Culture circulates online within algorithm-driven networks: Google, Twitter, Facebook, Spotify, etc. These are also automatic measurement systems. Two particularly valuable things they measure are attribution – the path you took to reach something – and conversion (in its crudest form, did you buy it? but we can also throw in engagement, sharing, and other such soft interactions).

I’m using “valuable” here in the sense of “this is data marketers want”, which is why I’m also using the hard, gross language of attribution and conversion. Emotionally there’s a temptation to try and disengage from this, treating cultural objects (especially art, music, etc) as separate from the networks which reveal and sustain, but also exploit and reduce them.

I feel strongly that I don’t want to do this. If that data is powerful, I want to reclaim and name it for myself. I’m not talking about having more power over the algorithms that affect us and more visibility of their outcomes. That kind of thing is vital political work but as a writer about culture I also feel I should be keeping sight of the human and personal dimension of attribution and conversion – or, to use better words, provenance and use.

A formal project like my album listening one (a new-to-me record every day for a year) brought these elements to the fore. It’s an exercise in fitting listening into a daily routine (and letting that listening subtly change it) – i.e. use. And since you need to find a new thing every day, you need both open-ness (how do I get new ideas) and triage (how do I filter them)? This is what I mean by provenance – where did this thing come from and how did it reach me?

These pragmatic questions – how did I find out about this? Why did I decide to listen to it? What use did I make of it? – feel important to me, as much part of the experience as “did I like it?”, at least if answered honestly. (Working out how to answer them honestly is a job in itself). I want my writing to reflect them more.

Why are they important questions? I don’t know. I instinctively think they are, but I’m vaguer on the details. I can make two stabs at an explanation.

Part of it’s about self-presentation. We live in an era which flatters our sense of uniqueness. We’re encouraged to display ourselves as self-created individuals, polished bundles of tastes and experiences, ourselves consumable. Maybe paying honest attention to provenance and use demystifies cultural success, in the way that acknowledging privilege and luck can demystify material success.

And part of it’s economic. Talking about how culture reaches you is a conversation about supply chains, and it’s always good to think about supply chains! At least if you want to work out who owes (and does) what to whom. Putting a name and circumstance to the links in the chain nearest you is a step towards rehumanising the “attention economy” and the networks it relies on.