Who do you know? On “expert” systems vs P2Ps…

by Yule Heibel on February 12, 2006

I’ve had this weird suspicion creep up on me in the past few days. Ever since February 3rd, when I read the LA Times article, That song sounds familiar about Pandora, a six-year old internet radio website which I blogged about on Wednesday, I have been turning over in my head several related problems: of stress, of my sense of time (that it’s always running out), and of what looks like a collective crumbling of the ability to focus. The LA Times article brought up the fascinating issue of whether Pandora is really internet worthy in that whizz-bang peer-to-peer, wisdom-of-crowds sense, for Pandora relies not on peer recommendation, but on …expertise. Instead of using peers who “recommend” that if you like A, then you might like B, Pandora’s experts analyse music, isolate aspects of it, and offer the listener a number of choices based on those isolated aspects. When I tried it, I was offered several duds (to my ears), and I had to “guide” the program toward the tunes I liked better. Once the guiding process was on its way, the program did come up with songs I liked. I started with The The’s “This is the day” (old stuff, over 20 years) and (after some mis-starts) got Gay Dad (more recent), along with other, more recent new-to-me material I liked.

The Times on the other hand quoted an assistant professor of communications at BU, who worries that Pandora

“runs counter to the democratizing trend of the Internet.” Instead of using “collaborative filtering” software pioneered by Amazon.com and Apple’s iTunes (“customers who bought this album also bought these albums”), Pandora “puts the power of the recommendation in the hands of an expert system,” McQuivey says. “Pandora will succeed only if its centralized system proves superior to the wisdom of the crowd.” [More…]

Aside from the notion that peer-to-peer systems or the wisdom-of-the-crowds is truly — or shall we say: inevitably — democratic, I find the implied idea that expert systems are somehow inherently undemocratic absolutely baffling, if not troubling.

I happened to like the sense of engagement I got from “guiding” Pandora, and it helped focus my attention. When its “experts” offered me song, I could inquire, “why did you suggest this,” particularly when I was offered a song I didn’t like. I could then gather my own attention as I was asked to give the thumbs up or down to the song I was offered. Although I was guided by the “expert suggestions,” I in turn was guiding Pandora through my choices.

In a peer-to-peer or wisdom-of-the-crowds universe, my attention is scattered, sometimes pleasurably, but often to the point of pain: there’s so much to keep up with, so many choices to confront and evaluate, and thanks, but no thanks, I really don’t want to be carried away by the supposed wisdom of the crowd. It takes me a long time to decide — to choose — that someone, anyone at all, is my peer, and having all those alleged, if friendly, peers telling me at every turn that I might like this or that, and that I really should try this and go with that ends up making me crazy stressed and nuts.

My suspicion, then, to get back to my point of departure, is that (1) the digitally distributed peer-to-peer universe is the perfect expression of our attention-deficit plagued age, and (2) the digitially distributed peer-to-peer universe contributes to further exacerbations of attention deficit, stress, to the continued sense of never having enough time. Further to that, my suspicion leads to a conclusion that some may call anti-social, but that to my (dialectical) mind is an epitome of social commitment: it’s fine to hang with the crowd for a while, but to get anything meaningful done, you better be prepared to leave your peers behind and become your own expert.

{ 1 comment }

Dave Pollard February 20, 2006 at 2:08 am

Hi Yule. I tried Pandora, and then got pointed to try Last.fm. It’s more work, and more P2P/WoC correlation-based than analytical, but it seems to work pretty well. I’d be interested in your take on it. Mine is here.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: