The mixed-up history of the shuffle button
A couple years ago, Adele had a complaint about Spotify. Her complaint was not about the miserly rates at which it compensates musicians, the monopolistic stranglehold it has on the music industry, or the misinformation-spewing podcast hosts that it employs. No, she had a gripe with the shuffle feature.
“Our art tells a story and our stories should be listened to as we intended,” Adele tweeted shortly after the release of her album 30, a release so massive that almost no one could escape its story even if they would like to. In 2020, Spotify began to automatically shuffle albums for all listeners instead of playing them in assigned order. But Adele’s wish proved to be Spotify’s command, and the company removed its auto-shuffle function, but for premium users only. What had once been a feature was now a bug, one you had to pay to override.
Shuffle or random playback, to use the more precise term that predates the contemporary “shuffle button,” has its roots in a core element of computing: automating randomness, a feat that is technically impossible. The only true randomness, where there’s “an equal chance of X or Y happening at the quantum level” as Andrew Lison, an assistant professor of media studies at the University at Buffalo, puts it, is found in things like atomic decay — natural phenomena that cannot (at this point, at least) be fully replicated by a computer. You would need to incorporate quantum physics for the shuffle button to be truly random.
You would need to incorporate quantum physics for the shuffle button to be truly random
Instead, computer scientists have long since faked it, settling for pseudo-randomness, which allows for information to be accessed in a rapid, nonlinear fashion. It’s almost like the first step in creating computers that outsmart us — that generate things without our input and produce things whose causality we can’t trace (without considerable time, effort, and expertise).
It’s not clear who initially decided to integrate that new technology of randomness into music. “In the first Philips player, shuffle was not available…Which company came first? I do not know,” Kees Schouhamer Immink, a pioneering Philips scientist who worked on the earliest CD players, told me by email. But very soon after the frontiers of music consumption shifted from analog to digital with the introduction of those first CD players in 1982, random playback was touted as one of the device’s best features. (There were sophisticated tape players that also had random playback functions by the early ’80s, but every selection had to be preprogrammed by the user — plus, the analog nature of tape playback would make the time between tracks fairly significant.)
“Do the Sony Shuffle!” shouted one 1986 advertisement for the Sony CDP-45. “It makes old CDs new!” But what anticipated the contemporary shuffle experience was the introduction of players that held multiple CDs; rather than just hearing a CD you owned play in an order you couldn’t predict, you could put a few that you liked together and, well, shuffle them, replicating the leanback experience of listening to the radio (or, as was still quite new at that time, a live DJ) without hearing any of the stuff you didn’t like. “Having a Sony CDP-C10 Disc Jockey in your home really is like having your own personal disc jockey,” another advertisement put it. “Ten hours of uninterrupted music enjoyment for hassle-free parties or background music in restaurants or shops.”
The first issue of Wired featured a $12,000 CD player that could hold 100 discs, creating the opportunity for shuffle on steroids and even programmable playback — the digital descendant of the mixtape and ancestor of contemporary playlisting. Playing music at parties or in restaurants was not in itself new, but the idea that it could be personal — completely unique to you — eventually changed everything.
With randomness, there is possibility
Shuffle satisfied the human attraction to novelty and surprise. With randomness, there is possibility: it makes sense, then, that the first literal shuffle buttons were on ’70s-era handheld blackjack games for shuffling the virtual deck. When you put a playlist, or your library, on shuffle, you might get lucky and hear exactly the thing you want to hear with the added satisfaction of not knowing it was coming.
It’s also just easier. “Eliminating the need for choice, yet guaranteeing familiarity, it relieves you of the burden of desire itself,” wrote Simon Reynolds of the shuffle function in his book Retromania. The logical extreme of shuffle-as-innovation came with the 2005 iPod Shuffle, Apple’s budget MP3 player, which (despite its name) would play all a user’s music in order or on shuffle by default because it lacked a screen and thus the capacity for a user to select which music it would play.
The introduction of the idea that media consumption could be both personal and passive had massive ripple effects. In the wake of the Napster era and its promises of a massive, totally unique music library, Pandora effectively invented the idea of individualized radio, promising the ultimate “shuffle” experience with technology that has since been used to great effect by streaming services intent on keeping people listening. Spotify, Apple Music, and their ilk offer both the promise of that Napster-scale range with Pandora’s ease. You could find anything, they suggest, but why not click this button and we’ll find it for you?
As a result, increasingly precise and invasive algorithms have crept in under the comparatively innocuous umbrella of “randomness”
As a result, increasingly precise and invasive algorithms have crept in under the comparatively innocuous umbrella of “randomness,” feeding us not just songs without context but information of every possible variety that is both novel and tells us what we’d like to hear — usually in service of getting us to buy something. Our social media timelines and YouTube feeds and video streaming services all employ the conceit, if not the science, of shuffle and randomness to keep us looking and listening, consuming without going through the work of figuring out what to consume.
“It’s fundamentally premised on the idea that there’s no end,” says Lison. “Even though obviously there is, there’s not an end that any of us will ever reach.” With all this choice, agency and, more importantly, having the time to choose in the first place is a luxury.
When it first integrated the play and shuffle button, Spotify was moving in concert with what its metrics undoubtedly showed — that 35 years or so after the introduction of the shuffle button, people had grown to prefer listening that way. For their purposes, playing an album on shuffle made the shift from the album itself to the algorithmically determined songs that Spotify plays immediately after it more seamless (and harder to notice). The true(ish) randomness and the algorithmically driven faux-randomness became one, further eliding the boundaries between the randomness you choose and the “randomness” you don’t.
But whatever Adele’s complaints, the issue with the shuffle default wasn’t really that albums should be sacred — at most, they had about a half-century as the paragon of music consumption. It’s that now, information itself is not as valuable or costly as the ability to control how you take it in. We’ve handed Spotify and its competitors the reins in exchange for a whole universe of songs, and now we’re stuck begging (and paying) to take back some semblance of control.