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PlaNet News & Views

Posted on 18-7-13

The (Brave) New World - Big Data
by KATE EPSTEIN, 17 July 2013
The Snowden leaks and ensuing debates about our government, big data, and
privacy have led to more Orwell allusions than I've heard in all of my
(admittedly post-1984) life. It's hard not to compare the constant surveillance of
twenty-first-century America to the ubiquitous presence of Big Brother in
the prescient 1949 novel. And that's not to mention the doublethink involved
in our never-ending war with an ever-shifting enemy to keep the homeland
safe (war is peace), our ballooning prison population, up 790% since 1980
(freedom is slavery), and the current administration's brutal crackdown on
truth-tellers and public education (ignorance is strength).
But big data has another side, better predicted by Aldous Huxley's very
different 1932 dystopia Brave New World. In that version of the future, consumer
desire, and not thought-policing, keeps the citizens of the World State in
line in a year defined not by A.D. but by A.F., or "After Ford." Sex-hormone
chewing gum, the ecstasy-inducing drug soma ("one cubic centimeter cures ten
gloomy sentiments,") and recreational sex are all encouraged, as is
attending the popular "feelies," which combine sight, smell, and touch to
create the ultimate entertainment experience.
In many ways we are living out some bizarre combination of 1984's total
surveillance and perception management and Brave New World's post-Fordist
corporatocracy, in which our actions are monitored and our perceptions
managed just as much to shape our desires and then fulfill them as to root
out dissidents and quash dissent. It is, after all, corporations like Booz
Allen that conduct most of the government surveillance in our brave,
deregulated, new world. Although one function of all that data is
"security," which is a lucrative enough industry on its own, an even more
profitable function is the better understanding of consumer decision-making
that can be assembled from the over 2.8 zettabytes of data that exists in
the world.
Like the characters in Huxley's dystopia (most of whom believed they lived
in a utopia), we exist in an entertainment-saturated society. Much of that
entertainment is delivered to us through one company: Netflix, which caters
to approximately 30 million viewers and is more watched than cable
television. I thought of feelies, and of Huxley's broader vision, when I
heard about Netflix's new strategy for creating original content, employed
for the first time with "House of Cards" this past February-one that
involves using billions of data points to better understand what its viewers
want to see.
Netflix, much like the NSA, knows a lot about us. Think about what your
viewing patterns (what you watch, when you watch it, how often you pause it,
etc.) expose about you. It was concern over privacy in video renting that
brought about the 1988 Video Privacy Protection Act, after Supreme Court
nominee Robert Bork's video rental records were published a newspaper.
Congress was outraged that such personal information could be made public
(consider it the "meta data" of the time), but the bill hasn't been updated
since, despite certain developments, including the invention of the
Consider just how much Netflix must know about you given that, according to
GigaOm, it also collects geo-location data, device information, metadata
from third-parties such as Nielson, and social media data from Facebook and
Twitter, in addition to the more obvious "data events": over 30 million
plays per day, 4 million ratings, 3 million searches, and all pauses,
fast-forwards, rewinds, and replays. (Nielson is the original market
research company, founded in 1923 by Arthur Nielson who coined the term
"market share." It tracks global information on what consumers watch and buy
for advertisers and corporate clients including Coca-Cola, Nestle, Procter &
Gamble, Unilever, Walmart, CBS, NBC, News Corp., and Disney.)
This information has long dictated what content Netflix decides to license
and recommend to different viewers, but "House of Cards" was the first time
any company had ever used such data in the creative production process for a
T.V. show. It started when Netflix noticed that there was significant
overlap between the circles of viewers who watched movies starring Kevin
Spacey and movies directed by David Fincher from beginning to end, and
viewers who loved the original 1990 BBC miniseries "House of Cards."
Subscribers were shown one of ten different trailers for the series based on
their consumer profiles. The producers also knew, from studying viewers'
watching patterns, that releasing all thirteen episodes at once would
promote and reward the binge-like behavior demonstrated by their target
audience. The new strategy paid off, with ten percent of Netflix subscribers
watching the series within two weeks of its debut, and 80% of viewers rating
it "good" or "exceptional."
On the heels of its "House of Cards" success, Netflix premiered a new
series, "Orange is the New Black," on Thursday, July 11. Described as a
"hilarious, heartbreaking, and critically acclaimed series based on the true
story of Piper, an upper-class New Yorker who finds herself sentenced to
fifteen months in a women's correctional facility for a crime she committed
long ago," the show has indeed already garnered critical acclaim. The San
Francisco Chronicle reported that it achieves a "new definition of
television excellence."
Just as retail companies like Target can know when a teenager is pregnant
before her own parents through the mining of extensive data sets,
entertainment producers across industries are becoming savvier about the
potential of big data to transform the creative process, and to meet
consumer demand in unprecedented ways. The idea of computer algorithms
displaying what we would normally think of as uniquely human creativity is
relatively new, but it's rapidly spreading. Algorithms that sift through and
crunch the exponentially-growing pool of data can now grade essays, compose
music that imitates Bach so well many can't tell the difference, and write
news articles on events no journalist attended. (See "Can Creativity Be
"We know what people watch on Netflix and we're able with a high degree of
confidence to understand how big a likely audience is for a given show based
on people's viewing habits," Netflix communications director Jonathan
Friedland told Wired in 2012. "We want to continue to have something for
everybody. But as time goes on, we get better at selecting what that
something for everybody is that gets high engagement."
Maybe it's a stretch to compare this new entertainment environment to the
feelies and obstacle golf of Brave New World, but it's hard not to be a
little skeptical of an industry so in tune with consumer preferences that it
can use an algorithm to create The Ultimate Television Program. Despite the
reality that we face crises of drastic proportion-environmentally,
economically, socially, and politically-we are overwhelmingly marketed a
very different reality. In over 3,000 advertisements a day, we are presented
with a world in which the consumer is sovereign, freedom of choice reigns,
and painless, constant pleasure is possible. Art and entertainment that fail
to constantly please, however socially valuable it might be, represents a
smaller and smaller proportion of what most Americans consume.
As technology advances, corporations are developing both more precise ways
to monitor our behavior and smarter algorithms to crunch that data. Last
year, Verizon applied for a patent for a type of monitoring technology that
uses infrared cameras and microphones to track and collect consumer
behavior-such as eating, exercising, reading, and sleeping-in the vicinity
of a TV or mobile device. Embedded in cable boxes in living rooms across
America, this Orwellian tool would presumably help companies get to know us
just a little bit better. Marketing firms use eye tracking to measure how
elements of advertisements are perceived, retained and recalled, and
corporations use facial recognition on billboards' hidden cameras to detect
age and gender brackets to display targeted ads. Surely these developments
raise many of the same privacy concerns as the U.S. intelligence community's
blanket spying programs.
When did we agree to give all this personal data away for free? And do we
even know it's happening?
As founder and CEO of Netflix Reed Hastings told Businessweek, "We're able
to do more and more calculations and big-data statistics so that what we do
is represent Netflix more and more as a place where you come for relaxation,
escape." Sounds almost as good as a hangover-free soma holiday.
Kate Epstein is a lawyer and activist who manages the blog The Lone
Pamphleteer. She can be reached at