Recently it seems like my iPod — when playing in Shuffle mode — displays an increasing ability to organize songs thematically. For example, while driving home during a thunderstorm, the iPod “randomly” plays a string of songs about rain (Love Reign O’er Me — both The Who and Pearl Jam versions, Somewhere Over the Rainbow by Israel Kamakawiwo’olé, etc.).
Some iPod users have claimed, almost since the first generation iPods rolled off the assembly line, that the iPod Shuffle mode was less than 100% random. The New York Times had an article about the perceived lack of randomness back in 2004. And iPod discussion boards have chattered about the phenomena since at least 2002. I used to laugh at those users and their theories about iPods loaded with learning algorithms, but lately I’m not so sure.
My iPod library currently contains well over 1,000 songs and while I initially rarely used the shuffle mode, in the last six months I’ve increasingly begun to sit back and let shuffle mode take over. The first thing that I noticed was that my iPod seemed to have an affinity for playing The Doors. Out of all the albums on my iPod, I have one Doors album (American Prayer) and don’t believe I’ve ever consciously played that album on the iPod. Yet whenever I launch shuffle mode, the iPod inevitably plays a Doors song within the first few songs. Not exactly random.
The standard explanation for this phenomena, according to Apple, psychologists and others, is that shuffle mode truly is random, but human brains are hardwired to find patterns in data (including in a series of random songs) and hence our brains will make connections between any random songs played one after the other. (This is the same explanation for why Percival Lowell saw canals while looking at the random natural markings on the surface of Mars, and why others today see faces in randomly sculpted Martian hills. Or the Virgin Mary’s face in a piece of burnt toast.) My brain accepts this explanation, at least until the next time I’m listening to my iPod and The Doors start to play again.