Perceiving the Machine

Hello, friends. Good news: we survived the leap second. I was worried, you know, after that Y2K fiasco and all. You never know what kind of computer glitch might unravel the fabric of society.

Picture me blowing out the candles. It’s my birthday. This morning I made a timeline and divided it into four decades. Then I started adding events to it. As they began to cluster together, I noticed that each decade had brought at least one or two truly pivotal events, but the most active of them was the third. That means I need to step up my game. I’m halfway through my fourth decade and I have a lot to do.

CB, July 2, 2015

The digital music experience has gotten very, very good. Incredible, really. Alone on my drive into work just this morning, I said aloud, “Play music by Chopin.” And just a few second later, my car was filled with the beautiful sound of his Nocturne for Piano, No. 1. Now, I’ve abridged that experience ever so slightly. The truth is, I actually said, “OK, Google, play music by Chopin.” And then Google asked me to confirm which service I would prefer to use to play music by Chopin. I chose Google Play Music. But all that in seconds. Oh, and Google got it right the first time, even though I pronounced Chopin as close to properly as I am able, which sounds like, “show-pahn,” not “choppin’,” which is how I probably would have compensated for the phonetic clumsiness of any voice interface (but mostly Siri) just a release or two ago. But now, no need. I was basically Captain Picard cruising through space, with history’s entire catalog of music just a politely spoken request away.

For the rest of my twenty-five minute drive, I listened to a variety of pieces from Chopin’s life. It was lovely. Just about as seamless as you could imagine. I thought nothing of lists, buttons, tags, or cover art. It was just me and the music. This is, I think, exactly the experience we’ve always wanted, isn’t it? From the first iPod, to the Shuffle, to Pandora, to the many streaming services available today, we’ve been moving more and more toward the music and away from the interface. That, for the most part, seems like a good thing.

But not everyone agrees. Not with the less-interface part, anyway. That’s a popular opinion, one I generally agree with, though I am not a member of the recently established Church of The-Best-Interface-is-no-Interface. No, what some people seem to disagree with is the notion that the digital music experience is actually getting less interfacey. Here’s an example:

“Our role as librarians and archivists has outpaced our role as cultural consumers. Engaging with media in a traditional sense is often the last thing we do. … In the digital ecosystem, the apparatuses surrounding the artifact are more engaging than the artifact itself. Management (acquisition, distribution, archiving, filing, redundancy) is the cultural artifact’s new content. … In an unanticipated twist to John Perry Barlow’s 1994 prediction that in the digital age we’d be able to enjoy wine without the bottles, we’ve now come to prefer the bottles to the wine.”

That’s a passage from Kenneth Goldsmith’s essay, It’s a Mistake to Mistake Content for Content, as quoted by Nicolas Carr in a recent blog post less poetically and more grumpily titled, In the kingdom of the bored, the one-armed bandit is king.

Had I never used Google Play Music — especially now since its acquisition of Songza — or Beats — before it was amoeba’d by Apple — or Spotify — now that it has curated channels — or perhaps, had I gone through what sounds like the maddeningly Byzantine process of setting up and configuring Apple Music, I might just agree with Goldsmith. After all, it’s fun to be grumpy about interaction design. It’s even more fun to take it up a notch and get apocalyptic about human culture.

Naturally, Carr is all about that. And he’s not satisfied just to complain about Spotify or Apple or any of the other big music services out there. He’s an ecumenical grump, and pulls poor little Soundcloud into his vortex. Riffing on Goldsmith, he goes after the waveform:

“Who needs to listen to the song when one can watch the song unspool colorfully on the screen through all its sonic peaks and valleys, triggering the display of comments as it goes? Whatever lies on the other side of the interface seems less and less consequential. The interface is the thing. The interface is the content.”

Is it? SoundCloud started as an audio community where people like you and me could upload anything — spoken word, field recordings, stories, and music — to share and discuss. It’s grown to include more popular-level material and functionality, but using it to undergird such an enormous pronouncement about the erosion of the content experience fails to recognize its unique context and design. Nevertheless, Carr goes on with his indictment:

“And so, bored by the content, bored by the art, bored by the experience, we become obsessed with the interface. We seek to master the mechanism’s intricate, fascinating functions: downloading and uploading, archiving and cataloging, monitoring readouts, watching time counts, streaming and pausing and skipping, clicking buttons marked with hearts or uplifted thumbs. We become culture’s technicians. We become bureaucrats of experience.”

