We recently decided to let our son take our 1993 Toyota Corolla, (amazing old car with only 95,000 miles), off to college. But before he left he surprised me with a request. He wanted to see what it would take to install a CD Player in the car. The car still has its original sound system: 4 crappy speakers, AM/FM radio and a non-working cassette player. So my immediate question was “Why a CD player”? Wouldn’t you want something more up to date, like an auxiliary jack so you can plug in iTunes from your phone?. No, he said, that was the problem. He didn’t want to have iTunes available, he expressly wanted to be able to use CD’s. And therein lies a tale of abundance and curation.
Turns out that there’s a problem with his use experience for music players in cars. Whenever he’s been driving with friends, even over the shortest of distances, the first thing that happens is a race for someone to plug their device into the car audio. Not only that, but as soon as that person’s first selection is done, someone else immediately demands to put his or her track on, or grabs his phone to look for their favorite track or asks him plug in their music player so they can play it. What bothers him the most about this is that it quickly degenerates into a completely dysfunctional music experience. (I did point out that there's also a bit of a safety issue, but I'm just the parent). So the real problem is that while he doesn’t mind listening to multiple music sources at times, in this case he’d really like it if he and his friends could focus one single coherent stream of music instead of jumping all over the place.
So out of desperation he decided to turn the clock back 30 years to CD's. Why CD's? It’s really all about curation and control. The plan is: Buy a few hundred CD’s, rip them with full albums of artists he likes, (and maybe a few mixes), and then have them available as the only music source in the car. The rationale? First, if all the car has is a CD player, the only thing that can be played are CD’s. Second, once a CD is cued up and playing it become very difficult to make instant switches to other artists or songs. Finally, and most importantly, he can now create the kind of user experience he really wants: Listening to a single coherent stream of music without constant interruption and perhaps to impress his friends with some interesting mixes.
I’m regularly fascinated by the way we are constantly cobbling together tools to try and curate the digital abundance surrounding us. What I really love about this scenario is it’s retro aspects. Its all about making an overall user experience better by going back to an older technology and making it more difficult. It feels very much like some of the strategies we’ve all seen, and used, to avoid the multitasking: Software that locks you out of your browser, shutting down your email client or setting alarms to focus your time for an hour as I did when I started writing this blog.
In a way this is all about one of my favorite Clay Shirky’s quotes: “Its not information overload its filter failure”, but taken deeper and into more specific context. In this case we start with the obvious abundant overload of music, but in this case the technology, specifically music players, cause the filter failure by allowing filters to get mixed and delivering an experience that, for him, is less about choice and more about dissonance. So even though our devices allow us to access and filter better than we had ever imagined, when we combine our filtering capability in this particular instance we get filter failure. Generally the usual answer for filter failure is to design a better filter, but in this case the solution is an inelegant opposite. By rolling back to an older, more difficult, technology he ends up with a filter that forces less choice, and perhaps a better experience.