If, like me, you always considered yourself a special little snowflake in a world full of mindless drones then I’m about to shatter your illusions of individuality. Turns out our actions are nothing more than mere patterns of consistent, predictable behaviour and our brainwaves simply strings ready to be pulled by able puppet masters. A depressing thought? I knew you’d think that.
Like millions of others out there, I’m a huge fan of House of Cards, a TV show about political manoeuvring and psychological manipulation (how apt) that was created and commissioned by Netflix two years ago. Aside from ushering in an exciting new era of on-demand digital television, the show has also been met with critical acclaim and is proving to be exceedingly popular. But then that’s no surprise considering it was engineered exactly for us all to like.
Throwing around terminology that sounds like it was coined by a pornstar scientist, Netflix uses the techniques of Big Data and Deep Learning to analyse everything we watch and how we watch it, anticipating our demands, preferences and needs. It’s this incredible information gathering process – that analyses all our actions from everything we watch to precisely when we might be inclined to pause a show – that gives Netflix such fascinating insight into our minds.
The creation of House of Cards was anything but happenstance. It was meticulously designed and constructed based upon everything Netflix’s algorithms could determine. Their viewers liked political dramas. They also loved films starring Kevin Spacey and directed by David Fincher. They also knew how and when we usually paused our viewing material. The result? A fast-paced TV show engineered precisely based on the correlation and amalgamation of all of the factors above.
“A lot of people tell us they often watch foreign movies or documentaries. But in practice, that doesn’t happen very much.”
Of course, it’s not just as simple as lumping the most popular actors and directors together in an appealing genre but one can’t argue with the final product of House of Cards. Netflix doesn’t just limit itself to creating tailored TV shows either but also exert a huge amount of resources predicting our use of their service and learning how to better personalise our viewing experience. It’s clever stuff too and you may find that you get an entirely different movie recommendation when curling up with your iPad late at night as to sitting down in front of the TV in the early evening. But then I would expect nothing less from a company that has a job role called Data Scientist.
Of course, there are some dangers to all of this intelligent personalisation. As we’re experiencing with other online business, particularly Google, there’s a risk that we’ll end up only ever being fed more of what we already know as opposed to being exposed to more radical (and healthy) influences. I love sci-fi movies (and apparently political dramas) but I don’t think I would’ve ever developed an interest in Korean cinema seven or eight years ago if I hadn’t randomly watched Oldboy on TV one night. There’s something quite beautiful about stumbling upon the unknown and discovering something new.
Eli Pariser gave a great talk about “filter bubbles” at TED a couple of years ago, commenting on how this new era of personalisation is potentially damaging our view of the world and our ability to broaden our horizons. If all we ever search for, if all we ever watch, if all that’s ever recommended to us simply reinforces what we already know and enjoy, we risk cutting ourselves off from the experience of anything new or unexpected. It’s perhaps ironic that in a world where we can access the entire accumulated history, knowledge and creations of mankind, we’re finding ever more ways to limit our exposure to new things.
Anyway, I’ll let you go watch House of Cards. Just after I leave you with one of my favourite Mark Zuckerberg quotes.