1.05.2010

Pandora.com and the psychosocial implosion of capitalist modernity

If you are one of the 17 million people with an account at Pandora.com, you know it is a website and internet service that turns your favorite songs into personalized "radio stations" specially tuned to your particular tastes. And you know Pandora is a great way to hear music you like and learn about new musicians and bands you will probably like. And you might be aware that Pandora is at the cutting edge of data-based, web-mediated, hyper-personalized entertainment. And you might even have a feeling, as I do, bubbling up into consciousness, that Pandora is a harbinger of the impending end, the crack-up, the psychological collapse of capitalist modernity as a society and way of life.

Pandora is able to turn your musical preferences into personalized streaming radio stations through use of the Music Genome Project.
The Music Genome Project (MGP) started in 2000 when, according to the Pandora website, "a group of musicians and music-loving technologists came together with the idea of creating the most comprehensive analysis of music ever." The MGP involves analyzing songs by breaking them down into component characteristics descriptive of some feature of the music. In this way, the MGP purports "to capture the essence of music at the most fundamental level," and claims to have done so for the music of tens of thousands of artists.

Pandora was developed by people involved with the Music Genome Project.
After you sign up and type in a favorite song, Pandora accesses the MGP database to determine what characteristics that song has. Pandora then searches the database for other songs with similar clusters of characteristics, and streams those similar songs to you through your internet browser or smart phone, on a special for-you-only "station."

I just called up Pandora on my laptop.
One of six "stations" I have created automatically started up, playing a song I have never heard by a band I like – The Residents. According to the "Song" tab, this song's music genome "characteristics" are: electronics influences, a subtle use of paired vocal harmony, repetitive melodic phrasing, groove based composition, minor key tonality. Three "similar songs" by other bands (two of which I have never heard of) are listed on the side. Notably, you can't tell Pandora what to play – there is no provision for specific requests. You can listen to a sample of any song Pandora has in the database, and there are indeed an astounding amount of them, and start a station based on any of them. (Although searches for a couple of my favorite cutting edge music creators – People Like Us and Ergo Phizmiz – shows they remain below the Pandora radar for now.)

Pandora generates revenue with ads on their web pages, apparently somewhat targeted based on your identified tastes, an occasional audio ad between songs, selling music downloads, and selling premium access.
(Premium access includes no ads, higher quality streams, and access to a Pandora-specific, special-features web application to listen to your stations).

It's hard not to be impressed by Pandora.
You'll most likely hear some music you haven't heard before and you'll probably like quite a bit of it, because it is after all based on your "preferences," defined as the characteristics and clusters of characteristics associated with music you tell Pandora you like. Notably, you might not even recognize the identified "preferences" as things you particularly prefer since most of us have not thought to analyze the music we like into the highly-specific characteristics identified and categorized by the MGP.

This is where Pandora starts to become disconcerting: in a certain way, application of its analytic tool allows Pandora to know you in a slightly more profound way than you understand yourself, and then feed that preference-based image of you back to you.
And at that point Pandora is not only constructing your listening experience, in some sense it is constructing YOU.

Pandora represents a truly advanced form of capitalist consumer culture.
Starting with an analytical breakdown of the particular consumer's particular "preferences," Pandora crafts a super-targeted product – your "stations" or "streams" – that is both based on and aimed at YOU, the only one receiving the experience defined by your particular streams. When you listen to the actual radio, broadcast on electromagnetic waves or through the network of cables and wireless transmissions making up the internet, there is an implied community of people who are hearing the same thing you're hearing at the same time you're hearing it – the "broadcast audience." In this way, radio is a public, social experience, a connection to a temporary community. Even if it is usually fleeting and anonymous, based only on hearing this broadcast at this moment, radio is in fact a social event. Pandora is different. Pandora doesn't broadcast; it provides the narrowest of narrowcasts. The audience is just YOU, which can be further divided into modes of you, with different stations set up for different moods. The Pandora experience is beyond anonymous; it's autonomous. You're the center of attention, but you and Pandora are the only ones there to pay attention. You're off on your own little planet, in your own little bubble of specially-constructed sonic experience, created just for, and presented only to, YOU, based on Pandora's binary analysis and categorization of your "preferences."

And not only that – it's an autonomous little sphere of YOU that is created and 'brought to you' by the global techno-capital infrastructure that builds and manages the universe of experiences defining our contemporary, hypermodern consumer culture society.
I'm not saying Pandora is a totalitarian corporate overlord like Exxon or General Electric or NewsCorp. As far as I can tell, Pandora Media Inc. is a privately held corporation controlled by the people who developed the idea, the kind of company that should be encouraged (along with cooperatives) in a community-centric economy. What I am saying, and what is indisputable to the point of truism, is that the Pandora experience is a paradigm capitalist consumer culture experience.

Ultimately, Pandora's digital techno-construction of consumer experiences in pursuit of profit is not a corporate conspiracy, it is US, and beyond that a glimpse of what we are on the precipice of becoming.

As you listen to Pandora, you are cut off from everybody else, by yourself with your preferences, dependent on the global techno-capital structure for your very own insular, autonomous, self-centered reality.
In this way, Pandora signals the psychosocial cul de sac of capitalist modernity as a way of life and form of self, the end of the road in the burned-out, graffiti-tagged, sub-prime suburb of American consumer culture.

if there were no radios, no tvs, no cd players,
no record players, no tape players, no dvd players,
no mp3 players, and no computers,

people would make their own music


2 comments:

jenny said...

you sound like reverend billy. that's a good thing.

klamath democracy laboratory said...

Wow - thanks - Rev. Billy is great!