Personal muzak

by Rob Horning

14 June 2006


More on “music intelligence.” While music intelligence has obvious uses on the production side—sorting out talent, honing product—it seems to have even greater application as a filter and facilitator for music consumption. As I mentioned yesterday, this is the premise of Pandora, the online service that offers you new music based on its analysis of the bands you tell it you already like. Input “the Beatles” and recieve a stream of reasonably Beatlesque tunes from bands you might not have known about otherwise. I’d expect these services to move beyond using other bands as criteria and expand into accomodating other needs. You tell it you are angry, and it plays Fear and Minor Threat; you are lonely, and it starts streaming Gilbert O’Sullivan. Perhaps the interface would ask you questions to gauge your mood and then start providing appropriate music based on its assessment of your state of mind.  Just as Muzak provides music meant to create predesigned aural atmospheres, your computer could be striving to do the same for you as you work, with songs from your own iTunes library; in fact, I wouldn’t be shocked to see the Muzak corporation develop this software based on its own research into the subject, its own extensive cataloging of what music is suitable to which feelings. People may already tag songs in their personal collection according to how it makes them feel; music intelligence could automate that process and make one’s music library a searchable emotional database, a sensorium immediately responsive to one’s cues and capable of providing a suitable entertainment environment. If your mood calls for music you don’t already own, the software could thoughtfully direct you to the means for remedying that oversight. It could be the perfect selling tool in that it would anticipate how you feel and offer therapeutic pop-culture product as medicine—thus allowing the ailing music business to jump on the health-care bandwagon to megaprofits. Linking music to mood will allow entertainment to become more overtly like the pharmaceutical industry (we already discuss blockbusters in both industries); music intelligence is like a drug company’s R&D. To keep creativity alive we’ll have to struggle to discover off-label uses.

It just seems like technology will ultimately make culture much more instrumental—we’ll bring needs to it and expect them to be fulfilled rather than having culture help us find new desires and interests. The Internet is often characterize as a place we drift, but search technology will make it more a place that is responsive rather than random—paradoxically better search may limit what we experience rather than open up new vistas—it can assure that nothing that offends our sensibility slips through. We can personalize the information we receive to a degree where it consistently suits us but never surprises us, just as Muzak is supposed to do. As we surround ourselves with intellligent machines, it will become harder and harder for us to preserve a sense of spontaneity. We’ll become like the machines ourselves, which are famously incapable of generating a random number.

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