borrow patronizing slang from prediction engines), are you really making a choice? Is it possible that your ineffable and seemingly spontaneous enjoyment of hearing that Radiohead song you loved in college is just the inflexible mathematical endpoint of the probability vector that has determined your personality from birth?

While this anxiety may seem new, it stems from a much older issue with prediction and personal freedom, an issue that first arose in response to belief in divine foreknowledge. If God can see the future with perfect precision, then aren’t human actions necessarily predetermined? How could we act otherwise? A scientific version of the problem was posed by 19th-century French physicist Pierre-Simon Laplace, who imagined a cosmic superintelligence that knew every detail of the universe, down to the exact position of all of its atoms. If this entity (now known as Laplace’s demon) understood everything in the present world and possessed an intellect “large enough to subject the data to analysis”, it could perfectly predict the future, revealing that all events, including our own actions, belong to a long chain of cause and effect dominoes dating back to the birth of the universe.

The algorithm that predicts your musical preferences is less sophisticated than the cosmic intellect Laplace had in mind. But it still reveals, to a lesser extent, how constrained your actions are by your past choices and some generalized probabilities of human behavior. And it’s not difficult to extrapolate what predictive technologies might reveal about our sense of agency once they get even better at anticipating our actions and emotional states, perhaps even beyond our own knowledge. self. Will we accept their recommendations for who to marry or who to vote for, just as we do now for what to watch and what to read? Will the police services arrest probable criminals before they commit the crime, as they do in Minority report, warned by oracular predictions of digital precogs? Several years ago, Amazon filed a patent for “early shipment”, hoping the company would soon be able to correctly guess our orders (and start preparing them for shipment) before we proceed. purchase.

If the revelation of your own monotony is only the first stirring of this new reality, how would you react? One option would be to rebel and try to prove his assumptions wrong. Act out of character. When you feel like doing something, do the exact opposite. Listen to music you hate. Make choices that will redirect your data flow. This is the solution arrived at by Dostoevsky’s narrator in Metro Notes, who takes irrational and self-destructive actions simply to prove that he is not a slave to the inflexible calculations of rational self-interest. The novel was written at the height of rational selfishness, when some utopian thinkers believed that human behavior could be reduced to a series of logical rules in order to maximize well-being and create the ideal society. The narrator insists that most people would find such a world intolerable because it would destroy their belief in individual freedom. We value our autonomy over all the comforts and perks that scientific determinism offers – so much so, he argues, that we would seek absurdity or even self-harm in order to prove that we are free. If ever science definitively proves that humans act according to these fatalistic rules, we would destroy ourselves “for the sole purpose of sending all these logarithms to the devil and living again by our own stupid will!”

It’s a fascinating passage, even if, as the predictions go, it is not particularly prescient. Few of us today seem to be tormented by the comfort of predictive analytics. In fact, the amenities they offer are considered so desirable that we often collude with them. On Spotify, we “like” the songs we enjoy, thus contributing to the emerging mosaic of our digital personality. On TikTok, we quickly scroll through posts that don’t reflect our dominant interests, lest the all-seeing algorithm confuse our curiosity with vested interest. Perhaps you’ve taken a break, once or twice, before watching a Netflix movie that deviates from your usual tastes, or have hesitated before Google Google for a religious question, lest it take you for granted. a true believer and falsify your future search results. If you want to optimize your recommendations, the best thing to do is to act as much as possible like “yourself”, to remain resolutely and eternally in character, that is to say to act in a very manner. quite contrary to reality. complexities of human nature.

Having said that, I don’t recommend embracing the irrational or acting against your own interests. It won’t make you happy and won’t prove a point. Chance is a poor substitute for true freedom. Instead, maybe you should reconsider the unspoken premise of your query that your identity is defined by your consumer choices. Your fear of getting boring may have less to do with your so-called vanilla taste than the fact that these platforms have conditioned us to see our souls through the prism of stereotypical categories designed to be readable by advertisers. It’s too easy to mistake our character for the bullets that adorn our bio: our relationship status, our professional affiliations, the posts, memes and discussion threads we’ve loved, the purchases we’ve made, and the playlists. that we have built.


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