The Arts & The Algorithms Finally Meet On A Dark Street


The heading comes from the assumption both are in the task of shedding light on the human condition. But my, how differently! In today’s age of expanding algorithmic usage, I can almost imagine Tennessee Williams testing his audience data, and making Stanley in “Streetcar Names Desire” more metro-sexual. Or Thornton Wilder in “Our Town” having Emily with child before her wedding to George. Or maybe Stanley Kramer in “Guess Whose Coming To Dinner” switching the surprise guest to Latino instead of Black. After all, the stats prove the refinements are what the audiences want. Whether they know it yet or not.

Lets be clear here. If algorithmic analyses can project what widgets consumers will want to buy even before they know it, the same must be true of patrons even before they pay for it. Right?

Steve Jobs made all this not only true, but enormously profitable at Apple. So who are dramatists and filmmakers to argue? Now that our species has been armed with the genius of big data, we can apply these predictive skills to anything and anyone. Right?

But here’s the thing. I understood the high-paid number-crunchers were covering the field in Industry, Transportation, Education, Retailing, Sports, and the Military. But what in the name of Albert Einstein do algorithms and number-crunchers have to do with with the Arts?

Trade publications like Variety have the answer. The big boys [aka, studio heads, network executives, theater owners, book publishers, and newspaper editors] once used number-crunchers simply to calculate our tastes. Now they employ them to create those tastes. It seems it all has to do with what parts of the brain circuitry generate dopamine responses to which stimuli.

And so the data grind out assumptions like how terrorists most likely hit soft targets with trucks, hard ones with bombs; young film-goers prefer gritty characters but gushy endings; older readers respond to Noir procedurals that don’t leave unanswered issues.

In effect, X plumbs the depths of my unexpressed wants; Y custom-tailors the play or book or film to specifically dopamine those wants; Z is the backer who expects a big return on his number-crunching investments.

And now in our new enlightenment, we call it Art….

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