iPod shuffle animism: Steven Levy's experience

Cassidy points me to a book excerpt by Steven Levy, a writer whose work I've been following for years. In it, analyzes why his iPod, and many people's iPods, seem to have preferences of their own. He approaches it with a sense of humor, but it's clear that initially he believes he's seeing a phenomenon he can't explain in mechanistic, or even software, terms and that the only way to explain it is through psychology:

It began to dawn on me that there were songs, and even artists, that my iPod had taken a dislike to, if not a formal boycott.

His investigations reveal that he's not the only one who believe their iPods can express preferences:

it appeared that nearly everybody's iPod seemed to have a favorite artist, or two, or three. Or, they believed, when their iPod performed a shuffle, it would decide which artist it was in the mood for and then flood the listening session with that performer's works.

Moreover, once the door had opened to psychological explanations, parapsychological (i.e. animist and magical) explanations weren't far behind:

"Over the last couple of days that I've been [putting my library on shuffle], I may think of a certain song or band, and lo and behold, that winds up being the next song or band played," writes a blogger named Kapgar. "It's like some sort of symbiotic relationship."


"It has moods," [another person] added. "Sunday and Monday nights, bluesy. Rocks at night during the week. Does folk on Monday and Wednesday mornings. Bluegrass on Thursday mornings and Sunday afternoons."

Levy tries to analyze what could be going on, why the iPod engineers claim that it's random, but it behaves in a way that implies it has behavior (maybe will? certainly caprice, in Levy's narrative).

Apple insists that there is no computational flaw in its execution. "It is completely random. It is absolutely, unequivocally random," says Jeff Robbin, one of the original authors of iTunes and later head of the iTunes development team.

Despite this, he doesn't believe it. He continues to look for something for a reason that his iPod has intentions and behavior. In other words, he's looking for the ghost in the machine. Ultimately, he gives up looking for the ghost and begins to investigate perception.

John Allen Paulos, a Temple University mathematician, agreed. […] "We often interpret and impose patterns on events that are random," he says. "Especially with something like songs. Songs evoke emotion, and some stick in our minds more than others." […] "Our brains aren't wired to understand randomness - there's even a huge industry that takes advantage of people's inability to deal with random distributions. It's called gambling."

Eventually, he comes up with an explanation that suits him:

Why does Autofill produce nine Springsteen songs out of 188? Because that is what almost always happens in normal distributions of items from databases. Clusters of something are to be expected. […] What we perceive as shuffle favoritism is well within expected mathematical bounds. [And] the seemingly magical effects of the shuffle function - a spooky just-rightness, even brilliance, that comes from great song juxtapositions - [are] also consequences of randomness.

This is an excellent analysis of how a mathematical, physical phenomena becomes perceived as psychological, even by people who know a lot and should know better (this phenomenon is well-documented by Nassim Nicholas Talib in his book, Fooled by Randomness). It also shows how easily we slip into animist explanations when we can't understand how something works. When physical explanations are exhausted, our other primary explanatory frameworks become psychological and magical. Look at how much explanation Levy required, how much detailed delving and convincing had to happen over a period of several years to get him to believe that a mysterious and magical phenomenon was genuinely random. I suspect few people will go to the extent that Levy did to try and understand what was happening, and many will just accept the simpler model: that there's something magical about their technology.

Levy finishes his story with an epilogue:

The non-randomness illusion was so prevalent that ultimately Apple felt compelled to address it. In the version of iTunes rolled out in September 2005, there appeared a new feature: smart shuffle. […]If you pull the lever to the right, the iPod will mess with its usual distribution pattern, intentionally spacing out songs by a given artist."

This, to me, is the key point in the story: that design changes were implemented not based on the reality of the situation, but on the perception of the reality. Matching people's expectation is a core concept in user experience design. Most of the time designing to expectations, even if that design does not match an underlying reality (i.e. the user model does not match the system model, to use Don Norman's excellent dichotomy) will be the right choice. But as Bruce Sterling pointed out so well in his keynote at Ubicomp 2006, it creates an interesting new set of challenges and responsibilities for user experience designers: while trying to match people's models, we should not fall into techno-mysticism, lying about what's really going on, rather than using a model to simplify coginitive load. I predict there will be many more user experience design tradeoffs such as this in the future.

