For the Greater Good

The Internet and one of its many, many kittens. Wikimedia Commons image. Photo Credit: Sasan Geranmehr

Ok, some Sunday morning musing for you: How do we as a culture determine what is ‘good’?

In any field, at any point in history, a pulse-point of ‘good’ has been established. That’s where we get various canons – quite often the creative works of a dominant culture, to the detriment of other voices, other data.

Also throughout history, arbiters of taste abound, marketing studies flourish, trends analyses bloom like algae (or tulips) all over the surface of ‘good’ in the marketplace. And sometimes the only result is noise, or mundanity: a horse designed by committee, versus something sleek and fast and wonderfully new. That’s not good at all.

Now though. Now we can quantify good. We can see how and where the market reacts to what we give them, we can establish datapoints, and we can give the market more of what it wants. And we will make the market happy and that will be good. Right? This is the message I’m getting from Fast Company’s article on Amazon’s Serialized Novel program. A cautious sense that -hooray- we will Finally Know What People Like And Be Able To Give Them More Of It. With data.

But here’s the problem – from my single data point perspective. I don’t know what I will like. Only what I have liked. And, despite the algorithms’ best efforts to recommend things I might like, I quite often find that my favorite discoveries are things I never expected to like, that I read or heard by accident, or because someone mentioned them in passing. I find that the story I put down once because it was the wrong day for me to read it, I often pick up again, much later and love, because it is a different day, and I, a different reader.

In a market-driven serial, my stepping away from the story could be viewed as a failure of the story, and I might be given something closer to what had drawn me along before. This is what, as a reader, I fear. This is what I do not want: more of my own reflection.

I have many, many horses in this race. I am a reader – a fast reader, an intense reader. I am a writer. And I am a maker of interactive narratives. I love the idea that some stories may change based on how I interact with them, but I am recoiling from the idea that it will be market-driven, instead of idea-driven. I want new ideas. I want to interact with the writer’s ideas, on their level, rather than forcing them to descend to mine.

Some other things I thought this morning, on reading the article, and the others in the excellent Fast Company series:

Our Reaction to Things Unfamiliar: Is there an algorithm that Amazon is using to fade in the impact of how culture reacts to newness? We are notorious as a people, in our comfortable modernity, for soaking in odd pleasures: Snooki, for instance, and America’s Next Top Model. We are also notorious for doing one of two things when we discover something new: destroying it (through over use, over troping, over criticism, or misunderstanding and over shouting) or putting it on such a high pedestal that everyone imitates it (which is in effect destroying it). An algorithm for cultural fear of the new, then, would adjust for those reactions, and would judge something beyond highlights and pauses in reading, right? It would sift fan chat boards for mentions, it would scope out a web of social media. Because that’s what happened to Terriers and Firefly and why those explorations of newness didn’t get cancelled and are entertaining us today. Right? Oh.

Homogeneity vs. Individualization vs. Something Else Entirely: Marketing studies and datapoints bring us to a split opportunity. We can over-homogenize the story or artwork or product until it is something Everyone Should Want – which is exactly the point where no one wants it. Or we can individualize it so that everyone gets a different experience – based on their data. How does that work, for fiction, and does the story ever end in that case? Do we generate One Story To Rule Them All? Or [yourname's] story, that no one else understands? Or something in the middle?

Influence: i.e.: trend-gaming and the commonality of the squeaky wheel. We can see how Amazon’s comments system is gamed by folks unhappy, not with the product, but with the delivery service (“book arrived wet. 1 star.”). We can see how fans and groups can bump a product higher, or knock it down, by brute force comment attacks. This is how one ‘helps’ arbitrate trends these days. Some even go so far as to sell it as a service. Far from bringing what is best and brightest to market, or what is most different or impactful, the process gives us a confused pile that we need to sort out on our own, signal from noise.

Courage and risk-taking: I admire the experiment of serialization, and I like the idea of subscription fiction, but only so far as it is an addition to the field, and not scheduled to become the entire field. I admire more the courage and the risk-taking that brings us books like Jo Walton’s Hugo- and Nebula-winning Among Others, anything by Mieville, Ben Okri, the Andy Duncans and Nalo Hopkinsons and Nnedi Okorafors of the world (so many author names could go here. I am on my first cup of coffee, please help me by bringing your own).

Yes, I want resonance in my reading. But I want serendipity and surprise, too.

Now I understand that I am musing, in public, on very little coffee. (I do this sometimes, but not very often.) It is my hope that you, dear reader, will jump into the fray and thrash the idea about with me.

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6 comments

  1. I had never heard of “Terriers” until reading this post and clicking through to the IMDb entry (way to do a blog post, btw! Behold the power of links!)…should I watch it?

    I’m right there with you on the “I know what I’ve liked but not what I will like.” I do look to see what “Other people who bought this also bought,” just like I consider Netflix’s recommendations, but “Terriers” has never once come up.

  2. Had this post in my to-read pile for a while now…

    I think the distinction here is a matter of fiction (or non-fiction, or TV, or film, or music, or…) as an art vs fiction (or …) as a commodity.

    A friend of mine used to do research polling for a local radio station – the sweet spot, statistically, was not to generate a set list of music people loved. The sweet spot was to generate a set list of music that people liked well enough (and weren’t sick of) that they didn’t feel compelled to reach for the dial.

    The Industry (as a generalized, monolithic Thing – and for books nowadays, a monolithic Thing whose dominant vector of force is Amazon’s analytical analysis) has no use for art, only salable units. But you can’t love a salable unit. A salable unit will never resonate with anyone, never touch someone’s heart, never open up new worlds.

    Not really sure what the solution is; commodities markets are rarely particularly kind to the producers, and not so great for the consumers, unless you happen to love bland and homogeneous. I guess as writers, we have a choice. Go where we hope the money is, or make something we love, and hope it hits that resonance frequency, that sweet spot that sings, for others.

    1. Vote resonance! Choose Resonance!

      Seriously, that’s a wonderful, and very thoughtful reply. Thank you for making it, Bernie.

      I don’t know where the sweet spot is either, but I hope it includes ways to open access to future readers who love to connect (in real, positive ways) with books of all types. Libraries, schools, independent bookstores, festivals and conventions all have a role to play in this. And each of those venues features something the analytics lack: a real person on each side of the book exchange, talking about why [title] is a good book to read, or how they experienced it. I think those exchanges happen on the Internet too. I’m just wary of the reading experience being boiled down to ‘page flips per second’. For one, this can be gamed, just like all analytics can. Second, people read in very different ways. IME, That’s something to be celebrated, not factored out.

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