Technology as more than a tool…

Spotify Wrapped has become an annual celebration of data collection on our audio listening habits. So, as I scroll down my own 2021 listening data for 2021, I find the same songs from the same playlist that I have listened to for the past several years. I am presented with ‘You might also like’ recommendations which is almost certainly correct because it’s pretty much the same as what I have listened to on a loop for the past several years. Telling my 18-year-old self about such access to media would have amazed and excited me. However, those same songs continue on a loop, so the data says.

Without denying our agency, I think we can routinely underestimate the influence of platform design on our decisions and behaviours. It has never been easier to expand our musical horizons – yet many of us, conspicuously, don’t.

Elle Hunt

Or as Mark Andrejevic points out in Automated Media, platforms and their data know us better than we know ourselves.

Netflix knows our movie tastes better than our friends; Spotify knows us well enough to make music mixes for us; our phone solicitously tells us how long it will take to get home from work; our thermostat knows just how warm or cool we like our house; our city knows where we are, where we are going, and whom we meet; our home keeps track of our intimate rhythms: when we sleep, eat, and shower. (p142)

Mark Andrejevic

A tool like approach to platforms such as Spotify and other social media sees such technologies as tools to be used under the full control of human ‘users’ – an approach which has been significantly challenged by Science and Technology Studies (STS) and Philosophy of Technology.

Adele persuaded Spotify to remove the shuffle button from her album, 30, to allow for the album to be preserved as a complete piece of work – a clear perspective on the design and infrastructure of technologies do have influence and agency on our behaviours.

So, is Adele’s album (or anyone else’s) the same on YouTube, Spotify, MP3 file, tape, cassette, CD, sung live on TV or in a stadium full of people? Clearly not, so is the Medium the Message – famously quoted by Marshall Mcluhan.

Looking at the infrastructure of such platforms is being presented as a research approach to the relationship between the funding, design, development, implantation and use of platforms. Interface design, data capture, algorithms and artificial intelligence are dominant features of platforms from Spotify to Uber and Amazon.  Key to the relationship between platforms, prevalent in most walks of life is their influence and agency in contrast to the structure of the platform – it’s infrastructure. Data, machine learning and artificial intelligence have produced new forms of agency in that more and more tasks become automated. Spotify has become a platform of conflicting views as Neil Young demands his music be removed or Joe Rogan’s podcast.

A key debate then is agency between humans and non-humans. Those opposed to a technological deterministic view presented by Mcluhan argue that there is no human agency involved in such human and technology relations.

Despite technological determinism being denied by many, (maybe a result of extreme humanism developed in the Anthropocene?) clearly digital platforms, their design and architecture play a part in society. A first step might be to admitting that.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: