Active Data: From Sheet Music to Spotify

“If humans, instead of transmitting to each other reprints and complicated explanations, developed the habit of transmitting computer programs allowing a computer directed factory to construct the machine needed for a particular purpose, that would be the closest analogue to the communication methods among cells.”

Mathematician Nils Barricelli wrote this in 1985. This cellular process of communication is now normalized with computers. As George Dyson put it, “much of the communication between computers is not passive data, but active instructions to construct specific machines, as needed, on the remote host.” Music is a part of this stream of active data.

When we download Spotify we are given active instructions for our computer to construct the program. Once it is downloaded, this line of communication remains. It has to, otherwise we will not be able to access any songs. Spotify needs an Internet connection for this reason. That is, it needs a connection to access active data.

What is fascinating about this active data is that it is a far cry from our reprints and complicated explanations of before. Sure, sheet music is active data when one is performing from it: instructions to a human to construct specific soundscapes. However, this is a different type of active when compared to computers. If it were to be active in the same way, sheet music would have to be able to construct an instrument and then play it, performing music from other sheet music it could access via a database similar to the Internet.

Are we not living in the continual evolution of active data?

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