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The troubling age of algorithmic entertainment (theweek.com)
54 points by dantondwa 13 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 32 comments

Troubling? The quality of nearly all television in the 80's and 90's was troubling. The outrageous amount of unskippable commercials was troubling. The fact that people would have to be home at a certain time on certain days to watch a show they liked was troubling. And the fact that all of this was tightly controlled by a small number of gatekeepers was particularly troubling.

Media today is better in every way. The delivery methods, the diversity of perspectives, the reduction of advertising, even just the overall quality of content is far beyond what most of us grew up with.

There's of course nothing wrong with critiquing the many ways content has changed over the last couple decades. But let's not pretend for a moment that television before the internet was anything other than anti-consumer garbage.

This is a grandiose statement to say the least.

In the old days advertisers paid to insert ads before, during, and after the content. Now advertisers pay to know your consumption habits and demographic and push their content to the top of your recommendations, radio, next-up, and whatever else. My personal feeling is that I'd rather pay with my time by watching ads anonymously than pay with my personal data.

Also, nowadays there are numerous ways to virtually purchase content. This is super convenient, but at the same time access to this content can be revoked with no notice, no reasoning and no refund. Content can also be changed without warning or continued access to the previous version.

Things are not unquestionably better today than yesterday. There have been tradeoffs, particularly in the areas of privacy, ownership and convenience.

I still don’t fully understand the mechanism behind it, but it blew my mind when I found out that you now get personalised advertising through live satellite TV in the UK.


> My personal feeling is that I'd rather pay with my time by watching ads anonymously than pay with my personal data.

And with cable type commercials being trivially skippable with fast forward, that's another reason it's the best programming format as far as being advertised to is concerned.

Because ultimately, you're never going to get away from being advertised to.

What's wrong with CDs and DVDs? You can still buy these for cash in many places.

We had a preview of what was to come in the early 90's right before the Internet went mainstream (though I'll argue the Internet was not truly mainstream until a little after 2000 when broadband connections were widely available).

At least where I lived at the time, it seemed like the number of channels on cable TV quadrupled, and the number of radio stations catering to different genres also increased. So people's attention was already being chopped up and "bubbled". I feel the "fractioning" effect of streaming whereby everyone is in their own personal bubble is simply a later stage of a trend that was underway in the early 90's.

Regarding an algorithm picking what is visible to you, it's not very much different than a TV or radio broadcaster selecting programs that he/she will think will sell advertisements. It's simply faster, more efficient, and outside some legal liabilities because it's done by software and not human beings.

It's a shame that so much is going into making the Internet obey the one-direction broadcast-and-corporate-controlled TV model, though. The Internet was supposed to be for end-user freedom and control.

But Facebook and Twitter, for example, shows that when you give a bit of that capability to large numbers of people, you don't get fantastic results (but the owners will make a lot of money). Most people seem content to take a mostly passive relationship with their screens, participating in their tribes' regularly scheduled outrages, regardless of the size or technology behind them.

I don't think things will ever change too much for most people. Same town, pay taxes to a different king. It's mostly about companies figuring out how to sidestep existing companies and regulations.

If anyone has any doubt about this being something people foresaw in the 90's, read Infinite Jest. My buddy told me it was his favorite book, so I've been slogging through it for a while. It took effort to reach the heart of it, but holy shit there is so much brilliance scattered throughout.

David Foster Wallace basically lays out the creation of Netflix, with the only exception being a miss on instant streams of HD content. He also covers the impact this might have on traditional media and advertising industries.

If you haven't read it, and are up for a book that takes effort, it's really something.

But I can change curation bubbles when they are explicit. I can change channels or listen to a different radio show.

When the algorithm is customized for “me” and opaque, I don’t have that option.

This has deep implications.

Yes absolutely. It’s destructive to curiosity too imo. If you do go and search for something outside the algorithmic expectation it can break things hard (oh, you looked at a thing about shoes? Let me give you nothing but that). Which makes me hesitant about search terms on some platforms.

Potentially this can be fixable in the long term, but I think humans will almost always(?) be superior curators. Mostly because they’re approaching it from “this is what I like” and not “this is what I know you’re going to like.”

> Potentially this can be fixable in the long term, but I think humans will almost always(?) be superior curators. Mostly because they’re approaching it from “this is what I like” and not “this is what I know you’re going to like.”

This is why I like that youtube actually recommends music channels, mixes and compilations that are curated and uploaded by humans. It'll be a sad day when totalitarian copyright enforcement makes this a thing of the past.

