Big Data and Creativity

I was listening to a podcast the other day from public radio international. The show was Warren Olney’s To the Point. I’ve listened to probably thirty or so episodes of his by now, and I’m growing more and more frustrated. His questions are pretty good I guess, and he’s civil and smart. All plusses, but more and more, I notice that he’s kind of a hack. The stories that he chooses to follow are almost UNIVERSALLY stories about income inequality, environmental problems, or just some conservative mistake (like the challenge to the civil rights act that’s ongoing).

It’s very hard to quantify media bias, in fact, I think impossible, because one side’s bias will always be considered the other side’s honest truth. However, I have noticed a persistent streak in the way that Warren treats guests, positions, and stories. And this is a shame, because it’s not that I want to hear one side be right or wrong, I just want to hear the best arguments from one side, and the conservative guests can rarely deliver. So I leave thinking that their position is silly even though I know, from being exposed to countless philosophical and public policy arguments over my lifetime, that the issue is probably much too complex for simple solutions.

ANYWAY, Warren’s stories about cultural topics are usually much better because this stuff doesn’t get in the way. He talked about how massive agglomerations of data (“big data”) are being used to create novels and TV shows, the prime example being NETFLIX’s show “House of Cards.” Apparently this show was commissioned by Netflix after it found out that a certain director, set of actors, and plot point, would be enthusiastically received by viewers, BASED ON THEIR PAST WATCHING HABITS.

There are arguments that this is both good and bad, for creativity and culture. Good arguments that I’ve heard for the “pro” side are that this sort of targeted and ex ante investment in a show increases creativity. The director of “House of Cards” got the freedom to write a set amount of episodes as well as the ASSURANCE that there would BE x episodes. This is very different from network shows which are written on the fly and must fight to stay justified in their time slot or whatever. With predictability, a director can focus on telling a story. Also, there’s the fact that a lot of people will probably like the show. That’s what big data says.

Then there are counter arguments about cultural literacy. Is there anything important about the fact that a show is not usually available all at once. I’ve heard people talk about the effect of watching a show AS IT EVOLVES because other people are often engaged in the cultural activity as well. When all the episodes are available at once, there is the spoiler risk, but also the cultural disconnection of the fact that there is no event surrounding the time-constrained progression of the episodes. Also, some of the guests on Warren’s show talked about how some books are being written with alternative endings that change based on marketing information about you or about your mood. And if shows become just algorithms, where will creativity go? I don’t think we’ll see the end of creativity — more and more I’m convinced that that is impossible because the urge to create is such a fundamental part of human society. However,   there’s no doubt that something will change about the cultural landscape when computers spit out the actors and plot points for shows.


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