Outsmarting Smart Technology

E.D. Kain describes Pandora, a service of which I’d not previously been aware but will now try, as “a free online radio station that does a pretty impressive job of tuning its stations to your own tastes.  The mechanism it uses to do this is a simple thumbs up/thumbs down on each song.”  This, in turn, spawns what he dubs the “Pandora Conundrum.”

But sometimes I’m not sure what to do.  For instance, a moment ago a John Mayer cover of Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’” came up.  Now, I really like that song, and I really like Tom Petty.  I really don’t like John Mayer, however.  In fact, I find it quite impossible to listen to his music.  So do I vote that I like the song, because I like Tom Petty?  Will a no vote only influence whether or not the station plays John Mayer or does a vote on a cover reflect back to the original artist?

I’ve faced the same issues with TiVo and Netflix, both of which employ recommendation systems.   Since I don’t understand the algorithm these things use, I always feel a need to second guess the system.  Rather than rating a particular movie, then, I often try to figure out what the impact of my score for that movie will be on recommendations for other movies.

With TiVo, which I no longer have because DirecTV’s HD format is incompatible and thus requires me to use their inferior DVR instead, the thumbs up/thumbs down thing was particularly bizarre because it would interpret my approval of a movie as an indication that I wanted to see that particular movie as often as humanly possible.  This was not at all useful, so I eventually turned the auto-recording of suggested movies off altogether.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Michael says:

    Since I don’t understand the algorithm these things use, I always feel a need to second guess the system.

    That’s not “outsmarting” the system, that’s misusing the system. GIGO. A smart system would see a negative vote on John Mayer signing Free Fallin, compare it to all other ratings by the user, and determine that he does in fact like Tom Petty, and the song, and must therefore object to John Mayer.

    it would interpret my approval of a movie as an indication that I wanted to see that particular movie as often as humanly possible.

    That’s not exactly a “smart system”.

  2. David says:

    There’s actually a bit more to it than that with Pandora, a service to which I am borderline addicted. I think you’ll like it.

    But I can sympathize with you on the strange “suggestions” of DVR systems.

  3. Franklin says:

    Don’t you feel these systems will end up locking you into a single genre or two without any hope of ever hearing or seeing anything truly different again? Variety is the spice of life, although I must admit I never purposefully listen to country music.

    Oh, and BTW, that Mayer version sucks all life and emotion out of Free Fallin’.

  4. James Joyner says:

    Don’t you feel these systems will end up locking you into a single genre or two without any hope of ever hearing or seeing anything truly different again?

    Actually, just the opposite. I’ve only fooled around with Pandora for an hour or so but it allows you to create multiple “stations” based on an artist or a song you like. It then suggests songs that you can rate. It suggested several songs that I’d never before heard by artists of whom I’d never before heard of, some of which I gave a thumbs up. So, theoretically at least, it should expand my musical horizons.

    Since I’m no longer willing to put up with commercials, and thus don’t listen to music radio, that’s a good thing. (And both XM and Sirius blow for music. Their channels are so ineptly managed that it’s mindboggling. I keep Sirius solely for NFL Radio.)

  5. Trumwill says:

    And both XM and Sirius blow for music. Their channels are so ineptly managed that it’s mindboggling.

    Could you elaborate? I’ve been considering sat radio as a Christmas gift for my wife.

  6. Michael says:

    Pandora works by finding what attributes you like in a song. They use the Music Genome project for this. It’s pretty interesting stuff, actually. It recommends songs that have similar “genetic” characteristics to songs you’ve rated favorably. So long as your taste in music doesn’t change, it can determine whether or not you’ll like a song you’ve never heard before.

    Suffice it to say, giving John Mayer a thumbs down won’t have much impact on how many Tom Petty songs you’ll hear.

  7. James Joyner says:

    And both XM and Sirius blow for music. Their channels are so ineptly managed that it’s mindboggling.

    Could you elaborate? I’ve been considering sat radio as a Christmas gift for my wife.

    Basically, they give their channels genre-specific names and then proceed to play randomish songs not connected to said genre.

    Example: Both XM and Sirius have a channel called “Outlaw Country.” To me, that’s Hank Jr, Waylon Jennings, and various other artists of that ilk, including plenty of more current ones. They’ll play Loretta Lynn or Neil Young or damned near anything they feel like on the channel.