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Computing Taste: Algorithms and the Makers of Music Recommendation (Paperback)
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Meet the people who design the algorithms that capture our musical tastes.
The people who make music recommender systems have lofty goals: they want to broaden listeners’ horizons and help obscure musicians find audiences, taking advantage of the enormous catalogs offered by companies like Spotify, Apple Music, and Pandora. But for their critics, recommender systems seem to embody all the potential harms of algorithms: they flatten culture into numbers, they normalize ever-broadening data collection, and they profile their users for commercial ends. Drawing on years of ethnographic fieldwork, anthropologist Nick Seaver describes how the makers of music recommendation navigate these tensions: how product managers understand their relationship with the users they want to help and to capture; how scientists conceive of listening itself as a kind of data processing; and how engineers imagine the geography of the world of music as a space they care for and control.
Computing Taste rehumanizes the algorithmic systems that shape our world, drawing attention to the people who build and maintain them. In this vividly theorized book, Seaver brings the thinking of programmers into conversation with the discipline of anthropology, opening up the cultural world of computation in a wide-ranging exploration that travels from cosmology to calculation, myth to machine learning, and captivation to care.
About the Author
Nick Seaver is assistant professor of anthropology at Tufts University. He is coeditor of Towards an Anthropology of Data.
"Artists and music journalists have been coining genres for decades, based on sounds shared between artists. This new era for genre is derived from listener data and labelled by engineers who, Seaver says, never expected to become authorities on the matter. This speaks to the contradiction at the heart of Computing Taste: it’s both easier and harder to pinpoint a person’s music taste than you might expect. It all depends on what you think taste is. Spotify can tell us how many times we loop a favorite song, make reasonable assumptions about the genres that speak to us, and deduce from GPS data what we might want to hear in the gym as opposed to the office. But Seaver stresses that a key anthropological question remains unwrapped: why do people love the songs that they do?"
— Katie Hawthorne
"Recommendations now 'drive close to half of all users’ streams', according to Spotify’s co-president Gustav Söderström. In Computing Taste, an ethnography of the data scientists and product managers working in 'the world of music recommendation', Seaver gives an account of the way this sort of technology operates. The job of his interviewees, who tend to work for private companies hired by streaming services, is to help their clients 'answer an apparently simple question: what’s next?'"
— London Review of Books
"A useful deep dive into precisely how these systems are built, the people who build them, their goals and aspirations, and much more."
— Bill Marx
"Streaming music services are the norm today, but people don't often think about how they work or how they recommend the next song. Seaver peeks behind the musical curtain in this book about the humans behind the algorithms. . . . Music lovers and those who like books about artificial intelligence will enjoy Seaver's deep dive into the culture, data, and science of music recommendation systems. Computing Taste offers insight into algorithmic music recommendations that's entertaining and easily digestible."
— Natalie Browning
"I would recommend this book if you identify with the following phrase, which is taken from Seaver’s interview with one music company engineer: ‘I’m plagued by the idea that there’s something I haven’t heard yet.’ Music nerds will especially appreciate that Seaver proposes definitions for topics that are hard to describe, like taste and genre. They will enjoy identifying their habits in Chapter 3, ‘What are Listeners Like?’ and learning how music engineers define obscure subgenres like ‘shiver pop.’ . . . The peeks into these veiled companies are almost reminiscent of spy novels. If you’re interested in start-up culture and liked The Social Network, there’s something for you in this book. Throughout Computing Taste, Seaver comments on the balancing act between artificial intelligence and human expertise. He says the title ‘is meant to index that tension’—to probe how technological systems can coexist with something as personal as music taste."
— Hope Karnopp
"The gap between technology and culture might not be as wide as we think, says Seaver in his analysis of how music recommender systems are produced. . . . You’ll come away from Computing Taste realizing that algorithms aren’t the enemy, ready to think again.“
— Engineering and Technology
“Seaver’s nimble account of how contemporary music recommendation systems are conceived and crafted takes readers beyond easy oppositions of humans and algorithms to explore the captivating dynamics of taste and technics, hearing and computing, guidance and coercion.”
— Natasha Dow Schüll, author of "Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas"
“Computing Taste tells a fresh story in the increasingly crowded scholarship on artificial intelligence and culture. It will be immensely useful for those outside of computer science and engineering who want to understand how people think and work in the AI industry.”
— Jonathan Sterne, author of "Diminished Faculties," "MP3," and "The Audible Past"
"Seaver’s exquisite and essential book brings us into an expert community aspiring to find the delicate balance between caring for and controlling the sprawling phenomenon of taste. The ethnographically engaging Computing Taste offers a complex rendering of the makers of music recommendation systems who believe that algorithms can predict and shape musical taste while also wrestling with the reductive absurdity of such a claim. Seaver’s theoretical creativity both pushes critical studies of technology in new directions and makes this book a joy to read.”
— Lisa Messeri, author of "Placing Outer Space: An Earthly Ethnography of Other Worlds"
“Who are the programmers writing the music recommendation recipes that structure so many of our auditory habits in these digital days? How do these new taste makers script listeners into the musical multiverses their algorithms create? Seaver brilliantly tunes us to the cadences of these people’s works and lives, decoding the mix of cosmologies, capital, and computation that channel how and what we hear today.”
— Stefan Helmreich, author "Sounding the Limits of Life: Essays in the Anthropology of Biology and Beyond"
“Perhaps there’s no accounting for taste, but as Seaver demonstrates in Computing Taste, his resonant and resourceful ethnography of music recommendation algorithms, musical taste can indeed be counted and coded. By listening to the sociotechnical dynamics of that translation process—the means by which aesthetic, subjective, social, and situational choices are transcribed into human-orchestrated algorithms—Seaver helps us appreciate not only the myriad harmonic parts that music and machines play in our personal and social lives, but also the many modes and contexts in which we listen.”
— Shannon Mattern, author of "A City Is Not a Computer: Other Urban Intelligences"