Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Echo Chamber: Sounds Just Like Heaven

On an April evening in 1960, small-time crook Rocky Valentine was shot by police, only to awaken and find himself unharmed and in a world where everything he wanted he got. Every wish he desired was granted.

Of course, this all happened on small black and white screens across America in an episode of The Twilight Zone called “A Nice Place to Visit.”  We watched Rocky for most of the 30 minutes granted him--a month in TV time--as he luxuriated in his good luck at having ascended into heaven.

Once upon a time I used to run radio stations, and one of the staples of the times was call-out research.  Every night a team of volunteers would get on the phones, calling teens and young adults in the area and playing bits and pieces of hit, or hopefully-hit songs.  The questions: Had they heard it before?  Did they like it?  Did they want to hear it more?  Were they getting tired of it? Their answers helped to build and prune music playlists for the station.

Every so often the researchers would stumble upon a young kid who had what we called “Magic Ears.”  As we tabulated the results night after night, month after month, the Magic Ears respondent would always be able to pick the hits. In other words, if he or she liked the song, it was destined to become successful.  Magic Ears served as a sort of musical barometer, telling us when to stop playing songs and when we had a hit on our hands.

Funny thing, if the researcher ever slipped and let the kid know that he or she had “Magic Ears,” the magic inevitably disappeared.  Once the person became conscious of his gift for picking hits, his powers apparently evaporated.

This all came to mind because of a recent Wall Street Journal article, “Songs Stick in Teens’ Heads,” by  Robert Lee Hotz.  It seems Emory University scientists have shown that hit songs activate reward centers in the adolescent brain.  “At the level of cells and synapses, teen-age brains simply find some songs more rewarding to hear,” Hotz reported,  “even when the listeners say they don't like the tunes on questionnaires and surveys.  So far, no one knows why.”

This is the biology of Magic Ears, then, and the profit implications are enormous.  Imagine, like Rocky Valentine, that every song you asked for was one you were destined to love.  All of them.  Never a dud.  Prescreened by activated adolescent brains for your listening pleasure.  Sounds just like heaven, doesn't it?

My mother used to say, “Be careful what you ask for, cause you just might get it.”  It annoyed the heck out of us kids, let me tell you, because then we had to figure out what we wanted that she didn’t think we should have.

In another recent WSJ article, “The Trouble With the Echo Chamber Online,” Natasha Singer reported on a similar phenomenon, but one with much more profound implications.  The Internet, she said--whether we know it or not--creates a kind of personalized comfort zone around each of us.  “Give a thumbs up to a movie on Netflix or a thumbs down to a song on Pandora, de-friend a bore on Facebook or search for just about anything on Google: all of these actions feed into algorithms that then try to predict what we want or don’t want online.” The result is a friendly, comforting stream of everything we like and nothing we don't.

Sounds just like heaven, doesn’t it?

Eli Pariser, the author of “The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding From You,” claims that “personalization on the Web is becoming so pervasive that we may not even know that we’re missing: the views and voices that challenge our own thinking.”  Personalization sorts and tabulates and ranks and completely limits our options.  “It is a system that cocoons users, diminishing the kind of exposure to opposing viewpoints necessary for a healthy democracy,” says Jaron Lanier, the author of “You Are Not a Gadget.”

Singer calls it an “echo chamber”--“where more and more of what we see conforms to the idea of who some software thinks we are.”

One of the great New Yorker cartoons ever is of two dogs sitting at a keyboard, one saying to the other “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”  It turns out this isn’t true at all.  If you act like a dog, after a while all you’ll see are fire hydrants and dog bones.

So, like Rocky Valentine in 1960, technology in 2011 always gives us the wishes we want, the songs we love, the comfortable opinions and the answers we like.  Sounds just like heaven.
By the way, after having every wish fulfilled back in 1960, Rocky Valentine became completely and thoroughly bored.  He told his guardian, Pip (a youngish Sebastian Cabot), that "If I gotta stay here another day, I'm going to go nuts! I don't belong in Heaven, see? I want to go to the other place."

Pip replies, "Heaven? Whatever gave you the idea that you were in heaven, Mr. Valentine?" Then Pip begins to laugh.