“If you could listen to your DNA, what would it sound like?” With this question, Ancestry.com, the largest for-profit genealogy company in the world, announced its new partnership with music streaming platform Spotify. This service, a website explains, will provide a soundtrack based on your own family tree. These playlists promise an experience of roots, as though musical appreciation were genetically encoded. This offer — to effectively objectify a customer’s heritage for consumption — projects the predictive, user-friendly texture of online consumership both into the body and back in time.
This may look like one custom service among many available online. But its particular proposal — to listen to DNA — is built on an unruly stack of assumptions. At the most fundamental level, there is the question of what kind of information DNA actually contains — as though one could be 39% English, 21% Native American, 9% Russian, and these separate percentiles of ethnic belonging would make up a full human being. While Ancestry.com has clarified that all information about one’s ancestry must be manually entered into Spotify, and that none of a user’s DNA data is shared across platforms, everything in their marketing is intended to suggest a direct link between genetic code and canny algorithm.
What gives music special purchase on the genetic imagination? There may be no human behavior as general as the appreciation, and creation, of music. This practice, of the organization and sharing of sound, is intrinsically social, fusing cultural groups and groups within groups, in virtually every society on earth. While not every culture marks something called “music” apart from daily life as a separate sphere of activity, let alone as a discrete commodity, it appears to be something that “we” as people do.
This generality is less comforting against the backdrop of big data, and the fabric of monopolistic services that we use online everyday. In this landscape, all expressive activity is mined for private gain — or more nefarious purposes. It turns out that Ancestry.com’s pairing with Spotify is the less alarming of their partnerships announced this summer. In July 2018, Vice reported that the information gathered by the website was being used by the Canadian Border Services Agency to facilitate deportations. Spotify, too, collects immense amounts of demographic data from its 15 million subscribers, and the pairing of these data-extractive behemoths suggests a dystopic near-future of integrated consumer surveillance.