Good heavens.

This is what’s called a moral panic. But we can laugh at this one given that there are far more things in this world which merit true concern than that our jukeboxes are just too fun to play with. That being said, I think these guys are wrong, wrong, wrong.

First of all, I will risk a similarly uninformed generalization by saying: Come on! Nobody does these things! Downloading and uploading? Archiving? Last time I checked, the whole idea behind cloud-based music streaming services is that you don’t need to do this. Sure, you can, but you don’t have to. Cataloging and tagging, even, are continually less relevant actions as playlists — automated, celebrity-curated, and user-crafted — and “radio” stations are preferred. Oh, and as for “monitoring readouts” and “watching time counts,” I’m not even sure I know what that means. But whatever. No. Nobody does this. It just sounds good to write it. Carr is now writing poetry. And here’s the odd part for me. I typically agree with Carr and lament that he’s so often pilloried as a luddite when he puts forth a much more nuanced perspective on technology and culture than the fast media has time to parse. But this time around, I’m not on board. Where is this panic coming from, anyway? How are we “culture’s technicians” and “bureaucrats of experience” if we are as inert as Carr says we are? This is all alarm and no fire, if you ask me. Not to mention quite possibly an opinion only someone who has never used a music streaming service could hold.

Carr continues, though, with a curious statement. Not one that chills out his argument, unfortunately, but one that makes an interesting comparison:

“As the manufacturers of digital slot machines have discovered, a well-designed interface breeds obsession. It’s not the winnings, or the losses, that keep the players feeding money into the slots; it’s the joy of operating a highly responsive machine.”


Look, I’m completely with Carr in lamenting the inherent cynicism of embracing addiction as a central component of user experience design. How many articles have I come across at Fast Company and Forbes and their ilk extolling the brilliance of such and such a designer who, in bringing the insights of the casino to the website, has made it the goldmine it supposedly is? If it was just one, it’d be one too many. But it’s been many and each one has been met with my righteous disgust. (And skepticism. After all, these goldmines are always propped up by advertising or, in most cases, the hope of future advertising. Or, in other words, a lazy kick of the can.) Why? Because good design is supposed to help people get things done, not trap them in a dopamine labyrinth. No matter how much they might want to go there in the first place. And yes, I’d say the same thing about an actual casino. They’re simply not good for people. They offer the illusion of gain to anyone who enters — and perhaps that’s good enough for some interpretations of capitalistic theory — but they do not work, fiscally, unless they withhold their promise. A casino always takes more than it gives, and it’s more easily done by making a game of it. Why we would attempt to do this online, simply as a way of getting people to spend more time clicking things, and then allow that to reframe our very concept of success, I don’t know. We shouldn’t. But back to music for a moment.

While the casino is an apt metaphor for something like Facebook it simply isn’t for something like a subscription-based streaming music service. Addiction mechanics only make sense in a context where depth of attention = depth of data you can sell to advertisers. There are many of those contexts online, but subscription-based streaming is not one of them. So long as the service is a well-designed middleman between me and the artist, it will always be more effective when it’s goal is to help me enjoy the content, not the container.

I’ve subscribed to several streaming services: Rdio, Mog, Beats, back to Rdio again, and now Google Music. Aside from building playlists, my experience of them has been almost entirely non-fiddly. Again, I have no idea what Goldsmith and Carr are using, but whatever it is, it doesn’t sound much like anything I’ve experienced. At least not recently. Back when I used to use iTunes to manage my personal MP3 library, I was constantly organizing and reorganizing, tagging and re-tagging, grouping and re-grouping. Shuffling and skipping. All of that. But for the last five years, that MP3 library has sat on an external hard drive, unplayed. I’ve embraced the idea of paying a monthly fee for access to music, and I’ll be more than willing to pay more than I do today if that is what is ultimately necessary to make this model work for the artists (the economics, of course, being an entirely different and perhaps more tangled issue than the supposed cynicism of the interface, and one I don’t have the space or knowledge to deal with properly here). And compared to plenty of people I know, I was kind of late to the party.

