Et tu, Big Data? Then fall, Muses…
Laura Miller’s recent piece at Salon on how new reader “services” (I use the term loosely since it’s pretty frickin’ obvious that readers are the ones who will end up being used, as Miller’s article demonstrates) such as Oyster and Scrib’d can be used to gather data on reader habits and preferences so that this information can be sold to “writers” (another term I may possibly be using loosely since Miller’s piece suggests the “new direction” will be “art” created by artist/audience interactions – you know, through beta tests and focus groups) so that they can tailor their works to “the marketplace” (a term now being applied to the relationship between artist and audience that means just what you think it means) is just as depressing as you’d want it to be – if you’re an old fogy like me and like your art “artistic.”
To be sure, Miller argues that this won’t affect “literary” fiction by writers such as Donna Tartt or Salman Rushdie and will be used primarily to help “authors” (see above snark) who specialize in genre fiction such as the one that covers multiple aisles of your local bookstore: Young Adult Paranormal. In fact, Miller argues, many writers in this and other popular genres regularly interact with their readers via blogs, social media sites, and message boards to get feedback on plot twists, character fates, etc. Miller defends this by noting that genres such as romance and fantasy have compositional formulas that readers expect and, as in the example she cites, woe unto the author who violates reader expectations.
I’m currently finishing an interesting book by David Comfort that I’ll be reviewing for ArtSunday on what is going on in contemporary publishing. One of the climatological changes that he describes concerns how major publishing houses operate. Since the absorption of all major publishers into one corporate vortex or another since the 1980’s, decisions about manuscripts are about marketing – only the small independents still make publishing decisions based on that silly, mystical notion of a book as a work of art, not as a product like soap or chewing gum. And, as my review will discuss, even that has its limitations. So maybe “crowd-sourcing” one’s books/paintings/photos/music in both the aesthetic as well as the economic sense (and maybe that’s what this use of Big Data is) is the future of art for us all – and I, as usual, am one of those “boats against the current,borne ceaselessly into the past.”
I had planned to open (or cap) this little bleat against “trying to please everyone all the time” with a quote that I thought Marshall McLuhan had made about Shakespeare in which the great media meta-physician observed that if Shakespeare were alive he’d be writing for television. Instead, I came across a wonderful piece by Ed Smith over at New Statesman that offers this insight into what happens to writers, artists, any principled persons who submit to the tyranny of groupthink:
Creative talent, disappointed enough times, begins to self-censor, to think along permissible lines of inquiry. It starts to “go native.” Writers become conditioned by what they know – or imagine they know – their bosses will like.
So my advice to those writers (no quotes here – I want to be as open minded and generous as I can) is that they tread lightly in adapting themselves to what Big Data tells them they should write. Because I did find this quote from Professor McLuhan:
The more data banks record about us, the less we exist.