All My Little Words

Data Me

Posted in Music by nickchristian on January 28, 2013


Years ago, having interviewed him for my university’s student magazine, the newsreader Jon Snow kindly invited me to watch him broadcast the news from the gallery. It was a difficult, rather than slow, news day, which is to say there was plenty happening but, as was explained, there was very little which stood out as especially important which meant the running order was difficult to devise. My sense of the music released in 2012 has been mostly like that; I’ve listened to a lot this year – perhaps more, even, than I did in 2011 – and while much of it has been worthy, there’s been little – just one in fact[1] – that really stands out for me at year’s end.

Because people like me can’t just not write a list what I decided to do, therefore, was to interrogate the data. At its face, this might seem strange: why would I need statistics to tell me what I like? But hear me out.

Firstly, the way our brains are wired means judgement is neither linear nor static[2]. This means that: 1. How you feel about something after experiencing it for the first time is unlikely to be the same as how you’ll feel after, say, the seventeenth; 2. How you feel about something today is unlikely to be exactly the same as how you’ll feel about it tomorrow. Music critics[3] often say, of albums, “it’s a grower” by which they mean it gets better the more familiar with it you become[4], while the context in which you listen to something (including your mood at the time) can make a huge difference to how you respond to it.

What this means in reality is that our judgment, in any given moment, even about things as subjective as our own tastes, is inherently flawed/dishonest, at least as far as representing our longer term “taste”. Asking someone what kind of films they’re into is a very different question to what kind of film they want to see tonight and you should therefore look in very different places to find the answers. For the latter, I would argue, you ought to stick with gut instinct but for the former it might be worth seeking out data. But what data do we use, and how can we best make use of it?

Computer giant IBM[5] claim that 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are created every single day which sounds like a lot to me, being one of those numbers that’s so terrifyingly big I’ve never even heard of it. And it’s a number.

Somewhere amongst that obscene quantity of information, you may or may not be surprised to learn, is a relatively reliable record of my listening habits, as well as those of many others of a similarly geeky lilt. I do this by “scrobbling”. Despite being desperately feeble when it comes to anything technical, my rudimentary understanding is that scrobbling happens when you authorise a piece of software to keep track of what you’re listening to, through Spotify or any similar digital service. You are then able to check yourself out at your own personal profile page, somewhere like this.

While on the one hand you may be of the opinion that quantity does not equal quality, that the number of times you’ve experienced something does not adequately represent your value of the experience, on the other you might consider each individual item of data to represent a discreet expression of preference. Whether you’ve very deliberately chosen to listen to a track, or merely chosen not to skip one randomly shuffled in your ears’ direction, those preferences, when added together, might be enough to constitute, or at least contribute to, “taste”. Viewed in this way data, rather than something abstract and alien, in refusing to weigh a conscious choice more favourably than an unconscious one, is simply aggregated preference.

Data, furthermore, can help keep us honest.

In the course of getting to know someone, you’ll often find yourself interrogating them what music or films or books they like.[6] Chances are the answer you’ll get will be on the dithery side; not just because they’re trying to think of something but because they’re trying to think of something that they’re prepared to offer to you for scrutiny. The reply you get won’t, therefore, be a lie, but it’s unlikely to be satisfactorily truthful either. A better question, therefore, would be what book/film/band they’ve read/seen/heard the most often.

There’s a scene in Friends, almost decades old now, the boys are competing with the girls over how well they know each other, with the winner getting the big apartment. One of Ross’s questions is what Rachel claims her favourite film to be – Dangerous Liaisons – which he immediately follows up to ask what her “actual” favourite film is: “Weekend at Bernie’s”, Joey immediately replies[7].

Making your cultural preferences public presents the same dilemma – how much do you care what your audience thinks of your taste and is it enough to alter it? Even if your audience is small in number, you’re going to anticipate its judgement to some extent[8] (otherwise why would you be expressing your tastes in this way at all?) which is likely to result in at least some distortion. To bring us back to lists I might, for example, compile an initial ten or twenty, based purely on my own sense of what I enjoyed in 2012, only to reflect that it’s not as balanced as I would like it to be: it doesn’t contain enough music by black artists or by women; there’s not enough instrumental or dance and too much drivelly indie[9]; the list is too obscure or not obscure enough. Thus I might review those records that didn’t quite make the cut against those I deem to have snuck themselves in, promoting and demoting as appropriate. Before I know it, the whole thing becomes a LIE – not a massive lie but a lie nonetheless – but at least it LOOKS right to me.

Looking back on last year’s ten I don’t necessarily think I got it wrong, but there’s a few that made the cut that I’m not sure I’ve returned to too many times since, the appearance of which is indicative of a recognizable bias on my part.

Even if you don’t necessarily want to rely upon data alone – the data itself is vulnerable to distortion – it can certainly provide valuable insight which can help reduce this bias. In the information age[10] our data is constantly being collected and passed around and sorted and analysed and resorted and applied by all manner of agencies and corporations. One of the most common reasons they’re doing this is to divine our tastes and interests better in order to better predict our behaviour, to understand how we’ll respond to certain prompts and stimuli, and to subsequently manipulate that behaviour in one direction or another.

If they’re doing it, why shouldn’t we?

Of course list-making is a ludicrous exercise, almost certainly indicative of the presence of one if not several psychological deficiencies but getting to know yourself better, as so many self-help books I’m sure will tell you, is not.  Maybe the data can help?


Update: Gonna follow this up with another post later in the week demonstrating how this approach might work in practice. 

[2] I realise this is a dangerously woolly statement to make, especially from one who is not a neuroscientist, but just go with it, yeah? This article on that subject is very interesting:

[3] Lazy ones, granted

[4] Pop music tends to be the opposite – designed to hook you on the first listen, causing you to listen to it a hundred times on day one and then never again

[5] Actually I have no idea what IBM’s primary function is anymore. The topline of their Wikipedia entry describes them as “an American multinational technology and consulting corporation” but what the hell does that even mean?

[6] If this is a date, it may not be going well….

[7] Although I had to check what the first film was, I remembered the second easily enough. I’m not proud.

[8] Arguably, a smaller audience might matter more, as it’s more likely to contain a higher concentration of people you know personally and whose tastes you respect in some way themselves.

[9] There’s always too much drivelly indie

[10] Full disclosure: I just typed in “what age are we in” into Google and “the information age” was the third result, so I went with it

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  1. […] the start of this year I made a vow to be more honest about my music taste, to avoid (as far as possible any misrepresentation) by […]

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