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Progress Playlist

Many years ago, one of my mother’s oldest family friends lived with me and my then-partner. When we would take her for drives into the rolling Northern California foothills, she would gaze at new buildings being constructed and at the growing number of big, expensive cars on the freeway and she would smile. “Ah, progress,” she would say happily, while the two of us lamented the hewing of old oaks to make room for new strip malls. She was in her 90s at the time, and marveled at what had happened in her lifetime, going “from the covered wagon to the moon,” as she put it. And truthfully, that perspective helped me to see that it wasn’t all bad.

But even though I don’t want to sound like an old woman yelling at kids to “get off of my lawn,” I’m not a big fan of progress for progress’ sake. Scientific research focused on saving lives is great, but it often seems like we go too far with most technology. I almost always agree with social media users, for example, who worry about the invasive technology of different platforms. The other day, someone I follow wrote that she just “thought” about a particular clothing item and immediately started seeing ads for it on her feed. I’m right there with you, I think, when it comes to algorithms that seem like they’re making their way into my brain. But recently, I've appreciated this technology just a little more.

Once in a while, some piece of what’s possible—in this case, a computer-generated soundtrack of my experiences—finds its way into my life and I like it.

Last year, on a long car trip, I discovered online music-streaming programs on my phone. As part of our entertainment, I would find whatever songs one of the four of us requested and then play them on the Bluetooth system of the rental car. It was lovely and fun and a great way to pass the time. Now that same music system makes playlists for me, based on those songs. It’s possible that I have never loved anything more. Even in the midst of 2020, Covid-19 and all, I can go to the current list it has created, based on my “likes,” and it can carry me to some other time and place—all meaningful to me in some way.

Even the other day when it played “The Crystal Ship,” by The Doors, I was instantly carried to the July before my junior year in high school. I can remember spending almost every evening hanging out in Suzie Harris’ garage that summer, while her older brother and his friends, much cooler than I figured I’d ever be, played pool. That song cut through the tension of that summer—me learning how to be a person in the world, despite the awkwardness of being 16. And these boys, all doing everything they could to avoid being drafted and sent to Vietnam. At least a few of them slipped through and not all of them returned. On some level, I never want to forget that summer, and music is sometimes a softer way to remember. It's always like that for me.

Running one still-cold morning this week with my headphones on, and, out of the blue, Bonnie Raitt is singing “Thing Called Love.” I am immediately transported to the summer I collected my tiny apartment’s worth of furniture and moved into the first house I bought with my own money. My mother had died the year before and it was bittersweet to be a grown-up in this new way without her. I hung sheets on the living room window the first night, and I felt so overwhelmed by the prospect of this much responsibility that I almost called my old landlord to see if she’d let me move back to that apartment. All of that came rushing back, from just one cut on Raitt's Nick of Time album. I bought my first good stereo in that house, replacing the tiny “boom box” I’d had in the apartment. In the end, of course, I survived being a grown-up and owning houses and being responsible, even when I didn’t want to. Today, Bonnie Raitt reminds me of how I found my way on that road.

So much of our connection with each other depends on our senses. In the way that smelling breakfast cooking or the perfume of the first girl I loved can carry me to another time, hearing particular music does it too. It’s clear that media-streaming companies know this about me, and I am happy to pay a few bucks a month to hear song after song so I can remember a long-forgotten person or moment or period of time in my life. I used to have to do it myself. When I first discovered the power of music, I played Beach Boys 45s stacked on my older brother’s record player—“Fun, Fun, Fun” over and over again, while I practiced dancing in front of the full-length mirror on the back of our bathroom door. I was sure then that dancing was something I would never master and would, naturally, become a social pariah. I'm not fabulous at it today, but I attribute whatever skill I do have to those early sessions.

I get it that high-tech advancements have the potential to change our lives and our connection to each other. But once in a while, some piece of what’s possible—in this case, a computer-generated soundtrack of my experiences—finds its way into my life and I like it. It’s a way of using technological progress to appreciate my own personal progress. I think that if it lets a woman of a certain age relive a long-ago moment in which she had no idea where the road was headed, it can’t be all bad.

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