It isn't destructive to curiosity if the algorithm puts you in the curious person demographic. The other week I got a video recommendation for how to extract lidocaine out of anal lube. I don't use lidocaine, I don't use anal lube, and I don't know shit about chemistry, yet here I am enjoying this impossibly niche video.

The problem isn't algorithms. The problem is bad algorithms. Lately YouTube has been on point.

This is a GREAT point. I forget how Netflix has pigeon-holed me until I visit a friend and see drastically different choices on their accounts.

Weren't there like 4 TV channels to begin with. It's been trending this way for a long time.

A little bit offtopic, but are people really going ballistic over Netflix speed up feature? Has no one ever noticed Youtube has supported this since forever? Or that most video players have this feature? I also seem to remember plain DVD players having the ability to alter speed.

The ones going ballistic over this are content creators who think that their artistic vision is being compromised. Everyone else either likes the feature or doesn't care.

Wow, nobody tell them about "Netflix and chill".

I turn it on myself in the web console, which works on Amazon as well:

    document.getElementsByTagName("video")[0].playbackRate = 1.5

There are browser plugins for Chrome and Firefox that enable video speed controls on all HTML5 video elements.

My second favorite plugin of all time, right behind uBlock.

document.querySelector('video').playbackRate = 2;

Also VHS and old film reels where you could speed up the motor.

but that raises the pitch of the audio

Reminds me of this: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=21405779 -- "the creator should decide how his creation is experienced!" -- no, fuck you, I paid for this and I'm doing with it whatever I like.

When the alternatives to streaming platforms look like Clear Channel, then I think it's ridiculous to complain about algorithmic curation of content. Clear Channel and its ilk used the most dumbed down, mass market research driven curation imaginable and the 90s media landscaped suffered accordingly.

On a side note, as a consumer I don't care at all what the intentions of the creator are. Hence post-modernism. If I want to watch Netflix at 2X speed in reverse while I stand on my head, then so be it.

Once you create something, it should be free to use as people see fit. I think there are actually some corollaries to this with the recent conversation around politics and software (c.f. GitHub's ICE issue) but that's beyond the scope of this comment.

> 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.

It seems like the creators want to have it both ways: the control of being a private artist combined with the money of being a commercial artist. If you want to completely control the art experience, invite people to your home for an in person performance or showing. Otherwise accept, that people have the ability and right to change your art in ways that works for them.

Random past blaster from 1985

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Max_Headroom_(character)

wherein some artificial news anchor rendered like a showroom dummy does... hrrm can't remember anymore...things...

"What’s that?"

"It’s a book."

"What’s that, then?"

"A non-volatile storage medium. It’s very rare, you should have one."

The main problem is they don't really have algorithms. Its just "hey here is a low budget garbage version of the show you were watching." That's not an algorithm. That is just crappy category matching that companies want to pretend is AI.

>But it also suggests that tech platforms don't just deliver content, but that they shape it too

The medium is the message. Every medium shapes content. This is the whine of incumbents who want their power back.

While algorithms do affect how shows are surfaced, produced, promoted and discovered on streaming platforms, I'm unconvinced that television is more formulaic, unoriginal, and uninteresting now with dozens of online streaming sources and literally millions of channels (e.g. youtube) vs. cable (local monopoly streamer, hundreds of channels) or broadcast television (local oligopoly, tens of channels dominated by three national broadcasters.)

Most importantly, the barriers to creating and distributing video are lower than ever: we carry high-quality video cameras built into our smartphones, we can easily edit those videos using inexpensive (or free) and widely available apps or web services, and we can easily and cheaply make that video available to about half the people who live on the planet.

It seems to me that we are in a golden age of television in terms of quality, quantity, and variety. Regarding quality, it seems that many of the best writers and actors are working in television; moreover, streaming supports watching an entire series from the beginning, which can support longer story arcs without necessarily having to recap everything each episode. Compared to a 2 or 3-hour movie, a series watched from beginning to end can potentially tell a longer and possibly more interesting story with a larger main cast and deeper character development. Regarding quantity and variety, streaming supports a larger number of niche shows with smaller audiences, while wider geographic distribution means that we have access to shows that we would never have had the opportunity to view in the cable and broadcast eras.

Netflix's nefarious end goal is clear: feature parity with early-2000s VLC Media Player. They must be stopped.

And there you are, with a chum-box at the bottom of your article...

I find it pretty boring once the pattern becomes obvious.

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