For those of you interested in the iPod shuffle phenomenon as I am, I thoroughly recommend this excerpt, called “Oh No Steely Dan Again,” from Steven Levy’s upcoming new book, The Perfect Thing: How the Ipod Shuffles Commerce, Culture And Coolness.
If you use the shuffle feature on your iPod, the excerpt will ring true. You do start to wonder how “random” the randomness is, question whether certain artists are over-represented or under-represented, seem to see recurring patterns over one artist following another, or even seek to find meaning in the pattern that is shuffled out to you. Some even attribute ESP or other magical powers to the shuffle.
In Levy’s case, he felt that the shuffle was over-weighting Steely Dan songs. After exhaustive (and fascinating) research, he concluded that the shuffle was indeed random, but that humans have troubles dealing with randomness. As he says, “My original iPod’s fixation with Steely Dan turned out to be my fixation – shared with all iPod users, if not all of humanity when trying to deal with randomness.”
Now for the really interesting part.
Apple, in response to the sense of non-randomness people had, adding the “smart shuffle” to let you tune how your music is shuffled. Steve Jobs said, “We’re making it less random to make it feel more random.”
And, now, the money quote:

I had already come to terms with the idea that the iPod version of shuffling creates a sufficiently unbiased distribution to earn the casual appellation of “random”. What was bothering me was now something even deeper. Yes, the bothersome clusters of certain artists are within the bounds of randomness. But that made me realise that the seemingly magical effects of the shuffle function – a spooky just-rightness, even brilliance, that comes from great song juxtapositions – were also consequences of randomness.
And, in its own way, that was much more disturbing.

I’m not sure that it’s disturbing. It’s intriguing, especially in the way that it causes us to see patterns and find meaning in the pattern that is shuffled out to you
[Originally posted on DennisKennedy.Blog (]
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