Thursday, June 21, 2007

Miscellaneous playlists

Back from vacation! Now that southern Arizona has gotten to triple-digit heat, a picture like this one is an reminder of cooler climes.

For most of our recent driving trip, we mostly listened to playlists on our iPod. I like the playlist concept; it's like a radio station with no commercials. I download new songs to our driving music playlist, including new music that my wife has chosen, so I get to hear music I've never heard before. In case you're interested, our driving music playlist has 1661 songs, 206 of which have a play count of zero. Not all of the songs are completely new because I have a tendency to transfer new pop music CDs directly to the playlist, but I did have new albums from Wilco and Bjork to accompany us.

I've gotten used to the playlists in shuffle mode, to the point where I find that many albums are fairly boring to take in a single sitting*. I grabbed a small stack of CDs for the trip, and at one point we put on Bill Frisell's album The Willies. I like Frisell's music, but found this album as a whole to be underwhelming. It's a collection of sixteen very subdued, mostly acoustic instrumentals, and it simply didn't hang together for me as an album. We have other Frisell albums in our rotation (Good Dog, Happy Man in particular), but we probably won't include this one.

Playlists (and iTunes in general) provide considerably more flexibility than the CD format. Smart playlists can even use metadata associated with the songs to update themselves dynamically. We like to play music late at night, so we have a smart playlist that looks for two hours of slow ambient and classical music based on the least recently heard field in the iTunes database. Our iPod has a handful of Takemitsu and Feldman pieces, a small subset based on the same criterion. The ability of iTunes and the iPod to use a larger set of metadata, and to let me as the user define my own tags, is one of the great strengths of the program.

The different ways people use metadata is the subject of a recent essay, Everything is Miscellaneous, by David Weinberger, an information society guru with credits for NPR, Wired, Harvard Business Review, etc. He describes a third-order organization, another level out from the organization of things (first order) and a physical catalog of things (second order), as the metadata tags that can be applied to digital things, thus making them available for any conceivable sort or search order. In the first-order time, the keepers of the organization were the specialized caste who were the only ones who could retrieve the knowledge (think of medieval libraries in monasteries). When catalogs came into being, the ones who defined the categories used in the catalogs were the definers of our knowledge. The catalogs were still limited by physical constraints, so the knowledge pattern that created them was the way humans tended to categorize reality. By the end of the essay he has extrapolated digital organization to our understanding of knowledge.

The third order organization is the beginning of the recognition that reality is more complex than the knowledge systems that we have tried to impose on it, that reality contains a great deal more of the miscellaneous. It's up to us as individuals to filter the vast quantities of 'knowledge' out in the world, and to recognize the patterns that make the most sense to us. Weinberger takes his examples from many different fields, and is entertaining and educational on the development of libraries and other classification schemes. He uses tagging (and cites the success stories of huge web sites of user-generated content all held together by tagging, such as the photo sharing site, the social bookmark site and other social networking sites, YouTube, and even Wikipedia (Weinberger's take on Wikipedia is considerably more bullish than Kyle Gann's). His unbridled optimism overlooks some casualties (he states that record labels benefit from meta-businesses like iTunes and implies that brick-and-mortar stores are "middlemen who provide no value"), but I found his overall conclusions to be generally spot on.

Perhaps musicians and other artists have already discovered that knowledge doesn't really keep itself to the categories that we've inherited from previous lawgivers. Although the essay was entertaining enough, and the examples were new for me, it seemed like Weinberger was articulating something already in our zeitgeist. Scandals and calculated irrelevance in the news media have undermined our trust in the keepers of the story of our times. The public's confidence in the government and our elected officials is at a historical low. Although Weinberger's interests are oriented more towards business than art, the grey area of knowledge definition is at the heart of the artistic endeavor.

*For some reason, the exceptions that come to mind are all prog rock. We had a great time listening to classic albums like In the Court of the Crimson King, Lark's Tongues in Aspic, and Wish You Were Here.

No comments: