how the Shuffle function turned from an advantage into a punishment

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Adele’s request to remove the Shuffle feature on Spotify turned into a demand, resulting in the removal of the function for premium users. However, the feature is based on the automation of randomness, which is impossible in modern computing, with computer scientists resorting to pseudo-randomness. The Shuffle function satisfies the human desire for novelty, surprise, and personalization in media consumption. The concept of personal radio was invented by Pandora, which developed a new technology of shuffling tracks. Invasive algorithms use the concept of shuffling to encourage users to consume, blurring the lines between the randomness they want and the randomness forced upon them.

how the Shuffle function turned from an advantage into a punishment

A few years ago, the singer Adele expressed her dissatisfaction with the Spotify project. However, her complaint was not about the stingy rates at which the company pays musicians, the monopolistic stranglehold it strangles the music industry with, and the company’s leading podcasts that don’t spread misinformation. She was annoyed by the Shuffle feature.

“Our art tells a story, and stories should be heard as they are meant to be heard,” she wrote shortly after the release of her album 30 (the singer’s fourth studio album in 2021), which became so widespread that almost no one managed to escape . from his “history”, even if he really wanted to. In 2020, Spotify started automatically shuffling albums for all users instead of playing tracks in a set order. However, Adele’s request turned into a demand for Spotify, and the company removed the function of automatically shuffling albums, but only for premium users. What was once a feature has turned into a bug that you have to pay to fix.

The shuffle function (reproduction in random order), despite its external simplicity, is based on one of the fundamental problems of computing: it is the automation of randomness, which is formally impossible in modern realities. True randomness, in which there is “an equal probability that event X or Y will occur at the quantum level,” according to Andrew Leeson, associate professor of media studies at the University at Buffalo, is seen in phenomena such as atomic decay—natural ones that do not amenable (at least for the time being) to full computer reproduction of the processes. So that the Shuffle button can shuffle tracks in a truly random order, you will have to resort to quantum physics.

But instead, computer scientists have been simulating it for a long time, limiting themselves to pseudo-randomness, which provides fast, non-linear access to information. This is like the first step in the creation of computers capable of outwitting humans, who create something without taking into account our actions and give rise to phenomena whose cause and effect relationship we cannot trace (without considerable investment of time, effort and knowledge).

It is not known who first decided to integrate the new technology of randomness into the musical environment. “The first Philips player did not have a Shuffle function… Which company was the first to come to this decision? I don’t know,” Kes Showhamer Immink, a Philips specialist who worked on early CD players, told me by email. However, very shortly after the transition from analog to digital music with the first CD players in 1982, the random play function was considered one of the most important advantages of the device. (By the early 1980s, there were sophisticated tape recorders that also had the function of random playback, but each selection had to be pre-programmed – moreover, due to analog recording technology, the time between tracks became quite significant).

“Use the Sony Shuffle!” – proclaimed a 1986 Sony CDP-45 ad. “Turn old CDs into new ones!”. But it was the appearance of players that accommodate several CDs at once that predicted the modern look of the Shuffle; instead of listening to your own CD in random order, you can put a few of your favorite albums together and shuffle them, recreating the experience of listening to the radio (or, as was the novelty at the time, a live DJ), without actually listening to anything , What you don’t like. “Installing the Sony CDP-C10 in your home is like having your own personal DJ,” said another ad. “Ten hours of uninterrupted music enjoyment for carefree parties or background music in restaurants or shops.”

The first issue of Wired featured a $12,000 100-disc CD player that allowed you to shuffle on steroids and even program playback—a sort of digital descendant of the mixtape and progenitor of today’s playlists. In itself, listening to music at parties or restaurants was nothing new, but the idea that the process could be personalized and customized to one’s personal preferences eventually won out.

Shuffle satisfied the human desire for novelty and surprise. Randomness creates new abilities. It is known for certain that the first real Shuffle buttons appeared on portable blackjack gaming machines of the 70s and served to shuffle the virtual deck. Agreed, it’s nice to know that each new batch will be different from the last, depending on how the deck is shuffled. The same is true for music. When you put a playlist or your library into shuffle mode, you might get lucky and hear exactly what you wanted to hear, with the satisfaction of not knowing it was going to happen.

And in general, it’s easier that way. “By removing the need for choice but guaranteeing familiarity, it frees you from having to want something specific,” Simon Reynolds writes of the Shuffle feature in his book Retromania. In 2005, the iPod Shuffle appeared, Apple’s budget MP3 player, which (despite its name) played all of the user’s music sequentially or in random order because it had no screen and therefore no track selection.

The very idea that media consumption can be both a deeply personal, active process and a passive one has been hugely influential. After the end of the Napster era and promises to create a huge, unique music library, the company Pandora practically invented the concept of personal radio, along the way developing a new technology of shuffling tracks, much better and more efficient. In its modernized form, it is still successfully used by streaming services that seek to retain listeners. Spotify, Apple Music and their ilk offer both a massive Napster-like library and Pandora-level ease of use. “You can find anything on our platform,” they say, “but why not click that little button and we’ll find everything you need for you?”

As a result, increasingly precise and invasive algorithms have crept in under the innocent guise of “randomness.”

As a result, precise, efficient and highly invasive algorithms have infiltrated our ears and minds under the innocent guise of “randomness”. First they feed us songs taken out of context, then they provide us with a variety of information (hello podcasts) that is both new and tells us what we want to hear. As a rule, all this is done in order to encourage us to buy something. All these social media feeds, YouTube channels, and video streaming services—clearly, they use the concept, if not the science, of shuffling and randomness to get us to watch and listen and consume, but not toe-to-toe in order to to understand: what exactly do we want?

“At the heart of modern shuffling algorithms is the concept of an infinite stream,” says Leeson. “Even if it’s obvious that the amount of information is natural, you’ll never drain that well to the very bottom.” These days, being able to decide what you want and then find the information you need has become a luxury and a privilege.

When Spotify first thought about the integration of the “play” and “shuffle” buttons, the concept was based on years of research in the field of content consumption: it turned out that 35 years after the invention of the Shuffle button, people are too used to listening to music in random order. In addition, according to experts, playing an album in Shuffle mode allows a smoother (and less noticeable) transition from the album itself to the algorithmically determined songs that Spotify plays immediately after it. True randomness and algorithmically driven pseudo-randomness have become one, further blurring the lines between the randomness you want and the randomness forced upon you.

But whatever Adele’s claims, the problem with default shuffling isn’t that albums should be sacrosanct — at least the last 50 years have proven that the classic approach to albums isn’t to everyone’s taste. The truth is that now the information itself is not as valuable or expensive as the ability to control the process of obtaining it. We handed over the reins of power to Spotify and its rivals in exchange for an entire universe of songs, and now we’re forced to beg (and pay) to regain some semblance of control.

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