A Closer Look at Pandora Internet Radio & What it All Means
Digital phenomenons have taken over our world. It has truly become difficult to name one aspect of our lives that does not or can not involve technology. Society has included computers and gadgets all over their homes, into their cars, in the workplace, and largely for entertainment. In the realm of entertainment, companies are innovating and establishing new technologies to provide trendy and efficient means of amusement. One of today’s largest growing phenomenons is streaming music through Internet radio. Companies like iHeart Radio, Spotify, and Pandora have all become extremely successful in the past decade. Today’s technology has allowed listeners to enjoy music in any place at any time, and it is becoming increasingly popular. No longer are we chained to the voiceless listening of FM radio because of this advancement.
Through pure curiosity, I wanted to learn how these Internet radio companies work, specifically my favorite: Pandora. It seems likely that Internet radio would rely heavily on technology and the Web, but my research has caused me to think differently. Pandora is entirely run by people: employees create stations by hand, and listeners have access to them. Can Pandora really be called technology if it is completely controlled by humans? How do we define technology? I don’t believe that the World Wide Web is as deep as we have been led to think. Something so “ambiguous” and “uncontrollable” as the Internet may actually be in the palm of our hands. I mean, think about it: what would the Internet be without people? It would just be sitting there with no purpose. Yes, we use the Internet, but we have more control over it than most people realize. Some technologies are advanced enough to function on their own, and we will call these products “computerized.” But most things on the Internet, especially for entertainment, are not under their own autonomy. We will call these things, such as Pandora, humanized.
The first place that my interest for Pandora began was inside the article “Man-Computer Symbiosis.” The author Joseph Carl Robnett Licklider, or J.C.R. Licklider, has been called a “computer pioneer” for having an early vision of where computers would go long before they did. In his paper, “Man-Computer Symbiosis,” Licklider (1960) discusses the future relationships between man and technology. Licklider (1960) explains, “Man-computer symbiosis is an expected development in cooperative interaction between men and electronic computers. It will involve very close coupling between the human and the electronic members of the partnership.” Throughout his essay he explains that man and computers will be almost completely in sync; they will cooperate to result in more efficient thinking, quicker computing, and better solutions (Licklider 1960).
Today’s Internet radio companies, including Pandora, seem to have a degree of this “cooperative interaction” between the apps and their listeners. I mean, listeners can search for a song or artist through a search bar, and Pandora will create their very own stations based on their input. If a listener does not particularly enjoy a song, they have the ability to tell Pandora to play a different song through a skipping option or hitting “thumbs down,” meaning they want the song to be taken off of their station. Pandora even offers the option of telling it, “I’m tired of this track,” and in return it will discontinue to play that song for a few days or weeks. It seems almost apparent that man-computer symbiosis is present in this situation. The relationship between Pandora and its listeners includes communication from both parties, which produce quick results and efficient means of entertainment.
Learning how Pandora works, however, exposes doubt in this idea of man-computer symbiosis. Tyler Gray is co-author of the books The Sonic Boom: How Sound Transforms the Way We Think, Feel, and Buy with Mifflin Harcourt and The Hit Charade with Harper Collins. He has written for The New York Times, SPIN, Blender, Esquire, and currently writes for Fast Company as the Editorial Director. One of his articles at Fast Company is called, “Pandora Pulls Back the Curtain of its Magic Music Machine,” where Gray (2011) uncovers what’s going on behind the scenes at Pandora. He interviews Tim Westergren, founder and Chief Strategy Officer of Pandora, who explains what is called Pandora’s “Music Genome Project.” The project is being run by Pandora’s employees who hand-craft all of Pandora radio’s music channels. By listening to music and pairing similar songs, Pandora’s employees have created a 850,000-plus song library with a huge variety of stations. When explaining Pandora’s success, Westergren admits, “Pandora’s secret sauce is people. Music lovers.” The people at Pandora have all previously worked in the music industry, either as musicians or in production (Gray 2011). If it were not for these people’s hard work and dedication, Pandora would not exist. Pandora does not have a specialized computer or machine that puts together music stations. Everything that makes Pandora is done by human hand… or ear.
If this is so, then what really is the level of man-computer symbiosis? Is this situation not man-man symbiosis? If one goes on Pandora and starts listening to the Coldplay channel, the app itself is not going and retrieving music that has similar qualities to Coldplay songs. A list of songs is already created, by humans. Listeners are simply interacting with an employees’ database, not an intelligent musically-inclined computer.