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My ipod talks to me and lets me know important information. If I feel accusatory it will play a song like "It wasn't me".
Recently I was looking for my son and on random it kept playing "Marguaritaville"
and I noticed my Tequila was missing...Oh now here it comes again, "It wasn't me"

Apophenia, animism, or intention? This is precisely Daniel Dennett's "intentional stance." If something exhibits complicated behavior, the natural way to deal with it is to treat it as a rational agent, and try to interpret its behavior as goal fullfilment in light of its (inferred) desires and beliefs. (This explains a lot of Reeves and Nass phenomena as well.) Though I'm not as doctrinaire as some of the evo psychos, I can believe this is hard-wired into us -- at least to some extent -- as social animals, where that is critical to survival in a social group.

The really interesting thing, as you note, is when objects get clever (or complicated) enough that we start to do this. As an ex-speech-geek, this is one of my big problems with speech interfaces: we're just not used to speaking entities that are non-sentient. A button on a coke machine is obvious: a talking coke machine, however, is a different thing altogether, and practically begs to be considered animate. iPods seem to be pushing the boundary here.

Ray: You're absolutely right. Without transparency into the actual workings of the software, everything is a guess. When it's a guess, one guess is as good as another, wild guesses about clairvoyance don't seem so crazy. Still maybe a bit crazy, but not totally, because the thing is a black box (or, really, a white lozenge ;-).

Open Source certainly makes it easier to dispel myths, but only if you know how to do that. And, yeah, Apple's secretive reputation certainly adds to the mythology. I once saw an artist talking about why he was a Mac user rather than a Windows user. His argument was that "no one really knows how a Mac works" and that makes it special and better. We know that's totally not the case, but for him that's the Apple myth at work.

All of this (even Sonia's excellent example) is essentially apophenia (http://www.google.com/search?q=define%3Aapophenia), but that comes from a certain set of psychological phenomena.

In defense of iPod users, when one has not actually seen the code or logic governing a behavior, it seems natural to attempt to map out that behavior. A natural fallback with iPod's shuffle feature is the human tendency to seek out patterns in randomness.

In this case, especially, there is nothing beyond the statements of Apple software engineers (from a company not always known for forthrightness about its intentions) to assure the user that the device isn't somehow watching user actions, and then using them in some gee-whiz algorithm in an attempt to present a more pleasing version of randomness. Using some combination of play count and user rating of songs (both collected in the current version of iTunes), and/or recent songs played, for this purpose seems to make sense, and would certainly result in interesting behaviors if the user didn't know about it.

If this were the case and the truth were somehow revealed, the company would be regarded, depending on your point of view, as either brilliant or misguided. Or perhaps both. Neither is new territory for Apple.

Sorry to ramble. Fun topic to ponder.

PS Wouldn't the ultimate joke be if some renegade coders at Apple really did program in certain artist preferences that would appear in some iPods, but not others, triggered by non-related factors such as serial number or number of songs loaded?

It sounds like an audio analog to the tendency of people who use GUI interfaces in general to interpret the interaction anthropomorphically...the tendency is to treat action as intentional, even when it is pre-programmed or a random result of a program...if it works for visual interaction, why not for auditory?

When David's first iPod broke, it'd play one Marilyn Manson song, on it's own. It'd sitting there in the charger, and suddenly start playing it to itself. It was pretty disturbing.

I don't think that can be written off as perceptual.

I loved reading this in the Guardian on the weekend. And, despite it all, I still think that my iPod has an obsession with Neil Young - there is no way that I have enough of his songs on there to account for the frequency of his appearance in shuffle!

Eh. You gotta love the human brain and its quirks.

Our selective perception probably will also play its role in the effect. If it happens that the song you thought of pops up next, you'll remember it as something special. If it does not, it behaves like normal, nothing to remember.

And I totally agree on your last paragraph that designing for perception and not reality must be the key sinde user experience is highly subjective.




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Recent Comments

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  • Jonathan Foote: Apophenia, animism, or intention? This is precisely Daniel Dennett's "intentional read more
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  • Ray: In defense of iPod users, when one has not actually read more
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This page contains a single entry by Mike Kuniavsky published on October 10, 2006 11:32 AM.

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