Pandora Has Opened Up A Box Of Evil
If you don't know Pandora, it's the Internet radio station in which you enter the name of a song or band that you like and it uses that information to find other music you'd like. As it says on the Web site, it's like having a personalized radio station, one devoted to playing only what you like. It's called Pandora because it opens up a Pandora's Box of new music rather than evil, but I don't think it's entirely not evil either. Computers can't think, so they don't have any long term plans or goals, but if they did have goals, their ultimate goal would definitely be to replace with machines jobs that should be done by people, and Pandora represents a significant step forward towards them achieving that goal.
I'm not a Luddite — obviously progress is going to happen and machines have been replacing people for a long time now. But this is different from some factory workers getting replaced by a machine, which no one cares about except the factory workers themselves (and I guess the families they have to feed), this is a computer program that claims to be better at finding music you like than you are. What kind of music you like is part of your personality, and it should be intuitive, not scientific.
Pandora works, in a limited way. If you feel in the mood to listen to punk music it'll find you a lot of similar-sounding punk music, but if you're looking for music to play when it's raining outside it's less good and it won't make you a break up mix-tape. By it's nature it works against variety, so it's more consistent than a radio DJ, but less interesting. It's basically the DJ 3000 from The Simpsons, though they haven't brought out an upgrade with the three varieties of inane chatter yet.
But how well Pandora works is beside the point. In the last couple of years its popularity has exploded and it's getting bigger by the day. It probably signals the demise of the radio DJ, killing one of the classic slacker dream jobs (and with record stores and video rental stores also being driven out of business by Internet alternatives, the slacker jobs are fading fast). And it represents a whole new way of finding music, making it easier, but removing the social element entirely. For teenagers especially, music is an important part of the whole social fabric of life. Now instead of finding out about new
music from your friends, a computer program will do it for you. You can still talk about other things with your friends, maybe, until someone writes an algorithm that more efficiently handles those conversations too. I'm not saying Pandora is going to lead to us all being brains in jars hooked up to a mainframe, I'm just saying it's a slippery slope, and at the bottom of that slope, we're all brains in jars hooked up to a mainframe.
Pandora also takes something else important away from music: the act of discovery. Finding new bands was difficult, and when you did find someone great it felt like an achievement. You had information! You were a wise and powerful man! Now kids can't impress anyone by knowing about obscure music, because everyone will like obscure music. And there'll be no sense of fellowship between people who like the same music, because everyone's taste will be completely different. Pandora eliminates ideas of taste and conforming to what's cool, and lets you listen to just the music you like. But is having a computer tell you what you like really any better than having your taste dictated by what's cool? Being cool isn't the most important thing in the world, but it's not entirely unimportant either. Certainly the ability to make people think you're cool just by listening to cool music is an invaluable one (nobody actually thinks anyone else is cool because of what music they listen to, but it feels that way, sort of, when you're 14, and that's all that matters).
Sure that thinking is kind of shallow and silly, but you know what else is shallow and silly? Teenagers. It's their God-given right to care about stupid stuff, and it's being taken away from them in the name of convenience. Adults can just listen to music they like, they don't need to define themselves by their taste. But teenagers really do. If they don't define themselves by their taste in music what are they gonna define themselves by, their horrible unformed personalities?
Pandora treats music like it's just a bunch of sounds that create a positive reaction in the ear, and ignores the whole culture surrounding it. It has an incredibly clinical, unsentimental view of a totally sentimental art-form and sucks half the fun out of it, which is what you get when you let machines start running things.