Spotify’s new playlist and how AI makes us feel less human

Nostalgia is as personal and tender an emotion as any. It pops up within us in direct reference to the most cherished moments from our past. Moments that we feel define the stories of our lives. What can be more intimate than that?

A couple of weeks ago Spotify tried its hand at triggering this soft spot when it delivered to its members a personalized “Time Capsule” playlist. Spotify has long been using AI to recommend music to its customers, but this recent offering is the most impressive and disturbing display of algorithmic personalized music curation we’ve seen thus far. Apparently, Spotify has converted its data on listeners ages, markets, and musical preferences into playlists that aim to be a collection of the songs that were the soundtrack of the user’s youth. As algorithms become more powerful and well informed and internet services begin to “know” us better than our friends, family members, and even ourselves; how will our psycology be affected? Will we still be able to feel like special snowflakes leading irreplaceable lives when our every thought and preference is proven predictable by a computer?

Judging from the enthusiastic online response, the playlist has been a success for Spotify. People have always loved to revisit the music of their glory years, and with “Time Capsule” Spotify may have delivered this to its users more accurately than ever before. In fact, I found my playlist to be so accurate as to be unnerving. These are the songs I hold closest to my heart, how did Spotify get so deep inside my most personal memories? The answer is that my most deeply personal memories aren’t so special. The sounds I associated with the moments I’m most nostalgic for are predictable, there’s an equation that can reveal them. Whether it’s a Facebook sponsored post, a sidebar ad on a website, or a personalized playlist, we are all having this experience with increasing frequency: that creepy moment when the internet seems to know you too well.

We have discovered civilizations without language but we know of no society, past or present without music. Scientists have been studying the human love of music for years and neuroscientists have recently uncovered much of how the brain interacts with it. For example: all people, no matter their cultural identity or the language they speak, can easily identify whether a song sounds happy or sad. Songs in a minor key are universally interpreted as sad, whereas those in a major key invariably feel happier. There are also certain sequences of notes with predictable visceral effects. The Augmented 4th note interval sounds so dissonant and creepy that it was once known as the “Devil’s Tritone” and was literally outlawed. Adele’s “Someone Like You” provokes such an emotional response because it features a appoggiatura, a sequence that features a note outside of the key followed by a resolving note inside of it. Scientifically, the appoggiatura is a better explanation for the song’s impact than any ethereal emotion conveyed by Adele.

How do these facts about music’s interaction with our brain impact how we feel about listening to it? Music is so personal and emotionally intense, it feels wrong that any statistics or scientific data could be made of it. This is an important dichotomy: there is a fundamental difference between directly feeling and experiencing the world and scientifically analyzing it. Some people feel that the scientific explanation of a phenomenon ruins its magic. While the experience of being in a thunderstorm has remained a constant through the ages, ancient humans felt that lightning must be a spectacular outburst of a powerful god while today we know it to be a mere electrostatic discharge. Thunderstorms are still exciting, but removing god from the equation has undoubtedly diminished the significance of the experience in today’s world. Increasingly accurate and revealing scientific analyses threaten to invalidate our private experience by explaining it. The once all mysterious and beautiful things in life become plain facts like the boiling point of water or the age of the Earth.

This is one of many challenges posed by the impending advent of artificial intelligence. In the name of being better personal assistants, our devices will come to know us so well that we run the risk of feeling more like a predictable machine than a person living a life. How can we avoid this depressing conclusion? As the secrets of the material world continue to be exposed through science, we must not lose our love and reverence for the realm of personal experience. While we may be able to determine the conditions that give rise to beauty, this can never replace the value of experiencing it firsthand.

In his Phenomenology of Perception (1945), French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty examines the most basic and universally applicable human question: what is it like to perceive? In it, he probes the most relatable topics to previously unseen depths. With unparalleled insight he explores what it’s really like to have a conversation, feel sexual attraction, focus on an object, move your body. It is no wonder that Ponty’s revolutionary insights about how it is to have a body came centuries after all the bodily organs had been fully catalogued. It is easier to explain the information of what the body is than to explain what it is like to have one. The latter is science, the former is experience; we can only talk about science but we live experience. AI can analyze the information that describes our experience, but this is a fundamentally different thing than the experience itself. Ponty’s 700 page exploration of being human culminates in this climactic passage:

“Everything that ‘I am’ in virtue of nature or history — hunchbacked, handsome, or Jewish — I never fully am for myself. And although I am surely these things in the eyes of others, I nonetheless remain free to posit the other either as a consciousness whose gaze reaches me in my very being, or rather as a mere object.”

-Maurice Merleau-Ponty

You aren’t the adjectives that are used to describe you. There is no amount of information or data or explanation that equals a life. While a super powerful information machine may be able to conjure up endless information about a person, including the songs that were most important to them as an adolescent, it takes a conscious human to feel the beauty of those experiences and feel nostalgic about the memories. It is this ability to experience, to feel, and to be conscious that is the source of all meaning and value in this world and it is worth anything to preserve.