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Computing Taste

Algorithms and the Makers of Music Recommendation

Computing Taste

Algorithms and the Makers of Music Recommendation

Meet the people who design the algorithms that capture our musical tastes.
The people who make music recommender systems have lofty goals: they want to broaden listeners’ horizons and help obscure musicians find audiences, taking advantage of the enormous catalogs offered by companies like Spotify, Apple Music, and Pandora. But for their critics, recommender systems seem to embody all the potential harms of algorithms: they flatten culture into numbers, they normalize ever-broadening data collection, and they profile their users for commercial ends. Drawing on years of ethnographic fieldwork, anthropologist Nick Seaver describes how the makers of music recommendation navigate these tensions: how product managers understand their relationship with the users they want to help and to capture; how scientists conceive of listening itself as a kind of data processing; and how engineers imagine the geography of the world of music as a space they care for and control.
Computing Taste rehumanizes the algorithmic systems that shape our world, drawing attention to the people who build and maintain them. In this vividly theorized book, Seaver brings the thinking of programmers into conversation with the discipline of anthropology, opening up the cultural world of computation in a wide-ranging exploration that travels from cosmology to calculation, myth to machine learning, and captivation to care.

216 pages | 7 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2022

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

Computer Science

Culture Studies

History: History of Technology

Music: General Music


“Seaver’s nimble account of how contemporary music recommendation systems are conceived and crafted takes readers beyond easy oppositions of humans and algorithms to explore the captivating dynamics of taste and technics, hearing and computing, guidance and coercion.”

Natasha Dow Schüll, author of "Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas"

Computing Taste tells a fresh story in the increasingly crowded scholarship on artificial intelligence and culture. It will be immensely useful for those outside of computer science and engineering who want to understand how people think and work in the AI industry.”

Jonathan Sterne, author of "Diminished Faculties," "MP3," and "The Audible Past"

"Seaver’s exquisite and essential book brings us into an expert community aspiring to find the delicate balance between caring for and controlling the sprawling phenomenon of taste. The ethnographically engaging Computing Taste offers a complex rendering of the makers of music recommendation systems who believe that algorithms can predict and shape musical taste while also wrestling with the reductive absurdity of such a claim. Seaver’s theoretical creativity both pushes critical studies of technology in new directions and makes this book a joy to read.”

Lisa Messeri, author of "Placing Outer Space: An Earthly Ethnography of Other Worlds"

“Who are the programmers writing the music recommendation recipes that structure so many of our auditory habits in these digital days? How do these new taste makers script listeners into the musical multiverses their algorithms create? Seaver brilliantly tunes us to the cadences of these people’s works and lives, decoding the mix of cosmologies, capital, and computation that channel how and what we hear today.”

Stefan Helmreich, author "Sounding the Limits of Life: Essays in the Anthropology of Biology and Beyond"

“Perhaps there’s no accounting for taste, but as Seaver demonstrates in Computing Taste, his resonant and resourceful ethnography of music recommendation algorithms, musical taste can indeed be counted and coded. By listening to the sociotechnical dynamics of that translation process—the means by which aesthetic, subjective, social, and situational choices are transcribed into human-orchestrated algorithms—Seaver helps us appreciate not only the myriad harmonic parts that music and machines play in our personal and social lives, but also the many modes and contexts in which we listen.”

Shannon Mattern, author of "A City Is Not a Computer: Other Urban Intelligences"

"Streaming music services are the norm today, but people don't often think about how they work or how they recommend the next song. Seaver peeks behind the musical curtain in this book about the humans behind the algorithms. . . . Music lovers and those who like books about artificial intelligence will enjoy Seaver's deep dive into
the culture, data, and science of music recommendation systems. Computing Taste offers insight into algorithmic music recommendations that's entertaining and easily digestible for laypeople."

Library Journal

Table of Contents

Prologue: Open Plan
Introduction: Technology with Humanity
Chapter 1 Too Much Music
Chapter 2 Captivating Algorithms
Chapter 3 What Are Listeners Like?
Chapter 4 Hearing and Counting
Chapter 5 Space Is the Place
Chapter 6 Parks and Recommendation
Epilogue: What Are We Really Doing Here?
Works Cited

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