The Mixed Blessing of Shuffle

I have an embarrassing confession to make: my closet is full of shirts that are all some shade of solid blue or grey. I am a bit neurotic in this way; I have a hard time feeling comfortable wearing a patterned shirt, and I can’t seem to bring myself to buy reds, greens, or anything terribly far away from blue. This becomes most apparent on laundry day, when my stack of t-shirts oscillates within a very narrow spectrum of color, and my wife looks at me with that look of “how many blue shirts do you need? Are you allergic to other colors?”

This is, of course, slightly hypocritical coming from my wife, who owns something like fifty different versions of a black skirt. Whenever we go shopping, she pulls yet another black skirt off the rack, holds it up to her and says “what do you think?” My usual smart-aleck response goes something like “oh look—a black skirt; just like all those other black skirts you already have!” She then responds with “No, this is completely different…see?”

The truth is, we are both stuck in a rut when it comes to clothing. I keep buying solid blue or grey shirts (preferably a nice shade of blue-grey), and she keeps buying black skirts. We go to the store with all the best intentions of branching out into other colors, patterns, and styles, but we invariably keep buying the same outfit, over and over again.

Most of us tend to get stuck in ruts like these, buying the same outfits, cooking the same meals, walking or driving the exact same routes everyday (I have a very particular path I take to the market each day, even though I could mix it up and go different ways, encountering different sights and people). It also seems to get worse with age; the older we get, the harder it seems to break out of our established patterns and try something different.

Interestingly, my wife and I have also been noticing lately that organizations tend to get stuck in ruts when it comes to hiring new people, and academic institutions seem to suffer from this quite acutely. They say they want to hire more interdisciplinary scholars, or more women, or more ethnic minorities, but when it comes down to it, they just buy the same outfit over and over again. They opt for the familiar, the person that looks and sounds most like what they are used to. Over time, the rut gets deeper and deeper, and the organization gets more and more entrenched. Eventually it becomes insular, inflexible, and irrelevant.

iPod ShuffleI’ve been thinking about all of this because I have recently started using the shuffle feature on my iPod. I have to admit that I resisted the whole digital music phenomenon for quite a while. My wife and I have a large stack of compact discs, and the thought of spending hours ripping them into iTunes seemed like far too much work. We were also suspect of the playback quality, and wondered how iTunes would handle classical and live recordings, where the atomic unit was an entire symphony or album, not a single track.

But over the last few months we have slowly ripped most of our collection, and I bought a cable so that we could play our iPod through our amplified stereo. We have even put together specialized playlists, such as “mellow” music for weeknight dinners when we need to slough off the day’s stress. And then we started using the shuffle feature.

Ordinarily, I tend to avoid shuffle-type features because they are built upon the assumption that the song (or single track) is an isolated and independent entity. This is probably true for most pop and rock music, but really isn’t true for other genres like classical, live concerts, or concept albums. The movements of a symphony are often split into separate tracks on a recording, but they are meant to be played together and in order. They make little sense when separated from their sibling movements or played in a random order. Similarly, live concert recordings have a kind of emotional flow that is carefully planned by the artist, so shuffling the tracks around usually leads to jarring transitions.

But as I started experimenting with the shuffle feature on my iPod, I noticed something rather surprising: I started listening to music that I haven’t listened to in years, and I was really enjoying it. I have several recordings that I bought, listened to once or twice, and then never listened to again. It wasn’t that I disliked the music; it was simply that the music was a little too different from the rut that I had gotten myself into. When I reached for a CD to play, I tended to select one from the same subset of CDs that I always selected from. I kept buying the same outfit. I was stuck in a rut. And the shuffle feature was starting to get me out of it.

My conclusion? Shuffle is a mixed blessing. Sometimes it’s not at all appropriate, but other times, it can act as a helpful mechanism that forces you out of your ruts. Like all technologies, it engenders several kinds of social changes all at once. Some of those changes will be intentional and obvious, while others will be more hidden and unexpected. And all of these changes can be seen as either negative or positive depending on the context.

Now my question to you is, do organizations, and especially academic institutions, need a kind of “shuffle feature” to force them out of their ruts? I’m not suggesting that they select candidates in a random fashion, nor that they purposely hire for difference over competency. What I am suggesting, however, is that these institutions need to think about how they may be seeing very qualified candidates as not adequate simply because those candidates don’t look or sound like the kind of person they are used to hiring. Organizations tend to create an archetype of their ideal candidate, and not surprisingly, the archetype looks a lot like those who are already working there. In other words, they keep buying the same outfit, over and over again, and don’t realize how homogenous and insular they are becoming.


3 thoughts on “The Mixed Blessing of Shuffle

  1. Rosie Perera

    Hasn’t anybody invented a feature to link multiple tracks together to always be played in sequence in spite of shuffle, for multi-movement classical pieces especially? I have resisted ripping my CDs onto a portable music player, mostly due to lack of time, but that issue would also make me not want to use the shuffle feature. Also, is there any way to say shuffle within just a certain genre? It could be quite jarring to jump back and forth between classical and rock if I’m in a classical mood.

    1. David Stearns Post author

      I’ve look around for an option that lets me keep a set of tracks together as a unit during shuffle, but I haven’t found one yet. I’m sure that Apple has this down as a proposed feature, but it probably never makes the cut since it would be for a relatively small audience. You can make a playlist, in which you string together a bunch of music in a particular order, so perhaps that is what classical fans do most. You can also shuffle within a playlist, and iTunes seems to create some automatic ones based on genre.

  2. Mark Douglass

    Jonah Lehrer, in his book, “How We Decide,” has an interesting observation on shuffle mode:

    “When Apple first introduced the shuffle feature on its iPods, the shuffle was truly random; each song was equally as likely to get picked as any other. However, the randomness didn’t APPEAR random, since some songs were occasionally repeated, and customers concluded that the feature contained some secret patterns and preferences. As a result, Apple was forced to revise the algorithm. ‘We made it less random to make it feel more random,’ said Steve Jobs, the CEO of Apple.”

    I know it as the “gambler’s fallacy,” looking for patterns where there aren’t any. And I think it’s the gambler’s fallacy that would sink any attempt at moving a cultural institution into shuffle mode as well. Everyone would perceive a “hidden agenda” in any random selection, and would rise up to quash it and return to what’s familiar.

    Blame the dopamine neurons in the brain for this pattern-seeking and pattern-reinforcing behavior.


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