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21 July 2016

Technology and Changes to Cultural Consumption

Some of my earliest memories are of listening to the records (yes, vinyl) my parents had sitting around the house. I vividly remember the album covers of several of them, including Michael JacksonPhil Collins, and Lionel Richie. I also have vivid memories from my early-teenage years of being introduced to important artists and albums belonging to friends and their parents when visiting their homes, notably Pink Floyd, the Grateful Dead, and Led Zeppelin (yes, mostly on vinyl).

As my daughter is becoming more verbal, she is also becoming more musical. Many nights, my wife and I can hear her singing herself to sleep over the baby monitor. She's also actively taking an interest in the many musical instruments that I have around the house. (She's particularly intrigued by the drums and keyboards currently.)  It occurs to me, though, that, for several reasons, my daughter is unlikely to experience the social kind of musical discovery that I recounted above. Instead, her cultural consumption is likely to be curated by algorithms and artificial intelligences in a way that is relatively asocial.

Recently, my own cultural consumption has been changed by new technologies. Over the last ten years, I have gone through these general transitions:

CD's → standalone MP3 player → smartphone MP3 player → streaming uploaded MP3 catalog via Google Music → Pandora → Spotify

I think this largely mirrors the changes that most others have followed as well. If we assume that the Pandora/Spotify model persists, my daughter and those in her cohort will primarily "discover" only the music that the robots have computed she is most likely to enjoy based on what others like her[1] already enjoy; she is unlikely to discover music by digging through parents' and friends' record collections because "record collections" are increasingly immaterial things floating in the cloud to which she likely doesn't have direct access. Suddenly, cultural consumption is less social--or at least differently social.

To be clear, this may not be a bad thing, but it is certainly a dramatic shift.

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[1] Programmers, of course, wield a lot of unrecognized power in deciding which measures make others "like her." Undoubtedly, this will mean the reproduction of many of the same inequalities in which cultural consumption play a role (e.g. race, class, and gender).

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