Does Pandora Crush Your Soul, Or Free Your Mind?

Categories: Tech
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It sees everything you like.
That's the question asked today in a New York Times piece by Virgina Heffernan, a self-described non-music-buff who finds the ability of Internet radio station Pandora to predict her tastes unnerving -- and also exciting.

Her piece is a fascinating look into the philosophical ramifications of an algorithm -- the Pandora secret weapon -- that breaks music down into its constituent, quantitative aspects, and then learns what its users like and what they don't.

Heffernan compares the experience of having her tastes predicted by Pandora to chess Grandmaster Gary Kasparov's 1997 defeat at the hands of an IBM-built computer:  "Pandora refuses to group songs on the basis of their being good, bad, cool or otherwise enshrouded in cultural auras,"  she writes. "Pandora explodes the aura. It turns music into math."

While at first Heffernan finds this alarming, she eventually comes to appreciate how shrewdly the station pulls her number:

I'm not a music buff, but having shunned music for years, I recently got tired of a life without it. My boycott of iTunes, Internet radio and headphones was hurting no one but me. I decided to try Pandora again. This time I conceded up front that it could never take the place of my old relationship with music -- with the college D.J.'s who didn't try to guess what I would like but rather showed me how to like what they liked. This time, Pandora worked. The experience doesn't give you the pleasure of tangling with other human minds. But having your own affinities spelled out and even dramatized has become another kind of amusement. I'm getting into it.
I don't use Pandora -- there are enough people telling me what to listen to, thank you very much -- and reading this doesn't make me want to give it a shot. I find the notion that a machine could break down what we like about music into "melody, harmony, rhythm, instrumentation, orchestration, arrangement, lyrics, singing, and vocal harmony" belittling, ridiculous, and, probably impossible.

I'm not disputing that Pandora works in a sense -- the success Heffernan describes is impressive. But breaking our tastes down can't be that easy, and if it can, I'd rather not know. I operate under the presumption that there is some z-factor or dark matter, if you will, that greatly influences whether we like music -- some ineffable quality that makes Radiohead great and Muse shitty. Would Pandora recognize a difference in those artists? I don't know, and I have no urge to find out. Keeping music enshrouded in a cultural aura works just fine for me.

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