DJ Spooky at NYU Abu Dhabi hackathon: how data can be used for good

The composer, multidisciplinary artist and author will perform and deliver a talk on how technology can be best used as a problem-solving tool

Paul D Miller, aka DJ Spooky, draws parallels between data and music. Photo: NYUAD
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For Paul D Miller, the online world is catching up with the DJ mindset.

The composer, multimedia artist and writer, who is known professionally as DJ Spooky, says there is a great deal in common between data and music, and how algorithms and DJs deal with them. The similarities, he says, have become all the more apparent as we move further into a data-driven society.

Algorithms are the internet’s DJs, collecting, sorting and acting upon our likes, dislikes, and tastes. While this is literally true in the case of our tailored Spotify and Apple Music playlists, Miller says the wider uses of algorithms in social media can also be viewed as such.

“DJs are collectors of experiences, collectors of sounds,” he tells The National ahead of his talk on Friday at the 10th New York University Abu Dhabi Hackathon for Social Good in the Arab World.

Running until Friday, the three-day event is being held this year with a focus on quantum computing.

“People don't realise how much work it takes to put together a DJ mix. For example, you're collecting, you're listening, you're going through many files, different formats, analogue, digital, you name it," says Miller. "The world is catching up. Not just with collecting vinyl, which made a comeback right before the pandemic, but also with the psychology of these massive streams of information.”

However, he does note that while a DJ will likely stop when the party’s over, apps are programmed as “addiction engines”, with algorithms designed to keep you engaged.

“Whether you look at Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Spotify, the more you engage the medium, the more the algorithms create a very fine-tuned portrait of you and your tastes, which DJing is like.”

Like music, data is also prone to being altered, sampled and curated, Miller says. He brings up the Russian invasion of Ukraine as an example.

They shut off Instagram in Russia, and Russia has a very flamboyant culture for Instagram. Like Instagram influencers there are huge,” he says. “They shut down Instagram because the Russians were getting all these memes.

“The Ukrainians were putting information about the war over Instagram, TikTok, you name it. Meanwhile, people in Russia [who were receiving information just from the state] were getting a totally different stream of information, and they were shut down. So you want to talk about a remix? That’s a remix!”

This fascination with how stories have become data-driven is at the heart of Miller’s coming book Digital Fiction: The Future of Storytelling. Previously the author of three titles, Miller says the book goes through the history of storytelling and the idea of how information and the structure of the self is the narrative. It will also look at how data is used for surveillance, authoritarian control, and in capitalism, the extraction of resources.

Still, Miller "firmly" believes that data can be used for good.

“What I’m going to be talking [about] at the Hackathon is how do we reverse engineer some of these issues that linger over [the] creative economy. How do we make the world a better place?”

“We need better tools for thinking of a 21st-century approach to problem-solving,” he says. “Right now, we're at a crossroads where computers have been used by large corporations and major nation-states in a way that doesn't enable people to be more creative. One could argue that people have been made more passive, and they're just accepting the data that surrounds them.”

Miller says he is a big believer in hackathons, as it encourages people to just "roll up their sleeves and dig into things.”

“The DJ and the hacker have a kind of similar approach. People who don’t just want to press play, they want to pull the whole thing apart.”

Miller has long been at the cutting edge of where music and technology cross.

Thirteen years before Kanye West made headlines for limiting the release of his Donda 2 album exclusively on his hand-held audio remix device, the Stem Player, Miller had released part of his 2009 album The Secret Song on the remix app DJ Player, allowing listeners to manipulate the tracks in a myriad of ways.

In 2012, he collaborated with Musicsoft Arts to release the DJ Spooky DJ App, which lets you use an iPhone or iPod to mix tracks.

“We had some of the first apps to optimise for mobile media. That caught a huge wave. It was much bigger than we expected,” he says. “We had the first DJ app launch in the App store in SoHo. There was a huge line just to demo the app.”

Today, DJ apps are abundant, but DJ Spooky’s app was revolutionary at the time, and set a benchmark for music remixing apps.

“We have millions of downloads,” he says. “But we got copied a lot. It was fascinating to see that ... I mean, I'm a big fan of creative copying and creative appropriation. It’s all good.”

The NYUAD Hackathon for Social Good in the Arab World runs until April 1 at NYU Abu Dhabi. Entry is by invitation only. More information is available at nyuad.nyu.edu

Updated: March 31, 2022, 9:32 AM