For me, the bottom line is this: I could fiddle with the mechanics of these tools. I could joylessly skip forward through every song a playlist presents to me. I could toil for hours making playlists and building a library — presumably, according to Carr, because I’ve fallen so hard for the interface that I can be nothing other than bored by the music itself. What a weird idea. But sure, all this is made simple and easy by design. And, I could choose to interpret this design as cynical or even fundamentally adversarial to me, the music lover, as Carr seems to, but I don’t. Instead, I think it’s more reasonable to conclude that the people who design music streaming services must keep their sincere love for music — including the experience of discovering it, listening to it, building a collection, and sharing it with others — in balance with their goal of making a viable business out of their particular jukebox. What’s interesting about that is that I believe this balance will continue to push these services farther and farther away from the particulars that seem to disturb Carr. Why he doesn’t see that, I don’t know. But immersion in the music, not the interface, is today’s reality thanks to the sophistication of the design of streaming services and the sophistication of the voice interface. My little commute anecdote is just one in a million that serve to emphasize that this is the voice interface’s moment.

Here’s how Carr concludes:

“In a world dense with stuff, a captivating interface is the perfect consumer good. It packages the very act of consumption as a product. We consume our consuming. The machine zone is where we spend much of our time these days. It extends well beyond the traditional diversions of media and entertainment and gaming. The machine zone surrounds us. You go for a walk, and you find that what inspires you is not the scenery or the fresh air or the physical pleasure of the exercise, but rather the mounting step count on your smartphone’s exercise app. ‘If I go just a little farther,’ you tell yourself, glancing yet again at the interface, ‘the app will reward me with a badge.’ The mechanism is more than beguiling. The mechanism knows you, and it cares about you. You give it your attention, and it tells you that your attention has not been wasted.”

It seems clear here that Carr is troubled by something, yet has somewhat arbitrarily chosen streaming music as his scapegoat. Not only is there a better example for each of his criticisms in social media (Facebook, especially) and junk media (Gawker, HuffPo, Buzzfeed, etc.), but the fact that he must conclude by digressing into a complaint about fitness trackers shows that his discomfort is bigger than any of the particular digital experiences he invokes. As a longtime reader of Carr, I’ve observed that his technological angst is, and always has been, about the balance of experience and mediation, and where in that balance the truth of human being lies. And that, of course, won’t be found by a technology.

Technology is a manifestation of being human, but it won’t make us more human. After all, “more human” lacks a precise meaning. If we can’t agree on what being human is, exactly, then how can we agree on what undermines the human experience, or what enhances it? This is the struggle of embodied consciousness. To conceive of something more — something other than our bodies growing, changing, and dying on this world — yet to be so bound to the body as to question the integrity of our perception outside of it. That is the human condition, and of course, the condition in which all the artifacts of our culture are made.

Discomfort, then, is to be expected. Physical, sure. But emotional discomfort, especially. And, to Carr’s implicit point, questioning is an essential coping mechanism and tool for sense-making. His particular discomfort and questioning are, I think, understandable and relatable. However, it seems as if a rubric is lacking. Without it, the questioning too quickly becomes judgement. You feel uncomfortable about something, and you blame that thing which triggers the feeling, though it probably isn’t the root cause of it. I’ve been guilty of that too many times myself. Who hasn’t? We all have a sense for our humanity — both actual and aspirational; who we are and who we want to be — but it’s one that ebbs and flows and evolves with time. And without further qualification, how can it not make for a kind of mania; the kind that, with every new technological advance, declares either Utopia come or Apocalypse now. The truth, of course, is somewhere in between. No individual technology has that kind of power. But the choice to make something, and then to use it — that is powerful.

