A Beautiful Love Triangle: iTunes, Starbucks, and AT&T

Sometimes you can’t help but admire the grace of a simple but effective  solution, especially when it involves a massive implementation of technology, extensive corporate partnerships, and the three modern survival essentials:  internet, music, and coffee.

 Apple, AT&T, and Starbucks have teamed up to deliver the ultimate in consumer contextualization. Using the available wireless internet connection in a Starbucks, you can purchase the song you’re hearing in the store at that moment within a few clicks in iTunes. Geared mainly for iPhone and iPod, the service also works in iTunes on a Mac or PC.

I heard about this back when it was first announced last year, but now the rollout has begun.

On his 3screens.net blog, Alan Weinkrantz shared some video footage of one of the very first implementations in a Starbucks in San Antonio, Texas. It’s a fascinating glimpse at a natural evolution our technology-based culture. I’ve embedded his first video here:

Of course, technological achievement aside, what does this evolution mean to us as a culture? We’ve all heard an unknown song playing somewhere, somplace, liked it, and wondered what it was; we wanted to take it with us, even. But there was a sense beauty in the uncertainty and ephemerality of that moment. To leave the song behind was poignant, but doing so helped maintain the purity of that experience.

Now, with this new system, won’t music we hear in Starbucks seem all the more commercial? Isn’t it robbing our lives of the wonderous sense of serendipity that can be so revelatory?

No doubt, through the study of demographics, foot traffic patterns, internet traffic patterns, music purchasing and listening patterns, and coffee drinking habits, the system will be carefully tuned to present music that’s statistically more likely to prompt us to whip out our iPhones and click the “buy” button. Perhaps we’ll even be more likely to purchase a pastry?

After all, when the vast amount of data about us that these corporations collect is amassed and analyzed, they might know what song we want to hear right now better than we do ourselves.

But what about the song I don’t necessarily want to hear, which might just accidentally introduce me to a new sound I’ve never before experienced, or help me understand this moment from a perspective I might not otherwise have had? Isn’t this new system robbing us of one of the wonderous joys of music, which is discovery? 

On the other hand, it might offer up some interesting opportunities for flash mobs. Say you get a group of your most fervent Sinatra-loving buddies to converge on a particular Starbucks simultaneously with their iPhones. Will the system’s analysis engine go into overdrive and suddenly start piping the Chairman of the Board out of the sound system?

It’s an interesting concept to keep in mind: even as technology builds a system that is designed to hijack our collective atmosphere and environment, there’s always a way to hack and jam it.