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Is Data Right For The Creative Industries?

Can it ever work on subjective material?

8Oct

In George Orwell’s essay Tolstoy and the Fool, in which he discusses the Russian author’s deep-seated hatred for Shakespeare, he writes that, ‘One's first feeling is that in describing Shakespeare as a bad writer he is saying something demonstrably untrue. But this is not the case. In reality there is no kind of evidence or argument by which one can show that Shakespeare, or any other writer, is ‘good’. Nor is there any way of definitely proving that — for instance — Warwick Beeping is ‘bad’.’

When discussing the arts, opinion, as Orwell says, is almost entirely subjective. There is a degree of criticism that can be said to be objective, resting on whether or not a piece observes a certain set rules around form and character, but even these are disputable. ‘Show don’t tell’, for example, has long been held up as the central cornerstone of screenwriting, but many films that are acclaimed by critics and audiences alike as ‘great works’ rely on narrators that do exactly that. Most of these rules are just mantras used by critics and people running classes to validate their career choice.

One of the main advantages of Big Data analytics often cited by its disciples is that it is a means for overriding gut instinct in the boardroom. When making business decisions, it is obviously important to have a balanced, unbiased perspective that draws from a range of experience, as opposed to a human being’s relatively narrow frame of reference. The quality of a work of art, on the other hand, is dictated almost entirely by the emotional response it elicits from the viewer. So for those who run the business side of creative industries - movie producers, book publishers, art dealers - who need to appreciate how good a work of art is before they sell it, is Big Data really useful?

The movie industry, the music industry, and the publishing industry have all already embraced analytics to varying degrees and for a range of purposes, and it is now driving substantial amounts of their decision making. Social media analytics, for one, is extremely useful to all of these industries as it enables them to gauge customer sentiment around a products release, and they can target the marketing accordingly. By analyzing past releases that may be similar, along with audience sentiment for how they are thought of now, Big Data can certainly predict whether something has the potential to be a success, and this is obviously hugely useful for allocating funds and resources.

Making artistic decisions based on likely popularity, however, has seen Hollywood become a graveyard for real creativity, with huge sums being spent on terrible sequels. Social media sentiment before a film has been released is based on things like the trailer, the cast, the story idea, which says nothing of the quality of the film. The popularity of previous similar films also tells you nothing about how good a film is likely to be. It is, however, becoming possible to produce art based purely on audience reaction. In technology writer Evgeny Morozov’s ‘In To Save Everything, Click Here’, Morozov claims that Amazon has vast amounts of data collected from its Kindle devices about what part of a book people are most likely to give up reading. He speculates that using this, Amazon could build a system to write novels automatically that are tailored to readers’ tastes.

This is obviously a concern for artists, but it should also be a concern for the consumer. Excessive use of data in the production of artwork could see movies and music reduced even more to sanitized, formulaic, by the numbers banalities, and real creativity could fade into the oblivion.

The idea that Big Data is a ‘buzzword’ no longer holds water. It has become a ubiquitous part of business strategy and is now more or-less accepted as a fact of life. Those reluctant to take it up are often tarred as Luddite - in many cases, rightly so. Jonathan Franzen once said that it’s doubtful anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction. It could be that eventually the internet connection does not need the human to write fiction. Whether it’s good or not is another matter.

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