"[The Internet] creates a permanent puberty of the mind. We get locked in so much information, and the inability to sort that information meaningfully limits our capacity to understand. The last stage of knowledge is wisdom. But we are miles from wisdom because the Internet encourages the opposite of what creates wisdom—stillness, time, and inefficient things like suffering. On the Internet, there is no such thing as waiting; there is no such thing as stillness. There is a constant churning."
(Shane Hipps, in Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith)
I am awash in music. Whether I am in my car, while working at my computer in my home or on the job, in restaurants, shopping, or putting gas in my car, life is lived out complete with soundtrack. Like most other products, technologically-savvy marketers have found ways to deliver music to me whenever I want it (and even when I don't). I'm part of the problem, as I confess I am a music junkie. What I can't determine is whether all this music is good for me --- and I'm not referring to content or quality as much as quantity. Why the compulsion to listen? Why do I feel the need to have the background of my day soaked in sound?
In this respect, Pandora, a relative newcomer to internet radio, has not been helpful. While our firewall at work blocks most streaming music (it won't allow Rhapsody), Pandora streams through unchecked. If you're not familiar with Pandora, it's a remarkable internet radio service that allows you to pick a song or artist and build a playlist of songs that are in a similar vein to that song. Actually, it's a cooperative process. Based on the song or artist you select, Pandora suggests and begins playing similar songs. You can accept or reject the song. Every time you make such a choice, you further give input to Pandora, allowing it to refine the song selection. For example, I began a station by playing "Baby Blue," by the Seventies power-pop group, Badfinger. Next up, Pandora selected "Who'll Stop the Rain," by Creedence Clearwater Revival. Why? If you want to know, it tells you. In this instance it said because it features "basic rock song structures, country influences, a subtle use of vocal harmony, extensive vamping and mixed electric and acoustic instrumentation." Well, I don't know about all that, but they guessed right --- I liked the song. And it's uncanny, because more often than not they do get it right.
Pandora grew out of the marriage of some astute musicians and computer geeks who conceived the Music Genome Project, a distilling of the essential qualities of music that then allowed them to map similarities. In their own words, they "set out to capture the essence of music at the most fundamental level. We ended up assembling literally hundreds of musical attributes or `genes' into a very large Music Genome. Taken together these genes capture the unique and magical musical identity of a song - everything from melody, harmony and rhythm, to instrumentation, orchestration, arrangement, lyrics, and of course the rich world of singing and vocal harmony. It's not about what a band looks like, or what genre they supposedly belong to, or about who buys their records - it's about what each individual song sounds like." It's ingenious, really, and though it has a significant subjective component, I am amazed at their ability to objectify (and then market) the factors that make up our usually unarticulated taste in music, so amazed that I have spent hours listening to Pandora.
Then lately I have been wondering how all this listening is shaping me, for better or worse. Like any new technology, I suspect it sows good and bad fruit. On the positive side, Pandora has introduced me to new songs and new artists and reminded me of songs and artists I had forgotten. I now listen to Yo La Tenga, when I had never heard of them before, and rediscovered The James Gang (please don't say "who?"), a group I lost to my high school years. It allows me to listen to full tracks at no cost. I either put up with a few advertisements or pay a modest $36 a year to enjoy advertisement-free listening and a longer time-out function. I enjoy the fact that both independent and major artists get paid when I play their song. And finally, I enjoy the element of surprise in finding out what song will be selected for me next. Of course, there is the portability of it as well, but that's nothing new.
On the negative side, I suspect I am also becoming captive to my tastes and less adventurous and patient in listening outside by personalized genres. To be fair, Pandora gives you a tool to deal with this, at least in part, by allowing you to click a button called "Add Variety," but I never do. I like my listening comfort zone, and Pandora feeds that taste-ghetto. Pandora also (and it's not alone in this) provides a veritable and portable glut of music --- at home, at work, in the car, and on your IPhone --- and thereby contributes to the impatient, non-evaluative listening many now major in. I pay little attention to words, know and care little about the new artists, and don't end up buying their album or song (at least not yet). I need not tolerate anything that doesn't immediately grab me by the musical short-hairs: I can skip a song easily enough and blacklist an artist so that their songs never play again. Once again, to be fair, Pandora allows only a limited number of skips or thumbs down on suggested songs before you are bumped from the station, but you can always log back on, so there is little disincentive to impatience and little incentive to listen beyond 30 seconds or so. It propels this propensity to skimming as does any kind of internet listening or browsing.
Consider how long it has been since you carefully listened to a song or, better yet, an entire album. Music now streams through my head and I rarely press pause so I can think about it. I get what I want when I want it, but I probably don't get what I need --- a balance between the stimulating, surprising experience of hearing all the music offered by Pandora and a more reflective, deeper, committed listening to a small cadre of artists that I commit to and support, a balance between the stimulation of music and the solitude and space of silence as I listen and reflect on the world outside and world in my head. Life is more novel than soundtrack, a story so rich that you cannot hear it without a measure of rest from the constant churning of sound (and information and image).
In Greek mythology, Pandora, whose name means sender of gifts, was also the one with the unchecked curiosity who opened the box that brought ill upon the world. It just goes to show that when it comes to new technology, we take the bad with the good. Pandora brings ill and unintended consequences. Its open box walls me in to my own prejudices even while it ostensibly opens me up to new musical vistas. When it comes to music, maybe this good gift of rediscovered or new music should prompt me to stop the flow and go deeper, getting to know a smaller amount of music by a small number of artists in a deeper way. Of course, that requires listening, not just hearing, and thoughtfulness, not distraction. In short, it requires the good sense to put the lid on Pandora's box at some point. Can we do that?