LOTR: The Fellowship of the Sources

Week two’s “Man-Computer Symbiosis” was the first place that I started to personally question everything about Pandora. Licklider’s explanation of symbiosis made me curious to find out the degree of symbiosis between Pandora as a form of technology and its human listeners. Licklider defines symbiosis as, “cooperative interaction between man and computers.” I wondered how much of a computer Pandora was. What I mean by this is, does the Pandora app create its music/comedy stations, and choose when to include an advertisement by itself? Or, are these actions empowered by humans? If humans were the ones to assemble these things, I would be compelled to conclude that there is no man-computer symbiosis.

“Pandora Pulls Back the Curtain on its Magic Music Machine” was the first source I found information on that way that Pandora is put together. Pandora’s employees (who have been called music analysts, musicologists, and technologists all by different sources) listen to every song that lands on one of Pandora’s music channels themselves. They break each song down into nearly 400 components. Tyler Gray says, “Professional players who pass job application tests require them to pick, for example, one of four jazz tunes and ‘describe the harmonic language,’ answer whether it’s ‘tonal or modal,’ and ‘outline the progression.'” The employees go through and recognize each song’s melody, lyrics, pitch, speed, and algorithms, and pair them with songs that have similar qualities. Tim Westergren, the owner of Pandora Internet Radio, explains in this article, “It’s true that the algorithms mathematically match songs, but the math, all it’s doing is translating what a human being is actually measuring…You need a human ear to discern.” This bit of information seemed to answer my question on symbiosis entirely. Everything that happens in Pandora, and every reason that Pandora is successful is accredited to human action. Pandora is basically human, and human employees interacting with human listeners is not “man-computer symbiosis.”

“How Pandora Radio Works” by Julia Layton is a similar sources on the process of composing Pandora’s stations. Layton explains, “Pandora has no concept of genre, user connections or ratings. It doesn’t care what other people who like Gomez also like. When you create a radio station on Pandora, it uses a pretty radical approach to delivering your personalized selections: Having analyzed the musical structures present in the songs you like, it plays other songs that possess similar musical traits.” She continues, “Pandora relies on a Music Genome that consists of 400 musical attributes covering the qualities of melody, harmony, rhythm, form, composition and lyrics…The Genome is based on an intricate analysis by actual humans (about 20 to 30 minutes per four-minute song) of the music of 10,000 artists from the past 100 years.” Here again, I am told that ‘actual humans’ are at work at Pandora. Pandora is not its own computer-like machine that listens to music and couples together similar songs. Humans do everything that reaches its audience. Once again, I feel that my question is answered about the degree of “man-computer symbiosis” going on.

A third of my eight sources just reaffirmed what I have been concluding. “Inside Pandora Web Radio” restates, “The magic of Pandora derives from a simple principle: a song listeners enjoy should lead to other songs they’ll enjoy.” Pandora does just this with the help of humans. Human employees hand-make all of Pandora’s stations by putting together similar music, and then people can go listen to them.

Further into this article, however, Westergren asks, “If people haven’t found any music that they love since college, and artists are struggling to find an audience, is there a role for technology to help bridge the gap?” As I’m reading this to myself, I’m compelled to say ‘no, technology does not have a role’ because there is no man-computer symbiosis. But, then again, technology is the middle factor between two groups of humans: those as Pandora and those at home. Technology is a component of the whole process, and it could possibly be working to bridge the gap.

What got me next was Alan Kay and Adele Goldberg’s “Personal Dynamic Media.” Kay and Goldberg explain their aspirations for a futuristic computer notebook called the Dynabook. Their goals include, “There should be no discernible pause between cause and effect. One of the metaphors we used when designing such a system was that of a musical instrument, such as a flute, which is owned by its user and responds instantly and consistently to its owner’s wishes. Imagine the absurdity of a one-second delay between blowing a note and hearing it!” Music obviously made me think back to Pandora. I thought about these aspirations and decided that technology might not be where Kay and Goldberg had hoped just yet. It is not so absurd in today’s age if I hit ‘play’ on Pandora and my song takes a second or two to play. “Pandora,” I thought, “Has glitches and buffers like any other form of technology.” If I came to this conclusion then Pandora must not be merely or just humans. Pandora does have an element of technology; if it didn’t, how would we listen to it? I started to think to myself, “Okay, Pandora is technology, but it is not computerized. The technology is controlled by humans.”

Ted Nelson’s “Computer Lib/Dream Machines” talks about computers and how inaccessible they are. Nelson opens his argument with, “Unfortunately, due to ridiculous historical circumstances, computers have been made a mystery to most of the world. And this situation does not seem to be improving. You hear more and more about computers, but to most people it’s just one big blur.” Luckily, Pandora is not computerized and it is easy to understand. The only computerization is the app itself: the display of play/pause buttons, the process of searching and adding new stations to your profile, and the input of thumbs up or thumbs down to each song. This is all really simple because it is minimal, which brings me back to Kay and Goldberg’s Dynabook. They wished for the Dynabook to be accessible and easy to use by all. Although Pandora may still have a “discernible pause between cause and effect,” it has reached the goal of simplicity by keeping the computerization minimal.

I came to a source called “Pandora Announces Technology Leadership Team Succession” on Pandora’s website that challenged my previously stated conclusions. It caught my attention because they were calling its employees ‘technologists.’ My thought process has been that Pandora is less of technology and more of man, and now Pandora is not even acknowledging a difference between the two? They continued in the article, “Our team of engineers has developed some of the most innovative music technology in the world and changed the way we all consume music.” Okay, so now we’re on the subject of ‘music technology.’ I looked up the definition of technology and Webster’s dictionary states that technology is, “The practical application of knowledge especially in a particular area or a manner of accomplishing a task especially using technical processes, methods, or knowledge .” I believe the first definition combines all of my conclusions into one. If we define technology as “the practical application of knowledge especially in a particular area,” then Pandora is technology. People are applying their specific skills/knowledge in the music area to create Pandora. So it would be logical to conclude that Pandora is technology, and its employees can appropriately be called ‘technologists,’ without it being completely computerized.

Quick return to my first source: Since Pandora is a form of technology, there must be a degree of “man-computer symbiosis” involved between the technology and other people. It is not such a huge interaction where a listener can do things like tell the app to add more complementary songs, but there is a smaller degree of “cooperative interaction between man and computer” when a listener presses pause/skip/thumbs down. Pandora’s employees have no control over these actions when they occur.

As we all know, technology evolves throughout time. It may get smaller, faster, and/or smarter. My final source, with the extensively long title, “Bob Pittman Doesn’t Believe Streaming Will Kill Radio. But He’s Built a Massive Streaming Service, Just in Case” discusses the future of Internet radio. Erin Griffith identifies the amount of registered users on all big name Internet radio companies, including Pandora’s 250 million, and says, “If it were not for the fact that radio is so large, you’d say, ‘Wow these are big numbers’ […] But there are one billion FM radios in the US and only 160 million smartphones and 160 million PCs, so it’s still a subset of the FM marketplace.” Many people, including myself, would be inclined to say that the ways of streaming music, such as on Pandora, would take over the market in the future. Bob Pittman doesn’t see it happening in his lifetime. Pittman explains, “Satellite didn’t kill FM. AM didn’t kill FM. (Streaming music) is one more choice and one more device you can listen to the radio on.” If this is the case, then Pandora’s future may not be so different. People will still be Pandora’s “secret sauce,” as Tim Westergren likes to say, and the same level of man-computer symbiosis will be occurring. The formation of music itself will likely continue to be controlled by humans in the future, and the formation of radio will, too.