I’ve had that feeling many times with technology, and especially with Pandora, the Internet radio service that calculates with brutal, clinical accuracy what songs you’ll like based on the songs you already like. Pandora mercilessly pulls apart those favorite songs until they form a heap of qualities that can be quantified. These qualities include melody, harmony, rhythm, instrumentation, orchestration, arrangement, lyrics, singing and vocal harmony. Pandora refuses to group songs on the basis of their being good, bad, cool or otherwise enshrouded in cultural auras. Pandora explodes the aura. It turns music into math.
Like Deep Blue, then, Pandora reduces a human pastime around which people design their whole emotional lives â€” chess, music â€” to a set of flow charts. Just the idea of that hurts a little. Kasparov named the feeling exactly. There is a spiritual exhaustion that descends when what is traditionally an experience with another mind (a musician, a chess player, a conductor, a D.J.) turns out to be an encounter with a machine. This dissonance is a sci-fi set piece. It’s a meeting with a Cylon â€” creepy, enfeebling.
Listening to music has historically made people feel free and let us revel in our subjectivity. By contrast, listening to Pandora makes you feel predictable. The first few times I tried Pandora and heard the new songs derived from my old songs, as clone puppies might be derived from a dead dog, I lost my fighting spirit. My path through this human civilization, my choices of things to like and not like, a path that I believed was defined by weird twists and turns and that had taken everything I had to blaze, could have been charted by a robot.
This spirit-loss has been a problem with the musical experience since the advent of the MP3 in the 1990s. People who loved music crated their records, and then their CDs, and tried hard to figure out what was missing from MP3s. The loss was literal: MP3 is what’s called a â€œlossyâ€ data-compression form of audio encoding; some audio information is demonstrably lost in the process. A lossy compression junks part of the sound that, it is believed, most people can’t make out, while keeping enough to give a credible, efficient reproduction of the signal.
â€œCredibleâ€ and â€œefficientâ€ are hardly what music lovers want. You know what audiophiles are like: they don’t want a satisfactory auditory experience; they don’t even want a pleasurable one; they want something supernatural. For them, that’s not pretension. That’s a real mental craving. Digital music rarely slakes it. For years, they’ve been hungry.
I’m not a music buff, but having shunned music for years, I recently got tired of a life without it. My boycott of iTunes, Internet radio and headphones was hurting no one but me. I decided to try Pandora again. This time I conceded up front that it could never take the place of my old relationship with music â€” with the college D.J.’s who didn’t try to guess what I would like but rather showed me how to like what they liked. This time, Pandora worked. The experience doesn’t give you the pleasure of tangling with other human minds. But having your own affinities spelled out and even dramatized has become another kind of amusement. I’m getting into it.
If Pandora thinks it has my number, it does. I have told it I like Katell Keineg, Cat Power and the R.E.M. song â€œ(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville.â€ Today I fire up Pandora. Up comes â€œFriend of the Devil,â€ by the Grateful Dead. Always â€œFriend of the Devil.â€ I don’t like that I like â€œFriend of the Devil,â€ and I wouldn’t have confessed to Pandora that I like â€œFriend of the Devil,â€ but I love â€œFriend of the Devil.â€
How Kasparov managed to think so clearly after that wrenching 1997 defeat I’ll never figure out. Openly miserable, he was able to tell reporters, â€œWhen I see something that is well beyond my understanding, I’m afraid.â€ Kasparov’s defeat to Deep Blue is close to the defeat so many of us experience at the hands of digital culture. But it’s important to remember that Kasparov came back. Though he and many others came to believe that the I.B.M. team had cheated in the 1997 match, Kasparov played I.B.M. again â€” Deep Junior, in 2003. The money must have been good, but Kasparov probably just also missed playing the most competitive chess available. After one win each and three draws, Kasparov and Deep Junior agreed to a draw in the sixth and final game. Kasparov did so without bitterness. In six years, he evidently had come to appreciate the new game and ceased expecting it to be human chess. His fighting spirit was back.
Points of Entry: This Week’s Recommendations
Contrary to Pandora‘s instructions, it’s most interesting if you enter in fewer data points and let the machine extrapolate. By yeaing and naying various Pandora choices as you go along, the algorithm free-associates you to music that’s â€” for better or for worse â€” perfectly you.
Chess and blogging â€” an ancient form and a modern one â€” go great together. Make sure to catch Dylan Loeb McClain’s reflections on all things chess at Gambit: gambit.blogs.nytimes.com.
The heavyweight documentary â€œGame Over: Kasparov and the Machineâ€ (2003) tells of the undoing of the man many call the strongest player in the history of the game â€” at the hands of a coldhearted computer.