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First Click: Amazon’s Echo taught me I have no idea what music I like

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December 6th, 2016

How many of your favorite songs can you name off the top of your head? Not if you had a pad of paper and an hour to think about it, but if you had to name, like, 20 songs right this second. It’s not something I’ve ever had to think about before. I mean, why would you need to know that by heart? You’re on your deathbed, perhaps, and you realize you forgot to make a playlist for your funeral? Or you’re out walking one night and get abducted by aliens and they’re screaming, just screaming, at you: “Please. We need a reason to save humanity. Just show us some art, for pity’s sake, something beautiful, and we’ll spare you all,” and you think: “God, is it time for some Fleetwood Mac?”

Or maybe — like me — you just got an Amazon Echo.

The Echo, if you’re not familiar, is a dumb little baby the size and shape of a roll of kitchen towel. It’s made out of speakers, microphones, and Bluetooth, and when you plug it in it says to you: “Hello.” You can use it to set timers or ask easily Googleable questions, but for most people, most of the time, it’s best as a hands-free way to listen to music — especially useful while you’re cooking or otherwise busy with your hands. The problem with this, though, is that you have to know what to ask it.

I should confess at this point that I’m not what you might call an active music listener. My Spotify library is full of old standbys and childhood favorites that I return to almost unthinkingly. And while the app’s Discovery Weekly playlists regularly serve me previously unheard-of musical treats, this is cultural exploration that’s bought rather than earned. So, after I’d set up my Echo for the first time and gone through the regular questions (Napoleon was five foot seven; the weather in Budapest is brisk but sunny), I had to pause and think: what did I actually want to listen to?

With regular graphical user interfaces this isn’t as much of a problem, as there are a whole host of visual prompts and cues that let you know what you can do and how to do it. Arrows point us backwards and forwards; options concertina out of menus with just a click. And when it comes to selecting music, we not only have our algorithmically sculpted playlists, but the music library itself — the most basic form of memory substitute.

All of this is to say that when I was confronted with the Echo’s silence — that vast plain without roadmap or visible route — I stumbled, I coughed, and I said: “Alexa, can you play ‘Smooth’ by Santana please.”

It was a good start, but I needed to test myself. For the next week, I decided to listen only to music that I could ask Alexa for by name. That meant no Spotify or YouTube browsing; no looking at my old library of MP3s; and no asking Alexa for playlists or general genres. It had to be the specific song — artist and the track title — or nothing at all. So, after enjoying the timeless Latin licks of “Smooth” I treated myself to “Oye Coma Va,” “Maria, Maria,” and “Black Magic Woman.” Then I ran out of Santana songs. This would become a familiar pattern.

Over the days that followed I ended up retracing my personal musical history in roughly chronological order. I started with the first CD I ever owned (The Hives’ Your New Favourite Band), and moved through my ska, punk, reggae, and backpack rap phases (essential listening for teenagers living in Northern England in the mid-2000s). Then I worked my way through the artists I was introduced to via my parents — Jimi Hendrix, Madonna, Bob Dylan, etc. — followed by a ragtag bunch of more recent discoveries.

Each time I thought of someone new I remembered fewer songs than I would have predicted. Even for the biggest names, I could come up with no more than half a dozen tracks. There were unexpected gold mines (it turns out I really love Abba) but these were outnumbered by the embarrassing shortfalls. I’d always thought I was quite into classical music, for example, but wasn’t able to remember much more than my favorite numbered symphonies and the most famous named songs. Of course, the fact that I can’t remember the key of my favorite Chopin waltz doesn’t take away from my enjoyment of it, but it made me consider how much I listen to music on auto-pilot; just sticking on Chopin: The Album and tuning out.

This method of music-listening did have its benefits. Tying the experience to a single physical location (that of the Echo) meant I listened less and appreciated more. I was grateful for any new song I was reminded of, and sometimes I just sat in front of the damn thing doing nothing but listening. Like a goddamn animal. And, best of all, there were even some genuine surprises when my brain simply dropped songs into my memory that I’d long forgotten.

The best of these struck me about five days into my haphazard experiment. I was walking down the street, minding my own business, when a voice entered into my head and spoke thusly: “Listen to ‘Gold Dust’ by DJ Fresh.” Now, this wasn’t a song I’d thought about for years, but its name had been drilled into me at university — it was a track I listened to on my way to the library during exam term; my warm-up music turned morning ritual. Every day I’d put it on to energize myself and do a sad little Rocky-montage-in-miniature down foggy streets before charging into a waiting pile of textbooks and crumpled notes. It’s by no means a musically distinguished number but for some reason it never lost its magic on me, dosing me up morning after morning as I slogged through my finals. After remembering its existence I rushed back home to listen to it. Nothing had been lost in the intervening years, and as I turned up the Echo’s volume the opening melody performed its magic, fizzing away in my blood. I danced around the room, turned it up some more, and then I listened to it again.

None of this is to say that the Echo will resurface nostalgic gems for every listener, but it’s worth thinking about how computer interfaces shape how we think. Over the years we’ve palmed off more of our memory to computers (remember when you used to actually know peoples’ phone numbers?) but with voice interfaces we might have to reclaim that responsibility. It’s that or rely on computers to tells us what we want — and that might mean losing out on a whole lot more.