How the Internet Is Narrowing Our Minds
March 3, 2014
The middle class is shrinking. As the Internet has wildly expanded our options, it has, paradoxically, shrunk our horizons: as thinkers like Astra Taylor, author of The People’s Platform, warn, a generic set of crowd-pleasing blockbusters dominates more than ever.
I heard about Caighlan Smith the old-fashioned way—from inside a stall in the women’s washroom. The women on the other side of the metal partition were discussing a brilliant idea they’d just heard that could, they intimated, save the book industry. I heard the words “eHarmony” and “matchmaker for books,” and when I swung open the stall a woman in turquoise was standing by the sinks saying, “and she’s only 19 years old!”
“Well, somebody said something about how we need to find a way for readers to access the books they’re interested in,” Smith said, once the turquoise woman had plucked her from the conference room next door and sent her out to talk to me. Caighlan Smith is a cheerful Newfoundlander crossed with a goblin princess, blond and baby-faced with Gothic eye makeup and a black ballerina skirt. Her young adult fantasy novel, released last fall and written when she was 17, has a glowing green sword on the cover. The plot description on her website asks, “with one sister who can kill phantoms, and another who can sense ghosts as well as communicate with monsters, is this orphaned family really as innocent as it appears?”
“You have your typical genres, like if you’re looking for a fantasy you can go to the fantasy aisle,” Smith continued, “but what if you’re looking for a fantasy that specifically has a female protagonist with a younger love interest? What if that’s your like, book fetish? Or something with a twist ending, or twin protagonists?” Her idea is that there should be a mechanism where readers can create profiles detailing exactly what they want in a book, and then publishers can match them with books that fit that profile.
She’d come to the National Literary Forum, put on by the Canada Council for the Arts, with her mom, who is also her publicist. Smith was by far the youngest person at the event, for which the Canada Council had convened publishers, agents, writers, librarians, translators, and critics to discuss the future of the book industry. “Discuss” is a decorous term for how literary producers express their feelings about books’ apparent value in the broader culture. “We’ve all worked our asses off!” one small-press publisher said into the microphone, his voice cracking as if he might cry. There’s a sense that while literary creation is abundant—Canadian authors write about 10,000 books a year, and Canadian small presses have proliferated in the past 20 years—the cultural space for books is dwindling; the disconnect between the literary world and the public seems greater than before.
What Smith is talking about—a personalized, reader-focussed approach—is what much of the forum’s talk had centred on. “We need to engage with readers to find out what they’re interested in,” a librarian from Vancouver said. With so many options for people to choose from, there’s a sense that the industry has to cut through the static by finding out what the people want and giving it to them exactly. Smith only thought of the books matchmaker idea that morning, and it’s not something she’s likely to develop herself (“I’m like a 17th-century five-year-old in a 19-year-old’s body,” she said of her technological prowess). But her perspective on the future of literary culture pretty much sums up how marketing gurus are advising cultural producers to reimagine their relationship with consumers in the new digital marketplace: “It would be about you as an individual reader. And people love filling out stuff about themselves.”
I asked Smith whether writers would also use the site to see what readers are interested in. “I didn’t think of it like that, but that could definitely work,” she said. “Yeah, if it looks like there’s one particular detail that people want a lot of but there’s not enough of it, people might start writing for that. They might be like, Oh, that’s a little thing I could put in my book that would make people want to read it. So it would be beneficial for both readers and writers. I know I would use it as a reader and also as a writer.”
It seems wrong that such a democratic-sounding enterprise—driven by the desire to please people—should give me such chills of foreboding, but for me, this vision of the future of books is profoundly dystopian. How would I quantify my desired reading experience with the kind of tags Smith is describing? Could I write, “I want to feel paradoxically uplifted by the cruelty of the universe”? How would, “I’d like to feel like I’m on a swing on one of the last, sad days of summer” be understood by the algorithm collecting this data? And what literary artist would want to make books to order, like a tailor stitching ironed plot elements together?
As our options have grown, so has the overwhelming dominance of a generic set of crowd-pleasing blockbusters. Mainstream culture, aided and abetted (or thwarted and warped) by the frenetic pace of the Internet, has fallen into a punishing pattern: a few books—the ones that win prizes, are heavily promoted, or feature at least one vampire—rake in all the media attention and readers. All others are flops. In the book economy, the middle class is dying. The idea of an eHarmony for books is similarly a way of narrowing choices in the face of an overwhelming field of options. Paradoxically, because personalization relies on shared categories, its results can flatten the real differences between individuals.
Why should plenty lead to homogeneity? You’d think the Internet, with its ability to connect readers and enable authors to promote their own works, would be a boon to books and to cultural expression more broadly. The techno-optimists of the early ’90s envisioned a platform that would enable independent producers, niche consumers, and radical thinkers of all kinds to circulate in utopian freedom. No gatekeepers in the form of traditional media institutions, no barriers in the form of paying for content. It would be a level playing field, where the band on the major record label and the guy in his bedroom with a guitar would have equal access to the largest audience the world has ever known.
Instead, as Astra Taylor details in her new book, The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age, the free market of the Internet means that star bands on major labels get more audience share than ever before. Bands on less major labels get pressured to distribute their work for free even though they have no real way to recoup their production costs. And the guy in his bedroom with a guitar is still just a guy in his bedroom with a guitar (with a few YouTube subscribers).
When I spoke on the phone with Taylor she had just gotten home from a six-week tour with Neutral Milk Hotel—she’s married to Jeff Mangum and played accordion onstage. The People’s Platform is her first book; previously, her major projects have been films about philosophy. Zizek!, released in 2005, explores the social theories of Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst Slavoj Žižek, and in 2008 Taylor made Examined Life, in which contemporary philosophers including Žižek as well as Martha Nussbaum, Cornel West, Michael Hardt, Avital Ronell, Judith Butler, Peter Singer, and Kwame Anthony Appiah stroll around major North American cities discussing how their ideas apply to ordinary life.
Mainstream culture, aided and abetted (or thwarted and warped) by the frenetic pace of the Internet, has fallen into a punishing pattern: a few books—the ones that win prizes, are heavily promoted, or feature at least one vampire—rake in all the media attention and readers. All others are flops.
Taylor knows what it’s like to be expected to give the people what they want. In the initial stages of making Examined Life, she found herself at a pitching session at HotDocs, describing the concept to commissioners of public television from all over the world. “They literally went around the table being like, ‘Yeah, the people of France do not want to see this movie, the people of Holland do not want to see this movie,’” Taylor says, laughing. “‘Nobody wants to see this movie and it’s the worst idea we’ve ever heard!’” When she walked out of the meeting, she says, she thought to herself, “Well, I want to see this movie and I just believe that somebody else out there does.” Examined Life was ultimately produced in partnership with public sources like the NFB as well as the indie production company Sphinx Productions/Films We Like. The film screened at the Toronto International Film Festival as well as the Melbourne International Film Festival, and was favourably reviewed by CBC, The Globe and Mail, Variety, and the Village Voice.
If the app that Smith is envisioning already existed, potential audience members would have had to tag their interests as, “Slavoj Žižek rooting around in a garbage dump while discussing the philosophical basis of contemporary environmentalism.” It’s safe to say that before the movie was made, viewers didn’t know this was something they wanted.
In The People’s Platform, Taylor discusses how the supposedly open, free, and hierarchy-busting world wide web has failed to do better than a roomful of public television commissioners in encouraging the production or consumption of risky independent cultural products. In fact, it does significantly worse. Internet traffic follows a statistical pattern known as power law distribution; essentially, while there is a wide range of available options, almost everyone is crowded together at the most popular end of the spectrum. It’s a problem that’s getting worse: “In 2001, ten Web sites accounted for 31 per cent of U.S. page views,” Taylor writes, “by 2010, that number had skyrocketed to 75 percent.” Most nights, 40 per cent of the U.S.’s bandwidth is taken up by people watching Netflix movies.
In 2013, some 300,000 new books were published in the U.S., but few authors were as popular as a one-year-old named Tardar Sauce, managed by Ben Lashes. You may know her better by the name Grumpy Cat. You have probably seen her frowning face behind captions like, “I’m not Listening, But Keep Talking—I Enjoy the Way Your Voice Makes My Ears Bleed,” and “If You’re Happy and You Know It Go To Hell.” Millions and millions of us saw this meme in 2013. Her book, Grumpy Cat: A Grumpy Book, was published in July, and it debuted at number seven on the New York Times Best Sellers list.
For millions of people, the cultural discussion of the year in both traditional and online media concerned Miley Cyrus’ clumsy twerking at the VMAs. Meanwhile, when you Google “contemporary dance video,” the first hits you get are of people making fun of contemporary dance. As a cultural producer, you would be wise to invest in products that can be tagged “cat,” “Miley Cyrus,” or “ass.” In fact, it starts to seem pointless to take a risk on anything else.
To some degree, the imbalance between what’s overwhelmingly popular and what is virtually unknown stems from natural human tendencies. In the biblical book of Matthew, Jesus makes a heartbreaking statement that at once explains everything and nothing about how the world works: “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken even that which he hath.” This is now known as the Matthew effect, in which power, money, and advantage accrue to those who already have them. It’s also known as “bandwagoning,” and describes the process by which things that are already popular get more popular, while everything else loses out.
However, there’s another reality Taylor asks us to face: how the “open” space of the Internet is in fact controlled by major corporations, and how what seems like our free choices are in fact shaped by the corporatized sphere in which they take place. Pop-up ads developed to target your demographic may follow you from site to site, and the book and movie choices Amazon and Netflix show you are recommendations based on what you (or people they’ve categorized you with) have been watching. “The personalization trend,” Taylor writes, “is not driven by individual demand but by the pursuit of profit via targeted advertising.” Corporations are helping you to construct an online version of yourself. “Online, no action goes untracked. Our prior choices are compiled, feeding the ids of what we could call algorithmic superegos—systems that determine what we see and what we don’t, channeling us toward certain choices while cutting others off.”
When the issue at hand is whether the ads you see along the side of your Facebook page are for the Tough Mudder obstacle course or Cupid.com, this may seem like a minor, if annoying, problem. But in the context of how Google tailors your search results, the consequences are potentially extremely serious. A recent article in MIT’s Technology Review recounts how Internet activist Eli Pariser coined the term “filter bubble” in 2011 to describe how Google’s algorithms present us with what Google thinks we want to know: “Pariser used the example of two people who googled the term ‘BP.’ One received links to investment news about BP while the other received links to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, presumably as a result of some recommendation algorithm.”
Another relevant fact about BP? When its Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded in April 2010, killing 11 people and spilling an estimated 210 million gallons of oil into the ocean off the coast of Mexico, the company bought the search term “oil spill” from Google. It paid for priority in Google’s search results, spending more than ten thousand dollars a day so that when you and I Googled “oil spill,” the first things we saw would be the yellow sponsored links at the top of the search page which led to articles generated by the company’s own PR machine.
When I Google BP now, only one result on the first page mentions the 2010 spill—the worst marine oil spill in history. The first link to come up is the company’s homepage, the second is Wikipedia, and the rest are from sites like Forbes and Hindu Business Line, offering me stock prices and investment data. Google also wonders if I might be looking for links that will help me understand my blood pressure reading, and if I click through to the second page it offers to connect me with a magazine for people with bipolar disorder.
Because the Internet feels like a giant (if hellishly disorganized) library, it’s easy to forget that it has no public mandate to inform you. It’s not a public service.
For millions of people, the cultural discussion of the year in both traditional and online media concerned Miley Cyrus’ clumsy twerking at the VMAs. Meanwhile, when you Google “contemporary dance video,” the first hits you get are of people making fun of contemporary dance.
In her discussion of how the Internet, with its free content model, has affected news-gathering, Taylor points out that since the 1990s, half of the U.S.’s full-time reporters covering state capitals have been laid off. Serious reporting has never been what sold papers; instead, it was bundled, as Taylor writes, with “the crossword puzzle with the real estate classifieds with the metro section,” then sold to advertisers, “who provided, on average, about 80 percent of revenues.” In the same way that most would rather watch Miley Cyrus than contemporary dance, people bought the paper to look through the want-ads or read about fare increases in their local bus system. Long, complex stories about government corruption or environmental degradation were effectively subsidized by quicker, more popular articles. As a result, investigative units, with their high overhead, are the first to go when a newspaper can’t sustain itself.
Online, less popular but more societally important stories can no longer be “bundled” with the cheap, popular stories that attract advertising dollars. So it’s harder and harder for news outlets to fund their newsgathering. “Instead of the age of openness and transparency that new-media thinkers anticipate,” Taylor writes, “much will lie shrouded in darkness, out of sight and out of mind.”
Taylor’s recommendation is that the Internet be treated as a public utility, like hydro. Regulations should be put in place to keep the major companies like Amazon, Google, and Apple from gaining monopolies over what we read, how we search for information, and how we physically plug ourselves in to the world wide web. “What we don’t know can and does hurt us,” she writes, “as we have seen in debacle after debacle, the truth revealed only after the damage has been done.”
In Canada, we have generally accepted that the free market is not always the best way to protect diversity or minority interests. We subsidize our health system and our culture industry, with the understanding that sales aren’t the only measure of value. We’re lucky—contemporary Canadian society is the legacy of an earlier political culture; there’s little doubt our current government would pass no such legislation.
The most popular things tend to be the easiest—books you can read for plot alone, songs you can sing along to the second time you hear them, movies with spectacular special effects. But that doesn’t mean the hard things aren’t also necessary. Art is more than entertainment; people may read more romance novels in a year than works of literary fiction, but the more challenging work may stay with them for longer.
At the National Forum for the Literary Arts, a few tables away from where Caighlan Smith and her tablemates were discussing how better to give readers what they want, a table of French-speaking culture workers were discussing why Amazon and “marketing talk” should not be setting the terms of the cultural debate. Earlier, I had spoken to one of these dissenters, writer and translator Daniel Canty, out in the hall. “The creator will invent the public if given the chance,” Canty said. His most recent book, Wigrum, is a post-modern list-novel of which his publisher’s website says: “Moving through the inventory artifact to artifact, story to story, we become immersed in a dreamlike narrative bricolage determined as much by the objects’ museological presentation as by the tender and idiosyncratic mania of Wigrum’s impulse to collect them.”
Canty continued, “Populism is the simplest of elitisms, but it’s still elitism.” He’d like to see us focussing less on pleasing the reader and more on challenging the reader. “We all have to be having a good time, literature has to be fun,” he drawled, mocking the tone of the prevailing discourse.
“You don’t want literature to be fun?” I asked.
“Sure,” he said, “but that shouldn’t be all it is. Asking difficult social questions—that can be fun, too.”
Giving the people what they want is tricky; often, people don’t know what they want until they see it. Even then, most people want more than one thing; there are moods for Hollywood love stories and moods for indie documentaries about queer bars in LA. The magic that connects the right book with the right person at the right time isn’t something an algorithm—or even a librarian—can conjure up at will.
When I asked Caighlan Smith how she currently finds new books to read, she said her favourite way is to wander the shelves of a physical bookstore. “I’d read the first couple pages and be like, Do I like the style? Do I think I’ll like the protagonist?” Pre-emptively narrowing our choices—or having them narrowed for us—may keep us from finding what we need.
Hazlitt and After School present Astra Taylor at AGO First Thursdays on March 6 at 7:30 p.m., at the AGO Reuben Wells Leonard Gallery
Every week, Linda Besner reads a new book and writes on a tangentially related topic.