ISMIR 2019 and Human-Centric MIR

I had the pleasure of attending ISMIR properly for the first time in its 20 years of bringing together music technology specialists. Through the main meeting and satellite events ran a theme of how these systems for interpreting, organising, and generating musical materials impact our musical cultures. Whether or not researchers are worried about the ethical dimensions of their work, these need considering.

This issues was a fixture of the first workshop on Designing Human-Centric MIR Systems, where I presented on a talk titled Human Subtracted: Social Distortion of Music Technology (slides, extended abstract).

The social functions of music have been broken by successive music technology advances, bringing us to the current “boundless surfeit of music” (Schoenberg) navigated with only the faintest traces of common interests retained in personalised music recommendation systems. This paper recounts the desocialisation of music through sound recording, private listening, and automated recommendation, and considers the consequences of music’s persistent cultural and interpersonal power through this changing use.

This workshop featured a number of contributions on the impacts and opportunities of recommendation systems for music, and I recommend anyone interested in this issue check out the proceedings.

MIR for good was also a project at this year’s WiMIR event, a sort of mini-hackathon designed to encourage greater engagement by women in the field with hands on projects, opportunities to find mentorships, and other activities. One group started a working document to discuss ethical guidelines for information research in music. (I played with Eurovision music with Ashley Burguyone and others. Check out Tom Collins’ interactive plots of songs past ordered by key audio features. Yes you can play the tunes!)

The next afternoon had a fantastic tutorial on Fairness, Accountability and Transparency in MIR. The talks brought in issues learned from machine learning systems in other parts of life and discussed how these play out with music. We picked up scenarios where music information determines access, opportunity, financial compensation, and the interests of minority communities. It was a good time that raised many more questions than we could answer.

And during the conference proper, this question of ethics and good practice for MIR came up again in the keynote by Georgina Born called MIR redux: Knowledge and real-world challenges, and new interdisciplinary futures. The abstract:

How can MIR refresh itself and its endeavors, scholarly and real world? I speak as an outsider, and it is foolhardy to advise scientist colleagues whose methodologies one would be hard pressed to follow! Nonetheless, my question points in two directions: first, to two areas of auto-critique that have emerged within the MIR community – to do with the status of the knowledge produced, and ethical and social concerns. One theme that unites them is interdisciplinarity: how MIR would gain from closer dialogues with musicology, ethnomusicology, music sociology, and science and technology studies in music. Second, the ‘refresh’ might address MIR’s pursuit of scientific research oriented to technological innovation, itself invariably tied to the drive for economic growth. The burgeoning criticisms of the FAANG corporations and attendant concerns about sustainable economies remind us of the urgent need for other values to guide science and engineering. We might ask: what would computational genre recognition or music recommendation look like if, under public-cultural or non-profit imperatives, the incentives driving them aimed to optimise imaginative and cultural self- and/or group development, adhering not to a logic of ‘similarity’ but diversity, or explored the socio-musical potentials of music discovery, linked to goals of human flourishing (Nussbaum 2003, Hesmondhalgh 2013)? The time is ripe for intensive and sustained interdisciplinary engagements in ways previously unseen. My keynote ends by inviting action: a think tank to take this forward.

Go watch it. It was really good!

Around all the other research topics at this conference, the question of how to do MIR well, to do this work without causing harm, was never far from my mind. And I expect it will continue to echo as we prepares to host the next ISMIR next year in Montreal.

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