Sunday, December 31, 2017


The promise of the internet was that it would gift us greater choice than we had ever had in the pre-digital era. But the web has enmeshed us in a systemic constraint of our options. According to our personal preferences, as construed from our online histories, we are increasingly targeted by algorithms that make recommendations on our behalf, ensuring that we inhabit in complicit complacent comfort our essentially self-determined echo chambers. Inside a figurative echo chamber, as Wiki baldly states, “official sources often go unquestioned and different or competing views are censored, disallowed, or otherwise underrepresented. The echo chamber effect reinforces a person’s own present worldview, making it seem more correct and more universally accepted than it really is”. At worst this gives us inanities like Brexit and Herr Drumpf. But it is easy to be lazy, with streaming music platforms well aware of the kind of sounds we prefer, Amazon knowing what we’ll probably enjoy reading, Netflix not only confidently proposing our next binge viewing orgy but using the data they have collected from us, the audience, to decide what movies they should invest in and actually put into production.
It was this latter that prompted me to think a bit more about the ways our choices are more and more circumscribed. The manipulation is ever more efficient and quite blatant. For example, Netflix is constantly looking at ways to ensure its eighty-one million members find something they want to watch. One ruse is to present us as viewers with customised thumbnail images when we consult the homepage menu illustrating what is on offer. They claim that if nothing catches our eye within ninety seconds, we will lose interest and move on to other activities. And so the company adjusts the feed of promotional thumbnails depending on demographics, including nationality and gender, and on what they can deduct from our individual user profile.
With the new ‘content providers’ of the FANG fraternity (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google) accelerating the billion dollar disruption of the entertainment industry, at least in its Hollywood iteration, we will soon have only the illusion of choice.

However, we need not be completely disenfranchised. In parallel with the dystopian developments I’ve mentioned, there is a contrarian trend that can be seen as positive. While the new media tycoons produce their big-budget blockbuster movies and series, there is a generation of independents content to work on a shoestring and take advantage of affordable technology allowing them to make films that are personal in the tradition of the cinema d’auteur. Such work may reach only a niche audience, people who find the echo chamber stultifying if not downright dangerous. I dare to hope that this is an audience which will in 2018 and over time grow to become a small but significant countervailing feature of the media landscape.

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