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Not a Dataman, I’m a Data, Man


This week when Jay-Z released his latest album, Magna Carta Holy Grail, in the form of an Android app for Samsung Galaxy phones, most of the critical attention has focused on how atrocious the album is artistically, and how grotesquely and uninterestingly materialistic it is, even by rap standards. I don’t think these critiques would have levied so harshly had Jay-Z put out an album in stores. As I’ve written in this column space I afford myself before, there are literally dozens of people out there who will tie themselves in knots to make the most utterly insipid pop bullshit interesting, often rewarding artists who make aesthetically bad music for “challenging” its audience. There’s something about the distribution of the album that rubs listeners the wrong way, and I think that’s worth parsing apart a bit more.

I’ve been reading Jaron Lanier’s latest, Who Owns The Future?, and I recommend it to anyone who uses the Internet a lot (i.e., anyone reading this, I’m guessing). It reframes rising income inequality and the crash of 2008 as issues that arose from the rise of digital networks, and warns that more is to come. Lanier’s argument is this: because we have chosen to have nearly all information be free, we feed data into large servers that then turn this data into something valuable while masking the human inputs, offering “automation” or “intelligence” that is actually big data puppetry. Google Translate, to use one of his examples, doesn’t know how to translate Polish to Spanish, but other people have posted enough information online to allow it to approximate the translation. This happens again everywhere on the Internet, and right now it’s perceived as a good thing — Google Translate is great, right? His fear, which I find compelling, is that many more ordinarily human tasks will eventually become the province of software or digital networks. The Teamsters, he believes, will eventually be “Napsterized” by self-driving cars. Paralegals might face the same fate, even college professors.

This all sounds far-fetched, but to bolster his case, he repeatedly points back to the music industry. In our lifetime, we watched that industry get totally hollowed out by the widespread introduction of servers. The trade in songs that supported so many middle-class careers was brought low as soon as those songs could be moved across digital networks for free. Now, wealth that might have gone to musicians goes to Google, Apple, or — more often than not — no one at all. Those who get themselves closest to the top of the data pyramid, in Lanier’s formulation, are those who can gather the most wealth these days. Normally, the dollars that used to go from your pocket to Jay-Z’s (and his label, producers, Sam Goody, etc) now go to Apple (if you buy from the iTunes store, and of course Jay-Z gets money in that transaction, too, but the point is a server-owning company is in on the take, not the music industry as such) or no one in the case of an illegal download (but in this case Google might earn some money off the knowledge that you like Jay-Z, and if you tell your Facebook friends that you like Jay-Z, then Facebook might gain a more complete picture of what Jay-Z-likers like, and make some money off that, etc, etc). And with MCHG, Samsung gets some of the money — but that’s not all they got in the transaction.

Now here’s where we must consider the most curious aspect of Jay-Z’s Magna Carta Holy Grail Android app: it made some aggressive data requests. Specifically, it asked to see who you talk to on your phone and where you go (your GPS location). I don’t know a tremendous amount about smartphones, or app permissions, but from what I’ve read on tech blogs they were asking for an unusual amount of data. Samsung reportedly gave Jay-Z $5 million to give the app away to one million people.

Now consider the three-way trade that has been done here. Jay-Z gets paid directly for his music in a way that wouldn’t be quite so likely if he had to rely on traditional record sales and “traditional” digital downloads. You, the listener, get free (or almost-free) music, which is what you’re used to at this point. It’s a frictionless transaction, to borrow a Silicon Valleyism. And Samsung — which is not a cellular provider and would therefore not normally have access to this, I don’t think — gets some of that raw uncut data, which is all anybody wants anymore.

A quick note about the mobile market: it is considered a huge deal for marketers and advertisers. People all the sudden walking around with little computers that tell you where they are all the time and how they spend money — think about how aggressively “mobile wallets” have been pushed in recent years — it’s easy to see why it’s considered so important. Business Insider, whatever you think of them, launched BI Intelligence, its only subscription-based service, strictly to publish reports on the mobile market. And, according to Pew data, young black and Latino people, are far more likely to use a mobile device to access the web than any other demographic. And if I recall, these demographic groups also strongly prefer Android phones. This is their main point of contact with online marketers, and it will be valuable to know more about them should anyone wish to properly target them with advertisements based on data gathered by spying on them in the future.

(Now, here’s the big, important caveat for the Tumblr crowd: yes, of course, people of all colors and creeds like Jay-Z. I get that. I’m encouraging you to think cynically, like a marketer, here. A Jay-Z record will help capture more data about these hard-to-capture demographics than, say, a Radiohead record.)

Jay-Z, in this scheme, is just a pawn — the means for a “Siren Server,” to use Lanier’s term, working for a massive cellphone company, to learn more about a valuable, and, I suspect, often misunderstood or underestimated market. If the deal was inked before the album was made, then the album, in this formulation, was a mere Trojan horse. Could this help explain why it’s so bad? 

Jay-Z’s ability to continue making large quantities of money from bad rap music has been diminished over the last decade, as he’s diversified his business empire to include a clothing line (Coc-a-Wear) and a partnership with Brooklyn development interests (The Nets), among other things. This partnership with Samsung, if Lanier’s framework is at all useful to understand it**, is savvy — Jay gets that he won’t get paid for music directly anymore, but that there is something else of value he might give to people who have money — but it strikes me as deeply dishonest.

*This is a problem I seem to have.

**Like the McRib and other things I tend to see big conspiracies ulterior motives in, it could very well be that Jay-Z’s record is just a marketing stunt. But I do suspect that we can’t explain away the data requests so easily.

  1. monkeyajb reblogged this from willystaley
  2. nyquil510 reblogged this from willystaley and added:
    an excellent post
  3. wikipetera reblogged this from willystaley and added:
    read all of this the internet is not a good thing
  4. slaneofthought reblogged this from celebraterickysargulesh and added:
    Great writeup of an issue people probably haven’t unpacked sufficiently. Those frictionless transactions? They’re...
  5. abbyjean reblogged this from tomewing and added:
    ???????? indeed.
  6. tomewing reblogged this from blackbeardblog and added:
    I used my work blog to talk about my take (as someone working w/data) on the “Jay-Z is data mining you” thing. Short...