Man Vs. His Can Opener

Thursday, 10 January 2008
by erikf
filed under About Us and Announcements
Comments: 20

This picture sits on the window outside the research team’s room. I stole it after reading about its origin because it so clearly represents my favorite dystopia, and serves as a clarion call: this way to machine domination!

Usually when someone asks me what I do for a living, I get pretty excited. There is some hand waving. I might use phrases like “making machines understand music like people do!”, “predicts what you’ll like”, sometimes even “the future of”. It’s grandiose stuff! If there’s a napkin around, I might even throw in a diagram.

It doesn’t surprise me to get back a “Huh,” or maybe a “Well, that’s interesting,” What does still surprise me is the occasional recoil-in-horror: “A machine that plumbs the very depths of my being? Surely not!” Just recently at a holiday dinner, one especially huffy great uncle so-and-so said to me, “The idea that I’d follow musical recommendations from a computer…”, he took a sip of wine and added, “no computer will ever understand why I like music.”

A Socratic Rebuttal!

What’s this judgment? Seriously, guy, pass me the cranberry sauce, and then please explain what drives this sentiment? Sort of a John Henry vs. the steam-powered hammer thing? Matthew Broderick vs. WOPR thing? Will Smith vs. robots with glowy red chests? But really, what, renegade Roombas? Who’s in control of whom? Is it possible we got our roles reversed? It wouldn’t be the first time.

How are music recommenders a corruption of music culture? Similarly, how is the gramophone a corruption of live performance? How are CDs a corruption of that warm gramophone sound? How are digital sales destroying the CD cover-art culture? Does culture constantly crumble and erode, or does it march on and evolve? Were it the former, surely by now we’d be walking on all fours, bashing each other with femurs. But we’re not! Well. I’m not.

I love the idea that new trends are eternally abhorrent to the old and that old are eternally abhorrent to the new. It makes me proud to think I’m a small part of that composition. Or decomposition. Whatever.

A Quick Plug!

So yeah, attention Philistines! We actually have not one, but two new research-related positions open. Join now and we promise to offer safe harbor during the coming robot wars.


  1. Nicolas Maia
    10 January, 03:09

    Great prose :P

    Nicolas Maia – 10 January, 03:09
  2. PAStheLoD
    10 January, 08:02

    “You must be a music organization freak” .. haha, that is a must for this kind of position. I wonder what’s the next level of it :)

    And that safe shelter sounds good too :P

    PAStheLoD – 10 January, 08:02
  3. elias
    10 January, 11:12

    Couldn’t one also argue that’s music recommendation technology is basically just a beautiful tool that helps listeners recommend stuff to other listeners? :-)

    elias – 10 January, 11:12
  4. Jelle
    10 January, 11:43

    quote: “It makes me proud to think I’m a small part of that composition. Or decomposition. Whatever.”

    …And rightly so!!

    Jelle – 10 January, 11:43
  5. RJ
    10 January, 12:05

    You are a poet.

    RJ – 10 January, 12:05
  6. Erik
    10 January, 13:30

    Elias, maybe, except that most of the recommendation occurs by implicit actions, not explicit. We’re all tiny ants! Neurons in a massive, ethereal brain, man (woah).

    Erik – 10 January, 13:30
  7. Matt
    10 January, 14:10

    I liked the bit with the wine.

    Matt – 10 January, 14:10
  8. Antonio Fernandes
    10 January, 16:13

    Here’s a couple of books that I read recently and that I recommend for a chilly winter.

    “The Future of Music, Manifesto for a Digital Music Revolution” D.Kusek, Gerd Leonhard – essential reading for anyone who works in the industry.


    “This is Your Brain on Music” Daniel J. Levitin – a very stimulating reading written by a man that used to be a musician, a sound engineer for 10 years and that ended up a neuroscientist!

    Antonio Fernandes – 10 January, 16:13
  9. Michael
    10 January, 17:55

    “I love the idea that new trends are eternally abhorrent to the old and that old are eternally abhorrent to the new.”

    For every old person out there [such as myself] who is “eternally abhorrent” to new trends, there is some young whippersnapper who is just thrilled to death with every little “new” fad that comes along, whether it’s in electronics, fashion, music or whatever.