In a 2009 article, on which he expanded in 2011 in his book, What Technology Wants, Kevin Kelly talked about how the Amish community makes technological choices. The idea that they reject all technology, he points out, is a myth and, of course, an absurdity. They wear clothing; they build homes; they use simple machines and tools; all of varying degrees in complexity. What is absurd about describing the Amish as people who reject technology is that technology is too broad to be survivably rejected. From the outside looking in, then, it looks as if the Amish have somewhat arbitrarily chosen a point in technological development to stop. Yes to the button; no to the zipper. Yes to the wheel; no to the motor. But that’s the myth at work. As Kelly points out:

“The Amish are steadily adopting technology — at their pace. They are slow geeks. As one Amish man told Howard Rheingold, “We don’t want to stop progress, we just want to slow it down,” But their manner of slow adoption is instructive.

  • They are selective. They know how to say “no” and are not afraid to refuse new things. They ban more than they adopt.

  • They evaluate new things by experience instead of by theory. They let the early adopters get their jollies by pioneering new stuff under watchful eyes.

  • They have criteria by which to select choices: technologies must enhance family and community and distance themselves from the outside world.

  • The choices are not individual, but communal. The community shapes and enforces technological direction.

It seems to me that the Amish rubric, of selecting, evaluating and then finally integrating is one that we, as a society, could stand to learn from. There are plenty of digital tools that are by no means edifying in the Amish sense. But, there are also plenty which are. In big and small ways. I don’t love most social networks, and tend to evaluate them low on the edification scale for me personally, but I’d be wrong to conclude that for everyone. On a smaller scale, I don’t love every music streaming service out there, but I can’t deny the fact that they’re getting better and better at letting me just enjoy and explore music. I might miss that if I judged them all on my understanding of what they do without actually giving them a try. On that note, I’ll conclude with Kelly’s conclusion. His words, I think, make a fitting admonition.

This method works for the Amish, but can it work for the rest of us? I don’t know. It has not really been tried yet. And if the Amish hackers and early adopters teach us anything, it’s that you have to try things first. Try first and relinquish later if need be. We are good at trying first; not good at relinquishing — except as individuals. To fulfill the Amish model we’d have to get better at relinquishing as a group. Social relinquishing. Not merely a large number (as in a movement) but a giving up that relies on mutual support. I have not seen any evidence of that happening, but it would be a telling sign if it did appear.”

Let’s give that a try, shall we?

Recent Tabs: “Sit down, shut up, and pass the chances that fall into your lap to women.” I’m heading toward the floating Platonic geometry of overlapping spacenoise and post-auditory vibrations, how about you? Am I alone in wanting to wipe the slate clean and go back to screens looking like this every now and then? I mean, this guy looked pretty happy to be there. DARPA is engineering organisms that will terraform Mars. But nah, we don’t have a black-budget breakaway civilization or anything. How Adobe keeps employees from quitting. “Try not to become a man of success, but rather a man of value.” Twelve Tomorrows, MIT Technology Review’s annual science fiction anthology is out now, and includes stories by Paola Antonelli, Bruce Sterling, Nick Harkaway, Charles Stross and others. Gameboy homebrew. When asked what would persuade him to pay for music, a pastoral student couldn’t think of anything. Because there’s definitely no ethical problem with getting all the pirated music you could ever want on YouTube. And anyway, those goshdarn streaming services, well, “There’s always sorts of glitches, or they don’t have the music that I’m looking for.” That was NPR’s lead opinion on a story about music streaming services pricing. Top notch American entitlement; top notch American journalism. Speaking of NPR and music and free, here’s their playlist of 200 “Songs We Love” from 2015. The forgotten story of the original iPhone released in 1998. Finally, for your entertainment, I give you A Ship to Ship Communication.

Written by Christopher Butler on July 2, 2015,   In Essays

Next Entry
Enter the Void Hello, old friends! And welcome, new ones. I invite you to not think about the future with us, this small but gathering crowd of the curious, we
Previous Entry
Where are you, Digital Le Corbusier? Hello there. According to the numbers, you are probably new to the Don’t Think About the Future fold. You are part of a recent swell of interest is the personal website of Christopher Butler.
© Christopher Butler. All rights reserved.
About this Website
Subscribe to the Newsletter