OCW, Pandora Radio, and the Myth of Web 4.0Posted: October 27, 2008
Just as people I know have finally come round to using Pandora Radio I’ve grown sick of it.
I can’t remember when I started using Pandora, and as you will see in a minute, that’s part of my problem with it. The first song I bookmarked was in March of 2006, but I think I may have started even before that.
I can remember how excited I was about Pandora at first. I had been crawling the MP3 blogs, sampling bands, burning CDs for local friends, and listening to web radio station KEXP for the next band to fall in love with. I ran a mailing list called culture whore, where friends and I traded recs.
It was a lot of work, frankly.
Then I turned on Pandora, and it did it all for me. No more of the inevitable Mars Volta song in my KEXP stream — I didn’t like it, bam! it was gone. It was a radio station built exactly around my tastes, always expanding, and requiring no effort from me. A dream come true.
And so I stopped trolling the blogs, stopped listening to normal Web radio, stopped making mix CDs for friends. I would just come in in the morning and turn on Pandora.
And about 2 years later (in March of this year) I quit using it, finding that the two years I had used it had been a bit of a musical wasteland for me, despite all the great bands I had discovered. And the only explanation I could give was that it had “Muzak-ed my music”.
While most people are flocking to it now, I expect that most music-lovers will follow a similar trajectory. In fact, I’ve talked in the past six months to quite a number of early adopters who are off Pandora now, and it’s interesting to compile some of the reasons they cite, with one or two issues of mine thrown in:
- They don’t like the lack of authorship: A web radio show of the KEXP or WFMU type is put together by a person. And to listen to it is in some sense to engage in a dialogue with that person. When John in the Morning — a DJ I have listened to since I lived in Seattle — when he plays a track off the new Pedro the Lion CD he’s making an assertion about that track, and when he follows one song with another song, moving from Sense to early Portishead, that’s something we can mentally give a thumbs up or thumbs down to — in a way that is just impossible with Pandora (sorry).
- They don’t like the lack of an object: A radio show that occurs on Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. is an object for discussion. So is a mix CD, or an album. People can listen to the exact same thing and discuss their different reactions to it. A canonical object is a shared cultural experience in a way that a randomly mixed personal playlist is not. And while I can share my “station” in Pandora, it merely replicates my preferences — no person is hearing the same songs I am in the same order, never mind the same time.
- The singles culture deadens you: The chunks of experience in Pandora are 3 to 4 minutes long, and delivered to you without effort. I remember the periods of my life before Pandora being marked by the albums I was listening to. I hear Superchunk’s Here’s to Shutting Up and I can remember the particular e-learning projects I was working on at the time. When Belle and Sebastian’s Boy wIth the Arab Strap plays, I’m transported to early days with my oldest daughter, a tiny peanut we rocked to sleep to the tones of “Sleep the Clock Around”. And so on. But honestly, around two years ago that association stops. My life has no soundtrack. I think that’s a combination of the things above — that resulted, as I said, in Pandora “Muzaking my Music.”
I’m back to albums and radio stations now, and it feels good. My daughter and I have been listening to the new Submarines album, and I have no doubt that she is creating memories too. I’ve re-engaged with my mailing list, and put the music blogs back into the RSS.
And it feels human. It feels like waking up after a long slumber.
That’s the problem with the Web 4.0 vision of intelligent agents — without intent and authorship and humanness — at least as part of the equation — having better music is somewhat meaningless. I’d rather have John in the Morning play stuff I don’t like 20% of the time and have that be a connection with authorship than Pandora play what I like a 100% of the time.
What does that have to do with OCW? I suppose this. There’s some talk about OERs fitting into some kind of humanless delivery system — the dynamically assembled dream of Web 3.0 or 4.0 or whatever it is. That’s good for some things.
But there is always going to be a hunger to connect with those larger authored enitities, big chunks of shareable cultural experience ordered sequentially and representing someone’s vision with which you’ll interact. Albums, Radio shows, Mix tapes, and yes, courses. If there’s a reason OCW matters in a world that wants to dynamically assemble OER it’s because the idea of authorship and voice is core to to our sense of humanness. OCW is like the album format — it’s not the only way to do authorship and voice, to humanize our efforts and allow us to share intentional experiences, but it’s one way. And that, ultimately, makes courseware worth doing, no matter what future technology may make possible.
[Or shorter version, I guess: OCW is album rock.]