Apple Inc. CEO Steve Jobs, considered a genius in a great many circles, may have felt like he was trotting out his algorithmic equivalent when he introduced the latest iTunes feature in San Francisco on Tuesday (Sept. 9).
The feature, Genius, part of the now available iTunes 8, creates playlists of songs from within a user's music library that "go great together." Genius anonymously sends information from your music library to the iTunes store and uses Apple-developed algorithms to combine it with the information from millions of other iTunes users to spit out a 25-, 50-, 75- or 100-song list of tunes.
In a sense, this a bit like having Jobs himselfwith his oodles of brain power, world-renowned marketing savvy and da Vinci-like penchant for creating exceptional thingsflip through your music collection and make you a mix tape.
The best part of the new feature is the Genius sidebar, which (you saw this one coming) shows up in iTunes to make suggestions about songs and albums that you don't already own but ought to, based on your library and listening behavior.
Not that there is anything sinister about Genius. It's an opt-in feature; you can choose not to use it and go about your business in complete ignorance of what Apple and other iTunes users thing you should be listening to and buying. Genius also keeps your information anonymous, which Jobs emphasized Tuesday in what appeared to be a conscious effort to to head off any Big Brother-type criticism.
Even the Genius sidebarwhich is Apple, the No. 1 music distributor in the U.S., attempting to sell more musicisn't bad when you consider that Amazon.com has been recommending books to you for years and likely knows more about your reading tastes than any friend or family member.
What is good advertising but a suggestion that you buy something, accompanied by a strong prediction that you will like it? In that sense, the Genius sidebar and Amazon are a little more up front about their intentions then, say, a soda commercial.
And, of course, we all know that there is something to be said for the wisdom of crowds. We are all duly impressed with the uncanny, if useless, ability of a group of people to accurately deduce something like the number of jelly beans in a jar or the weight of an ox. It's a fascinating concept.
But there is something about the wisdom of crowds as applied to musical taste that is downright scary. The wisdom of crowds made Britney Spears an international recording star with tens of millions of albums sold. The wisdom of crowds keeps performers like Michael Bolton and Kid Rock rolling along. The wisdom of crowds gave us "Ice, Ice Baby" and the Macarena.
Maybe you want to save yourself the effort of deciding what to listen to. Or perhaps you like to enjoy your own favorites and discover new music on your own, independent of what the millions of other iTune users listen to.
Perhaps you just think different.