“How Pandora Radio Works” is another insight on what Pandora is doing by Julia Layton. Layton is a contributing writer at HowStuffWorks company, with a B.A. in English literature from Duke University and an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Miami. Layton (2006) gives her own account of the Music Genome Project by explaining, “Pandora has no concept of genre, user connections or ratings. It doesn’t care what other people who like Gomez also like. When you create a radio station on Pandora, it uses a pretty radical approach to delivering your personalized selections: Having analyzed the musical structures present in the songs you like, it plays other songs that possess similar musical traits.” The tricky part in her wording is the use of it. ‘It’ does not mean ‘by itself.’ Layton (2006) clarifies by explaining, “The Genome is based on an intricate analysis by actual humans (about 20 to 30 minutes per four-minute song) of the music of 10,000 artists from the past 100 years.”
To reiterate, the people at Pandora are the ones analyzing musical structures to pair songs that have similar traits. Layton (2006) reveals that the Genome consists of 400 musical attributes. The employees at Pandora analyze each song that lands on one of Pandora’s stations by first breaking them down into hundreds of various components. Once they identify these factors, they can match similar songs.
People Have Control
The public enjoys Pandora because we can listen to music we like without having to search for it. The people at Pandora do all of the work for us; they listen to songs from musicians of every genre and put together stations that have similar tunes and melodies. It would certainly be revolutionary if this was done by a computer, but this entire phenomenon is not at Licklider’s expectations of “man-computer symbiosis,” where computers could create these types of stations by simple input from its listeners.
O’Reilly Media is a company founded by Tim O-Reilly that offers explanations and interpretations on the latest technology trends. The company prides itself on being an active member in the technology community and spreading the knowledge of innovators. O’Reilly (2006) published a recent article focusing on Pandora named, “Inside Pandora Web Radio.” The article (2006) reaffirms the previous two articles by restating, “The magic of Pandora derives from a simple principle: a song listeners enjoy should lead to other songs they’ll enjoy.”
O’Reilly Media (2006) continues to explain Tim Westergren’s vision for Pandora when it began back in January of 2000. The article (2006) says, “He became fascinated with the way directors described the music they were looking for, which led to his wondering what made people enjoy certain types of music. He asked himself, ‘If people haven’t found any music that they love since college, and artists are struggling to find an audience, is there a role for technology to help bridge the gap?’” Westergren has centered the Music Genome Project on the idea of using technology to connect people with music they will enjoy in a new, efficient way. The key question here is: is there a role for technology?
Let’s Talk Technical
With the previously-stated conclusions, one might be compelled to say no, technology is not an important factor because humans are really doing all of the work to “bridge the gap.” On second look, however, technology is the middle-factor between Pandora’s employees and Pandora’s listeners. If technology wasn’t a component of Pandora, then it wouldn’t have waited until such a digitally advanced age to become successful. Technology does have a role in Internet radio, and a pretty important one nonetheless.
Alan Kay and Adele Goldberg are authors who published “Personal Dynamic Media” in the late-1970′s about the future of technology, specifically notebook computing. Goldberg is a computer scientist who has developed, programmed, and researched on numerous computer-oriented projects, while Kay is a computer scientist who is best known for his pioneering work in object-oriented programming and user interface design. “Personal Dynamic Media” reveals their predictions and aspirations for a future notebook-computer called the Dynabook (Kay & Goldberg 1977). Kay and Goldberg (1977) had extensive expectations for this technology, in which they explained, “There should be no discernible pause between cause and effect. One of the metaphors we used when designing such a system was that of a musical instrument, such as a flute, which is owned by its user and responds instantly and consistently to its owner’s wishes. Imagine the absurdity of a one-second delay between blowing a note and hearing it!”
Pandora, however, has not reached the level of technology that Kay and Goldberg had hoped for yet. There are times when Pandora takes a moment or two to pause or play, and listeners are not baffled by such a situation. That’s because Pandora, like any other form of technology, has glitches/buffers when it experiences a lag or a bad connection. Again, this means that Pandora is not merely human; humans don’t necessarily respond on the spot, but they are not influenced by Internet connections the way Pandora is. There is some part of Pandora, then, that is technology and that listeners interact with. I am faced with the question once more: what is the degree of man-computer symbiosis?
