• Robb G. Best

The Burstiness of Shuffle Mode

When techno wizard Steve Jobs and his crew first brought us the iPod, it came pre-installed with a nifty program called 'shuffle mode.' This, of course, was designed to free your playlist from the monotony of memorized order. (Your brain is really good at identifying and then getting bored with the tedium of pattern. Case in point: those Empire carpet commercials.)

Then the complaint calls started to to flood in. "Hey, my shuffle function is busted," people would say. "What gives?" That's when Apple knew they had a problem.

Was their shiny new gizmo malfunctioning? Hardly; Apple's problem was it was working too well. When a sequence is truly random, anything can happen––up to and including an entire album getting played in order, or a playlist consisting of nothing but Carly Simon's "You're So Vain" fifteen times in a row, followed by "Beat It." Given our pattern-loving brains, it's no surprise people started worrying that maybe their iTunes was trying to tell them something.

The consumer's ability to vote with their feet forced even an iconoclast like Jobs to pay attention. And so Apple redesigned the shuffle mode, which had been truly random, to follow a carefully constructed algorithm that made sure songs did not repeat themselves all that often. In other words, Apple made their random program less random, so as to appear to the average consumer to be more random, which of course made everyone happy, except maybe the Apple engineers.

But it turns out that randomness is tricky business. Even events controlled by mere chance can follow a certain pattern. That pattern is called a power law. In his book Bursts: The Hidden Patterns Behind Everything We Do, from Your E-mail to Bloody Crusades, Albert-László Barabási discusses how "many small events coexist alongside of a few extraordinary large ones." In other words, life is a relative calm occasionally broken up by sudden bursts of activity. This pattern is found in a mind-boggling range of activities: wars, coin flips, the migration pattern of birds, your cell phone dialing, stockbrokers at the exchange, animals foraging for food, human sleep patterns, and a whole lot more. The long unremarkable periods pretty much guarantee that outliers will surface sooner or later. Eventually, a Steve Jobs will burst forth out of the humdrum rest of us.

As you read these words by the light of your computer screen, you're probably surprised to learn that you are in this very moment being driven by a power law. Your email and web activity follow a pattern of relative steady use followed by a sprinkle of what Barabasi would describe as "burstiness."

And it's not just your web routine that shows bursts, but all our collective internet habits. Although humans enjoy the notion of free will, more and more science reveals how bursts are built into the very weave of our life's fabric.

So the next time you tap into your iTunes library, you can thank Mr. Jobs for creating a program that, for a brief period of time, allows us to believe we are the master of the ship, deciding when to make randomness work for us––even though in the end, there is really nothing random about it.


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