For more convenient, more consistent inbound information, we trade our sense of discovery
Over the years, the Spotify algorithms have correctly identiﬁed that I tend to like “chill” music of a certain BPM1 : smooth, inoffensive songs from the 1960s and ’70s, or more recent ones with washy synths, echo-y guitars, and vocals that are either passive or nonexistent. As I continue to listen to the playlist, dutifully saving the songs that I like, the weekly playlist begins to hone in, if not on an archetypal song, then an archetypal mix—we could call this “the jenny mix”—and other potential mixes are measured for their likeness to whatever the current archetype is.
But it also so happens that my car is from 2006 and has no auxiliary input—which means when I drive to Stanford twice a week, I listen to the radio. My presets are KKUP (Cupertino public radio), KALX (UC Berkeley college radio), KPOO (a San Francisco community station owned by Poor People’s Radio), KOSF (iHeart8os), KRBQ (“the Bay Area’s Throwback Station”), and KBLX (“the Soul of the Bay”). Especially when I’m driving home late on Interstate 880, feeling anonymous in the dark, ﬂat expanse, I’m comforted by the fact that some other people are hearing the same thing I am. I’ve come to know the physical coverage of the radio waves so well that I can predict when a station will fuzz out on a certain freeway interchange, and when it’ll come back.
More important, none of these stations ever play anything like “the jenny mix.” Instead they will occasionally play a song that I like even more than my archetypal song, in a different way and for reasons I can’t really pinpoint. The songs fall into genres I normally say I dislike, including Top 40. (It was only on KBLX that I heard Toni Braxton’s Top 40 hit “Long as I Live,” which I listened to obsessively for weeks afterward.) Especially with something as intuitively appealing or unappealing as music, to acknowledge that there’s something I didn’t know I liked is to be surprised not only by the song but by myself.
My dad, a musician for much of his life, says that this is actually the deﬁnition of good music: music that “sneaks up on you” and changes you. And if we’re able to leave room for the encounters that will change us in ways we can’t yet see, we can also acknowledge that we are each a conﬂuence of forces that exceed our own understanding. This explains why, when I hear a song I unexpectedly like, I sometimes feel like something I don’t know is talking to something else I don’t know, through me. For a person invested in a stable and bounded ego, this kind of acknowledgment would be a death wish. But personally, having given up on the idea of an atomic self, I ﬁnd it to be the surest indicator that I’m alive.
By contrast, at its most successful, an algorithmic "honing in" would seem to incrementally entomb me as an ever-more stable image of what I like and why. It certainly makes sense from a business point of view. When the language of advertising and personal branding enjoins you to "be yourself," what it really means is "be more yourself," where "yourself" is a consistent and recognizable pattern of habits, desires, and drives that can be more easily advertised to and appropriated, like units of capital. In fact, I don't know what a personal brand is other than a reliable, unchanging pattern of snap judgments: "I like this" and "I don't like this," with little room for ambiguity or contradiction.
Thinking about what it would mean to submit to such a process, becoming a more and more reified version of "myself," I'm reminded of the way Thoreau described unthinking people in "Civil Disobedience": as basically dead before their time. If I think I know everything that I want and like, and I also think I know where and how I'll find it—imagining all of this stretching endlessly into the future without any threats to my identity or the bounds of what I call my self—I would argue that I no longer have a reason to keep living. After all, if you were reading a book whose pages began to seem more and more similar until you were reading the same page over and over again, you would put the book down. Extrapolating this into the realm of strangers, I worry that if we let our reallife interactions be corralled by our filter bubbles and branded identities, we are also running the risk of never being surprised, challenged, or changed—never seeing anything outside of ourselves, including our own privilege. That's not to say we have nothing to gain from those we have many things in common with (on paper). But if we don't expand our attention outside of that sliver, we live in an "I-It" world where nothing has meaning outside of its value and relation to us. And we're less prone to the encounters with those who turn us upside down and reorganize our universe—those who stand to change us significantly, should we allow it.
Happiness consists in frequent repetition of pleasure.