The Shuffle Interpretation Of Quantum Mechanics

I’m going to say this again – I never seem to tire of saying it – I love music, and I need to have it with me wherever I may roam. It makes me calm. Good; done with that. The way I listen to music is via my phone. I used to have a separate music player, in much the same way that I used to have a whole set of other devices: a pager, a camera, an alarm clock. I don’t have much need for any of them now.

I have bought a lot of music over the years, and I have it all stored digitally. Much of it was bought in that format. I have a subset of my collection on my phone; I listen to albums occasionally, but I most often want variety, as if listening to radio without a presenter. As such, I have the songs curated in to playlists, either by artists or a big folder full of enough entertainment to keep me going for a week.

It’s the latter I have a problem with. A big playlist is often assembled by going through the list of songs in alphabetical order, choosing which ones to add. I don’t want to listen to them alphabetically; my odd mind spots the pattern and can’t relax. I need to have the playlist on shuffle. And that is where the real trouble starts: why did three songs by the same artist just play in a row? Why?

Is the fact that I didn’t skip the first one tacit acceptance that I want the next one to come on? Is the fact that I skipped a song by SYL this afternoon why I haven’t heard a song by them since? Shuffle cannot be just a randomised list of the songs I have chosen – so the pattern spotting side of my silly mind insists on telling me – so I have to project a rationale upon the whole benevolent system.

I envisage a nice bloke in a cubicle – a developer – with a button down collar under a smart sweater, playing golf this evening with his equally boring colleagues. He doesn’t drink, but he may snort a cheeky line or two at the weekend. Only MDMA. I see him trying to anticipate my needs, devising a shuffle algorithm which watches my choices to see what I’d like to hear next. He’s just being nice.

It’s just played a song I was talking about the other day. I had my phone with me at the time – I always have my phone with me; what a stupid thing to say. Is it listening to what I’m saying? Is it some plan to better provide what I am looking for? Is it some form of benevolent surveillance? Or is it just a sodding coincidence? I want to know that I know the difference, but paranoia is too easy.

Is the play queue the same regardless of whether I am observing it? I suppose that’s my question. I have a variety of music playing options, and they all have shuffle modes. I look at each of them, and they all have a play queue option, scrolling out to infinity, as if the whole shuffled playlist has been mapped out already. I unshufffle, and reshuffle, and the play queue is completely different now.

This should reassure me, but it doesn’t. The play queue is a closed box when I am not looking in to it; it is both static and dynamic; it is both set in stone and liable to change to suit my needs;  the cat is both dead and alive. It is none of these things, but my mind can fill any gap with paranoia of any density in order to fulfil an ongoing narrative. I can see that it is fixed, but I cannot accept its truth.

The corporations which make money from my existence seem to want to observe every transaction in every other sphere of my existence. Why should it be any different here? They can make my user experience more atuned if they pay attention to my preferences. Everyone is doing it, so why would they miss an opportunity to improve their product. It makes no sense that they would do that.

However I cannot accept that such a complex algorithm exists. To the rational side of my brain, if such a thing should ever truly exist, they have a simple algorithm which completely randomises the entire playlist, then stores that as the play queue, and just plays it. Random is always far more, and far less, random than we would like: there is always repetition, whether we trust that or not.

My own random choices generator – my daughter – has glitches too. She runs out of ideas and starts naming things around her. The curtains, for instance, or a dog. Then madness ensues as order breaks down. With a shuffled playlist the worst that can happen is that three Incubus songs in a row can be played. Last night I had it playing alphabetically, and I didn’t even notice. My brain isn’t perfect.

The way I think I know it is random is in its repetitions. If I have the exact same playlist for too long I notice the same set of songs coming up frequently. It’s a limit of the randomisation. As soon as I add or remove a song from the playlist, that is broken, and I am listening to a different set of songs which now come up frequently. Randomisation as a function of length, perhaps. It happens rather a lot.

I don’t doubt that the notion of filtering, sorting and ordering my playlist to better suit my mood isn’t one day going to be a clear cut certainty, and that’s fine with me. It’s progress. If I don’t find myself enjoying it I will find some kind of tweaky workaround, which will make me feel like I have some control over the degree of randomisation. I won’t, but I’ll be happy with the compromise.

However, this encroachment of tailored options is one of many reasons why some people are convinced we are entering the coming of the end times, and the machines will be our overlords. They may have watched too much science fiction, and I too little, but they are convinced that the AIs which govern marketing and advertising are the devil, and that they will create a whole generation of robots which will enslave the whole of humanity to convert our drudgery in to their profit.

I’m not saying it will never happen, but I tend to take a much greyer, blander view of life: we will all continue to be exploited and companies will continue to earn their bucks from our attention. It’s just going to get harder to spot whether we are finding new stuff, or whether it’s all being chosen for us.