    We may annoy each other with our respective approaches to change, but both approaches are necessary. Without youthful vigor, we’d still be sitting around the gramophone with our friends listening to crooners or some such unimaginable thing. But, wasted resources is the likely outcome of a child-like push for change without at least some modicum of reflection and perspective. Sorry if that brings some of the youngsters down, but I think that you’ll understand when you get a bit older. ;)

    I think you and your great uncle had the potential for an interesting conversation. The concept of “creative destruction’ and how it applies to the music industry might have been a topic of mutual interest. Hopefully you were both open-minded enough to try to understand the other’s perspective.

    Sorry that these ideas fleshed out a bit more, but I have to get back to ripping my oldies collection so I can start scrobbling the tunes.

    Michael – 10 January, 17:55
  10. Nancy Baym (popgurl)
    10 January, 18:26

    Every new technology, going back to the invention of writing itself, through to electricity, the telegraph, the phone, the car, the computer, you name it causes 2 extreme social responses and a whole lot of grey areas in between:

    “Oh no! This is going to go after the very essence of what makes us human and destroy us!”

    “Hooray! This is going to free us from all of our flaws and create the perfect world we have always hoped for!”

    There are many academic books about this phenomenon. A good recent collection called Technological Visions is edited by Thomas, Sturken and Ball-Rokeach. I use its introduction, which is available online, when I teach this topic.

    I have to say that in practice, in 2+ years of use, has yet to come anywhere close to matching my interpersonal social network in delivering reliably good recommendations. I realize that it’s a fascinating and challenging problem from a technological perspective, and that there are many truly brilliant minds at work on it, and expect that over time the algorithms will improve.

    Algorithms may not rob us of our humanity, but, all that said, they won’t replace the value of person-to-person interaction about music either. Which makes it a shame that communication in those social networks isn’t better supported on The real challenge is to figure out how to get the maximum synergy out of both the technological and social processes that best serve music recommendation.

    And in the end some of what makes a song appeal to one person and not another is probably a mystery that is never really going to get solved or be entirely predictable.

    Nancy Baym (popgurl) – 10 January, 18:26
  11. pauldwaite
    11 January, 04:02

    To be fair, all he said (or all you quoted him as saying) was:

    no computer will ever understand why I like music

    With current technology (as I understand it, i.e. in a very limited fashion), it’s pretty inconceivable that a computer could understand why anyone likes music, or any particular music. Computers just do a lot of maths really quickly.

    We can use that to make pretty decent music suggestions (like you guys do), but it’s a far cry from making computers understand music, in the way a layman interprets the word “understand”.

    Of course, I didn’t hear your great uncle speaking, so I didn’t hear how machine-fearful he sounded. But over-selling what computers can do probably won’t help engage guys like him.

    pauldwaite – 11 January, 04:02
  12. Kenya
    11 January, 16:46

    I’m a writer and I really want to work for you people. But I know shit about computers.

    le sigh

    Kenya – 11 January, 16:46
  13. Erik J
    12 January, 12:34

    Erik F is my favourite writer ever.

    Erik J – 12 January, 12:34
  14. gyula csocsan
    12 January, 17:09

    I like it as well, go on …

    gyula csocsan – 12 January, 17:09
  15. Spacepasta
    12 January, 19:16

    I don’t want a job…but I LOVED reading that!

    Spacepasta – 12 January, 19:16
  16. Maarten
    14 January, 10:27

    I can recommend other readings from a more philosophical vantage point to complement Antonio Fernandes suggestions:

    ISBN-10: 0262522799
    ISBN-13: 978-0262522793

    Remediation: Understanding New Media
    by Jay David Bolter, Richard Grusin

    which goes into the theory of whole line of technologies that replace another, like the gramophone and the radio, but also written text to bookprint to book to ebook.


    ISBN-10: 0262632551
    ISBN-13: 9780262632553

    The Language of New Media
    Lev Manovich

    That argue for something similar although from another perspective.



    Maarten – 14 January, 10:27
  17. mattgcn
    20 January, 00:18

    That’s it.

    I’m getting into programming more just so I can work for

    mattgcn – 20 January, 00:18
  18. Steve
    23 January, 15:26

    Apart from all of these “new media” reccomendations, the classic you need to read in order to better discuss this implicit notion of “corruption” is “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” by Walter Benjamin

    Steve – 23 January, 15:26
  19. Antonio Fernandes
    24 January, 01:50

    Wikipedia’s review on it looks good:

    ““For the first time in world history,” Benjamin wrote, “mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual.”

    Antonio Fernandes – 24 January, 01:50
  20. ndv
    19 February, 15:22

    Is this blog dead?

    ndv – 19 February, 15:22

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