“Computer Lib/Dream Machines” is a mid-1970′s book that discusses computers and their frustrating inaccessibility. The author, Ted Nelson, is a philosopher, sociologist, and pioneer of information technology, who uniquely coined the terms “hypertext” and “hypermedia.” “Computer Lib/Dream Machines” is a two-sided book: Computer Lib teaches about computers and practically predicted the invention of personal computers, and Dream Machines explains the eventual importance of computers in the societies of generations to come (Nelson 1974). Nelson (1974) begins the “Computer Lib” side with, “Unfortunately, due to ridiculous historical circumstances, computers have been made a mystery to most of the world. And this situation does not seem to be improving. You hear more and more about computers, but to most people it’s just one big blur.” This is significant to Pandora for two reasons: computers are the only way we have access to Pandora, and the magnitude of computerization of Pandora will affect our level of understanding it.
We can download the Pandora app on any desktop, smartphone, laptop, or tablet, and if we do not understand these gadgets then Pandora would become inaccessible. There has to be some degree of awareness of computers for Pandora to remain successful. Luckily, I believe technology is so prevalent in our society that more and more people are able to understand computers. Nelson could not have predicted that children nowadays practically have computers for toys, and anyone raised in the 21st century will likely be familiar with technology. Now what I mean by the magnitude of computerization is how much of Pandora is controlled by a computer (the opposite is humanized, or controlled by humans). Nelson explains that people have a hard time understanding computers, but Pandora is made accessible to literally anyone who can figure out how to download the app or get to the website. I am compelled to say that this is because the computerization of Pandora itself is very minimal. The only actions at Pandora that are not controlled by humans is when a listener is interacting with its interface. If a listener hits skip, the song skips without human intervention. If a listener hits pause, the song pauses without human intervention. These few actions, however, are the only activities that do not require Pandora’s employees. The rest is humanized. If Pandora ever decided to become computerized and have everything under the control of a machine instead, it may become less accessible as Nelson suggested.
To answer the question of Pandora’s computerization may answer the question of symbiosis. As I just stated, there are times when a listener can tell Pandora what to do and it obeys without human interaction. According to J.C.R. Licklider, this means that there exists some degree of man-computer symbiosis. When I hit “thumbs down” on Pandora, the app understands that I’m communicating to it, “I do not like this song, don’t play it again.” In return, the app skips the song and removes it from my profile all by itself. This is probably not the extent of symbiosis that Licklider wished technology would eventually reach, but it has to start somewhere.
Part of Pandora’s website, investor.pandora.com, published an article called “Pandora Announces Technology Leadership Team Succession” discussing their new “team of technologists” and the recent pursuit of changes in the company. Pandora (2014) says they refer to their employees as technologists because, according to new Chief Technology Officer Chris Martin, they have “developed some of the most innovative music technology in the world.” The article (2014) continues, “Pandora created the most effective way for music and technology to enhance the lives of music fans and artists alike.”
It’s important to recognize here that Pandora does not differentiate between their employees and technology. I’ve been trying to prove that Pandora is plainly a human activity rather than a digital process, but Pandora doesn’t even make a distinction between the two.
To get a better understanding of why Pandora calls their employees technologists I looked to Webster’s dictionary as an aid. Webster’s defines a technologist as, not surprisingly, “A person who specializes in technology.” It then defines technology as, “The practical application of knowledge especially in a particular area, or a manner of accomplishing a task especially using technical processes, methods, or knowledge.” If we simply accept the first definition and refer to technology as “the practical application of knowledge, especially in a particular area,” then Pandora is technology and its employees can surely be called technologists without challenging any of my previous conclusions. They specialize in practically applying their skills and knowledge in the particular area of music.
Referring to Pandora’s employees as technologists does not mean that Pandora has to be computerized. If anything, it means the opposite. As the Webster’s dictionary definition proved, technology does not merely refer to computers; technology refers to any application of knowledge. Computers certainly have this ability, but in today’s age, especially in the music industry, humans have a lot of control over technology. This remains true with Pandora. The “team of technologists” at Pandora applies their expertise in music to create its many music channels. This form of technology is simply humanized, or controlled by humans.
