The Genius is a new gadget attached to iTunes that is designed to create "smart" playlists at the touch of a button; pick a song from your library and it'll create a playlist made up of songs that fit well with the one you picked. If that sounds familiar, it's because it's precisely the same idea that personalized internet radio (my favorite is Pandora) has been trading on for a few years, with the obvious difference that Pandora and its cousins are capable of creating playlists built on more than one song or genre and that they can play you songs you don't own. Both Genius and Pandora are working on a collective wisdom principle - learning what to recommend based on what you like and on what people like you like, and so on. Actually, that even sounds a bit like the supposed basis for Goggle's search algorithm, right?
Anyway, I've been crying out for this: shuffle in iTunes is precisely useless, and I'm pleasantly encouraged by early returns from Genius. What's all that got to do with economics?
Well, what do we assume about preferences? We've always tried to be agnostic about what people like, which was neat for keeping us honest but made us a little fuzzy on where they come from or how they might change. Genius and Pandora are, arguably, operating on a person with malleable preferences, who's persuadable that she likes what's being connected. For these to be valuable products, there must exist preference for convenience (having playlists made for you rather than doing it yourself) or surprise (for hearing unexpected songs).
Or could it be as simple as information? Perhaps these things are most valuable as informers, letting us know what goes well with our music or showing us new music that we might like. Again, slightly non-traditional consumer theory, although imperfectly informed consumers isn't a new idea in economics or in life. Strangely, iTunes seems to be at a distinct disadvantage here; sure, this new gadget is designed to recommend things to you to buy at the iTunes store, but it's not a pure free-preview model like Pandora. Nevertheless, we're in the territory of deterministic preferences, and in particular the role of advertising.
The most commonly asked question about advertising in economics has been 'informative or not?', and there's the balance between these two functions: am I being coerced or informed when Genius tells me what songs I'm missing that would go well with one I own? The strict segregation of preferences and the tangible world of goods and budgets that is used in consumer theory is violated a little by this kind of thing; we get into nice philosophical questions like how to define a good. Are my preferences changing when I learn about these awesome songs I'm missing out on?