Register Sunday | June 16 | 2019

Reading Your Shuffle

With iPods now endemic, we look to them for our destiny

I recently found out that my iPod has a random shuffle feature. Because I have one of the first-generation pods that is made out of rocks and sticks, I thought I couldn't shuffle at all. But I can! And now I know what the hell everyone's talking about when they gush about the whimsical delight of pod randomization. Here's the thing, though (and this is coming from someone who now knows both sides of the issue)-like the storylines of your dreams or your breakthroughs in therapy, the wacky, stochastic choices of your little box are interesting only to you.

Which isn't to say that they aren't interesting. As has been documented ad nauseam, the choices "shuffle" makes for you can be beautifully serendipitous, perfectly reflecting the mood of a particular time and place in a way that would be impossible if were you choosing for yourself. iPod can make jokes, cueing up "Fat Bottomed Girls" as you pass by the donut cart. iPod can shame you by blaring Coldplay or Kelly Clarkson (or whatever your guilty pleasure is) at dinner parties. But this relationship that you develop with your iPod's shuffle-brain is only endlessly fascinating to you. Not everybody realizes that, to other people, it's all about as interesting as listening to new parents parse the meaning of their child's particular drooling style.

I know what you're thinking-what about "Random Rules," the wonderful Onion feature where a famous person puts their iPod on shuffle and talks about the first five songs. Isn't that interesting? Good question. "Random Rules" is indeed a fun little article. If you weren't really thinking about it, you might even consider the entertaining-ness of "Random Rules" as evidence that you should participate in the "Random Ten" blog meme yourself. You would be wrong though-"Random Rules" is interesting not because of the shuffling, but because of the celebrity. Perhaps you haven't noticed, but celebrities are endlessly fascinating. "Brangelina's Weird-Shaped Bagel" or "George Clooney's TiVo Settings: Revealed!" could easily make the cover of US Weekly or OK! Even smart people like me (and presumably you) are entranced by the minutiae of the lives of famous people. The point is, if you're a famous person, please feel free to prattle on about your random song generator. Otherwise, shut up.

After several years of listening to people talk about their shuffles, reading about shuffles in the newspaper and on blogs, and then finally experiencing shuffling for myself, I've come to the conclusion that shuffle discussions are like weddings. It's like lavishing a couple with gifts and parties and pretending that they are accomplishing some incredible human endeavour by agreeing to commit to each other-by feigning interest, you are, in reality, purchasing the right to expect the same treatment when it is your turn. Which makes sense-that's how society works. I pretend to be interested in you, you pretend to be interested in me and we both go home pleased at how interesting we all are. But what is it that is so fascinating about our random song selections?

That's what I could never wrap my brain around before my shuffle discovery, but now I get it-no matter how scienced-up we are, we will always have a biological need to look for meaning in coincidence. Not to get all Stevie Nicks on you, but it's like looking for the magic beneath the surface of things. Shuffle seems to know you so well that it can predict the future. It can tell you about yourself, both in a superficial way-here are the songs that you like, here are the things you have chosen-and in another, more secret way. I start off every morning with a walk to the subway on shuffle and I've gotten superstitious. A bad song could be an evil portend, a warning that work is going to suck today. If shuffle happens to grab a song I just wanted to hear, I'm awed. Shuffle is a modern cup of tea leaves or deck of tarot cards-you can read into your playlist what you want and only remember the times when shuffle does something extraordinary.

It's the shameful hope that the iPod can connect us to something secret which fascinates us, I think. It's related to our urban obsession with hidden clubs and secret restaurants, alleys and unmarked doors. It's the idea that even if you don't believe in any of that religious crappy new-age junk, there might still be a hidden world out there that you can discover. It's not just iPods of course-everyone has their own superstitions. Whether it's hitting all the lights or making the early train or getting to the bakery in time to get a warm bagel, I think most people have some sort of odd litmus test for the way the day is going to play out-something to foretell the events of the near future.

Even for bigger life decisions, we have some lizard-brain drive to find our answers externally. People look for "signs" when trying to make big decisions-some can trace an important life path back to the toss of a coin. In a world where a drive for wealth has replaced a drive for piety, we want our things to tell us about ourselves. What could be more revealing than a couple of gigs of your favourite songs, thrown back at you in a mysteriously random/non-random order?

Typing it out, it sounds stupid, and yet I know that tomorrow morning, if it's sunny and my pod puts on the Reigning Sound, it's going to be a good day. Maybe, when filling up my iPod, I should worry less about what shuffle will say about me at dinner parties and worry more about what it's telling me about myself.