We’ve discussed what the future was predicted to look like in the 1960’s and 1970’s, but what does this information tell us about the future from today? Erin Griffith (2014) is a writer with Fortune who wrote “Bob Pittman doesn’t believe streaming will kill radio. But he’s built a massive streaming service, just in case” that discusses the future of traditional and Internet radio. Griffith was previously employed with PandoDaily writing startups, and AdWeek as a reporter. Her work has appeared in Salon, Cosmopolitan, BBC, AARP magazine, Time Out New York, Bust, The Huffington Post, Long Shot, Got a Girl Crush zine, and Brooklyn Based. In this article, Griffith (2014) identifies the amount of registered users on all big name Internet radio brands to date, including Pandora’s 250 million users, and says, “If it were not for the fact that radio is so large, you’d say, ‘Wow these are big numbers’ […] But there are one billion FM radios in the US and only 160 million smartphones and 160 million PCs, so it’s still a subset of the FM marketplace.” According to Griffith (2014), and CEO of Clear Channel Internet radio company Bob Pittman, the success of Internet radio will not put traditional radio out of business anytime soon. Pandora, and the music industry in general, will not see any surprising or revolutionary changes in the near future (Griffith 2014).
This probably means that Pandora will not create a super intelligent, musically-inclined computer to start creating its music stations instead. Streaming music through Internet radio will likely remain under the control of humans, and there will probably always be a need for people in the music industry. There is obviously a great need for humans in this field, to create and distribute music, and that’s what makes this digital phenomenon intriguing. The degree of man-computer symbiosis, to Licklider’s dismay, will not be altered significantly either; the Internet is a man-made product, and there are far more Web-based products that are controlled by humans than independent computers. The only changes to Pandora will be whatever changes occur with the gadgets we prefer to use it on.
Most people who use Pandora revel in the fact that they can be introduced to new music they enjoy by hardly searching for it. Most of them do not realize, however, that the process that results in this is done so by people like you and me. It is not common to view digital phenomenons such as Internet radio as having such a large degree of human intervention. Pandora, nonetheless, can contribute its success to its employees. To recap, the former-musicians and production managers listen to each and every song before it is played on Pandora. They break them down into nearly 400 musical components and once they have identified these factors, they can pair together similar songs that listeners should enjoy as well. The only completely independent technology that Pandora offers is through its simple interface. When a listener hits pause or skip, the app will do so without human intervention. Because of this, there is a level of man-computer symbiosis: man and computer are working together to achieve some sort of result. Everything else, however, is humanized.
All of this inherently means that computers are not independent. The Web is really not an independent manufacturer of ideas and results, as some may be inclined to think. We talk about a future where robots and computers consume control over us, but the opposite is true. A huge degree, I’ll guess 99%, of the Internet is controlled or at least affected by human beings. Products on the Internet: websites, blogs, news, Pandora, are all run by people, with humans having control of what they put out and what they do. Computers are not going to get together on a Monday morning meeting and plan world domination. We can not forget that in such a digitally inclined era that technology does not control us. Instead, we control it.
Gray, T. (2011, January 21). Pandora Pulls Back the Curtain on Its Magic Music Machine. Fast Company. Retrieved July 24, 2014, fromhttp://www.fastcompany.com/1718527/pandora-pulls-back-curtain-its-magic-music-machine
Griffith, E. (2014, June 17). Bob Pittman doesn’t believe streaming will kill radio. But he’s built a massive streaming service, just in case. Fortune. Retrieved July 24, 2014, from http://fortune.com/2014/06/17/iheartradio-clear-channel-bob-pittman/
Inside Pandora Web Radio. (2006, December 20). O’Reilly Media. Retrieved July 24, 2014, from http://oreilly.com/digitalmedia/2006/08/17/inside-pandora-web-radio.html
Kay, A., & Goldberg, A. (1977, March 1). Personal Dynamic Media. The New Media Reader. Retrieved July 24, 2014, fromhttp://www.newmediareader.com/book_samples/nmr-26-kay.pdf
Layton, J. (2006, May 23). How Pandora Radio Works. HowStuffWorks. Retrieved July 24, 2014, fromhttp://computer.howstuffworks.com/internet/basics/pandora.htm
Licklider, J. (1960, March). IRE Transactions on Human Factors in Electronics. Man-Computer Symbiosis. Retrieved July 24, 2014, fromhttp://groups.csail.mit.edu/medg/people/psz/Licklider.html
Nelson, T. (1974). Computer Lib/Dream Machines. The New Media Dreamer. Retrieved July 24, 2014, fromhttp://www.newmediareader.com/book_samples/nmr-21-nelson.pdf
Pandora Announces Leadership Team Succession. (2014, March 18). Pandora. Retrieved July 24, 2014, from http://investor.pandora.com/phoenix.zhtml?c=227956&p=irol-newsArticle&ID=1909735&highlight=