A few years ago, Adele had a complaint about Spotify. Her complaint wasn’t about the miserly rates at which it compensates musicians, the monopolistic stranglehold it has on the music industry, or the misinformation-spewing podcast hosts it employs. No, she had a problem with the shuffle function.
“Our art tells a story and our stories should be heard the way we intended,” Adele tweeted shortly after her album’s release. 30, a release so massive that hardly anyone could escape the story, even if they wanted to. In 2020, Spotify started to automatically shuffle albums for all listeners instead of playing them in assigned order. But Adele’s wish turned out to be Spotify’s behest, and the company removed the auto-shuffle feature, but only for premium users. What had once been a feature was now a bug, a bug that you had to pay to fix.
Shuffle, to use the more precise term that predates today’s “shuffle button”, has its roots in a core element of computing: automating randomness, a feat that is technically impossible. The only real randomness, where there is “an equal chance of X or Y happening at the quantum level,” as Andrew Lison, an assistant professor of media studies at the University at Buffalo, puts it, is found in things like atomic decay — natural phenomena that ( at least at the moment) cannot be fully replicated by a computer. You would have to use quantum physics for the shuffle button to be truly random.
You would have to use quantum physics for the shuffle button to be truly random
Instead, computer scientists have long since faked it and settled for pseudo-randomness, which allows information to be accessed in a fast, non-linear fashion. It’s almost like the first step in making computers that outsmart us – generating things without our input and producing things whose causality we can’t trace (without a lot of time, effort, and expertise).
It’s not clear who initially decided to integrate this new technology of randomness into music. “In the first Philips player, shuffle was not available… Which company came first? I don’t know,” Kees Schouhamer Immink, a pioneering Philips scientist who worked on the earliest CD players, told me by email. But soon after the boundaries of music consumption shifted from analog to digital with the introduction of those first CD players in 1982, random playback was touted as one of the device’s best features. (There were advanced cassette players that also had random play functions by the early 1980s, but each selection had to be pre-programmed by the user – plus the analog nature of cassette playback would make the time between tracks quite significant.)
“Do the Sony Shuffle!” screamed a 1986 ad for the Sony CDP-45. “It makes old CDs new!” But what pre-empted today’s shuffle experience was the introduction of multi-disc players; instead of just hearing a CD you owned play in a sequence you couldn’t predict, you can put together a few you liked and, well, play them in random order, recreating the kick-back experience mimics of listening to the radio (or, as still quite new at the time, a live DJ) without hearing anything you didn’t like. “Having a Sony CDP-C10 Disc Jockey in your home really is like having your own personal disc jockey,” said another ad. “Ten hours of uninterrupted music enjoyment for carefree parties or background music in restaurants or shops.”
The first issue of Wired featured a $12,000 CD player that could hold 100 discs, opening up the possibility of shuffle on steroids and even programmable playback—the digital descendant of the mixtape and ancestor of today’s playlists. Playing music at parties or restaurants wasn’t new in itself, but the idea that it could be personal – completely unique to you – eventually changed everything.
With randomness there is a possibility
Shuffle satisfied the human attraction to novelty and surprise. With randomness there is a possibility: it makes sense then that the first literal shuffle buttons on handheld blackjack games from the 1970s were for shuffling the virtual deck. If you shuffle a playlist or your library, you might just get lucky and hear exactly what you want to hear with the added satisfaction of not knowing it was coming.
It’s also just easier. “By removing the need for choice, yet guaranteeing familiarity, it relieves you of the burden of desire itself,” Simon Reynolds wrote of the shuffle function in his book Retromania. The logical extreme of shuffle-as-innovation came with 2005’s iPod Shuffle, Apple’s budget MP3 player, which (despite its name) by default played all of a user’s music in order or shuffle because it had no screen and thus the ability to allow a user to select what music it would play.
The introduction of the idea that media consumption can be both personal and passive had huge ripple effects. In the wake of the Napster era and its promises of a vast, totally unique music library, Pandora effectively invented the idea of individualized radio, promising the ultimate “shuffle” experience with technology that has since been used with great success by streaming services aimed at getting people to listen. Spotify, Apple Music and their ilk offer both the promise of that Napster-scale range and the convenience of Pandora. You could find anything, they suggest, but why not click this button and we’ll find it for you?
As a result, increasingly precise and invasive algorithms have crept in under the relatively innocuous umbrella of “randomness”.
As a result, increasingly precise and invasive algorithms have crept in under the relatively innocuous umbrella of “randomness,” feeding us not just songs without context, but information of every possible variety that is both novel and tells us what we want to hear—usually to make us buy something. Our social media timelines and YouTube feeds and video streaming services all use the conceit, if not the science, of shuffle and randomness to make us watch and listen, consume without figuring out what to consume.
“It’s fundamentally based on the idea that there’s no end,” Lison says. “Even though that is obvious, there is no end that any of us will ever reach.” With all this choice, freedom of choice and, more importantly, having the time to choose is first and foremost a luxury.
When it first integrated the play and shuffle button, Spotify moved in line with what the stats no doubt showed – that about 35 years after the introduction of the shuffle button, people preferred to play that way. listen. For their purposes, shuffling an album made the shift from the album itself to the algorithmically determined songs that Spotify plays immediately afterwards more seamless (and harder to notice). The true(r) randomness and the algorithmically driven faux-randomness became one, further blurring the lines between the randomness you choose and the “randomness” you don’t choose.
But whatever Adele’s complaints were, the problem with the shuffle standard wasn’t really that albums should be sacrosanct — they had, at most, a half-century of music consumption. It’s that information in itself isn’t as valuable or costly as the ability to control how you take it. We’ve given the reins to Spotify and its competitors in exchange for an entire universe of songs, and now we’re begging (and paying) to take back some semblance of control.