The troubling age of algorithmic entertainment

Nov 7, 2019 1:23 AM
articleagency and controlmedia and changealgorithmsdynamic and changing relationshipsuse of the media

Thanksgiving is coming up, and for the technically minded that means one thing: returning home to the horror of a TV with motion smoothing on. You've surely seen that effect on modern TVs that makes everything look like a cheap soap opera.

So common is this scourge that a Hollywood group that included directors like Christopher Nolan and Martin Scorsese banded together to create a "filmmaker mode" on TVs that turns off motion smoothing. Those directors, however, now have something even more offensive to worry about. Netflix is testing a new mode that may allow viewers to watch shows and films at up to twice the normal speed. In fact, some other Hollywood players are already vociferously objecting to the existence of the test.

The complaint is pretty straightforward: film and other forms of art and entertainment are made by creators to be experienced in a certain way; technology that allows end users to modify that experience ruins the purity of that vision.

At root is an increasingly common phenomenon in which people can change how they listen to or watch things to suit their own tastes. And while being able to speed up a casual Netflix show may not, as some are claiming, be the end of the world, the bigger issue is that streaming media platforms are subtly changing content — and perhaps even the place of art in society.

Consider Spotify. Writer and academic Liz Pelly wrote last year about the way in which Spotify shapes the music that appears on the platform. She points to the term Spotify-core, a tongue-in-cheek name "that's becoming an increasingly popular shorthand for music that sounds tailored to streaming. Or perhaps more specifically, to data-driven systems of mood-enhancing background music." Artists who fit the bill get discovered through Instagram or Reddit, and then the Spotify algorithm recommends them, bumping their songs into your feed right alongside the popular stuff.

The algorithmic delivery of music thus forms what, for Spotify, is a virtuous circle. But it also suggests that tech platforms don't just deliver content, but that they shape it too, prioritizing quick hits and short tracks because those are the things that generate the most engagement.

It isn't just Spotify, either. TikTok's runaway success is also changing music, and artists are both making their songs shorter and focusing more on memorable hooks so that they play to the short video format of apps like TikTok.

Media has always changed in response to both shifts in delivery and culture. The popularity of the novel in the 19th century, for example, arose because it was more convenient to read extended stories in one place rather than serialized in pamphlets and newspapers. Moreover, the novel was a place to play out the increasing tension between competing ideas — itself a novel invention after the decline of both monarchies and the church.

Those changes aren't in and of themselves good or bad. But with the rise of algorithm-based streaming services, it's hard to figure out whose needs are being put first: users, or the streaming companies themselves.

If platforms change how content is made, they also affect how we consume it, too. It isn't just tricks like speeding up Netflix content. Instead, the fact that Netflix would even consider the move suggests that Netflix is aware that people want to rush through content — not just to enjoy it, but also to then participate in the cultural conversation that's around it. Is everyone at work talking about Succession, Fleabag, and that new true crime podcast, but you're behind on all of them? Well, rip through them at double speed so you aren't left out.

I think it's easy to become a bit too precious about the sanctity of the experience of art. For centuries, people have read books in random ways, watched film while half focused on something else, or listened to music while scrubbing the floor. Because we treat one piece of art or entertainment as fluff, it doesn't mean we do that to everything, and you can still find meaning and beauty in a snippet of something; sometimes the part is more important than the whole. And sometimes, the ability to mess around with art leads to new things: clever remixes, or unexpected, fruitful meetings with other ideas.

But the sheer ubiquity of the streaming platforms for how we get content now suggests that the dominance of algorithms and their place in the attention economy aren't entirely neutral or value-free. Disney, for example, is quietly placing classic Fox films into its so-called "vault," where it hides movies from distribution for a while to drum up hype when they are re-released. One imagines this is so they can put them back on their forthcoming streaming service, to much delight.

The point is that streaming is affecting content and we don't quite know how that will play out over time. Still, if there's one thing we know about algorithms, it's that they tend toward an odd mix of the flashy, the outrageous, and the comforting. And art that perhaps doesn't fit, or won't appeal to the way the algorithm works, may get pushed to the side. That isn't new exactly — that has almost always been the case with media that pushes against the status quo — but it's hardly the democratic utopia that digital's most prominent supporters promised us, either. Instead it represents a dumbing down, a dull sameness — and unlike a setting on a TV, the size and influence of the tech giants means it won't be something you can simply switch off.

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