Commentary

The Battle Between Art & The Algorithm

Technology ... is a queer thing.
It brings you great gifts with one hand,
and it stabs you in the back with the other.
--C.P. Snow, New York Times
, March 15, 1971

There's a battle raging, yet it's almost Truman Show-like in its subtlety. It's the battle between art and the algorithm. Between emotion and rationality. Between indescribable magic and perfect information.

As the granular world of relevance, measurability and accountability tightens its grip on the increasingly emaciated flesh of businesses struggling to re-tool quickly enough to survive, many are rushing too quickly away from striving for the magic that has characterized the work we all admire, no matter what the decade or canvas.

As far as I know, no one is trying to kill me. Yet, I sometimes feel a little like the unfortunate hero at the center of the dystopian sci-fi thriller "Minority Report," John Anderton. The famous mall scene in which Anderton (Tom Cruise), is assaulted by dozens of individually targeted ads -- some of which, much to his horror, even loudly broadcast his name as he passes -- represents a world a lot closer to ours than the fictional date of 2054.

It's a world of perfect targeting. Optimization. Zero wastage. Absolute utility. Total accountability.

More and more of what I see, hear, read and even taste seems exceptionally cunningly targeted at me. My RSS feeds me handpicked news streams. I get perfect movie recommendations via Netflix, books I'll enjoy via Amazon, uncannily relevant advertising when using Gmail, weirdly familiar music from Last fm. Satnav keeps me resolutely on the data-derived optimum track. And so on.

All remarkable stuff. It seems Arthur C. Clarke wasn't far off when he noted how "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

What could be possibly be wrong with all this? In this new world where relevance -- of information, of entertainment, of advertising, even of new social contacts -- is increasing by the atomically measured second, all powered by the extraordinary power of the Almighty Algorithm, what are we losing?

Well, these shifts are triggering a smoothing out in our experiences, prompting a reduction in serendipity and introducing a spooky predictability to many facets of our lives. It's becoming clear that ultra relevance comes with a hidden price. Because if everything's relevant, then nothing's unexpected, and if nothing's unexpected, then nothing surprises you, and if nothing surprises you, then that's a strange, neutralized, vanilla kind of life to lead. Think John Anderton meets Truman Burbank.

We're talking about the end of surprise.

John Stuart Mill, writing in 1836, coined the term "economic man" in painting a picture of someone who was an ultra-rational being. The day Google was born in 1998 could be said to be the birthday of "algorithmic man" or the ultra-relevant being. Some might argue this is an inevitable cultural outcome of the fusion of technology and economics, the creeping onset of what Mill called "perfect information." Yet, just as economic man didn't really exist, nor does algorithmic man.

And right there is the opportunity for marketing: to deliver not just relevance, but revelation.

Surprise is the "killer" form of impact, driving engagement, and powering word of mouth. As the world slides towards increasing reverence of relevance, the opportunity is to re-commit to touching people in powerful ways that genuinely surprise them, whether with products, experiences or communications. We must re-find our ability to craft magic, to move people, to deliver the unexpected, never-seen-before experience, to blow minds and touch hearts. That doesn't mean fighting against the algorithm; on the contrary, it could mean working with it.

How? A tiny amount of work currently does this.

McCann's work for Halo 3 is a brilliant example of how great interactive can genuinely move people by reframing something that they've seen before (the honoring of heroes) in a surprising way -- in this case through alloying personalization and interactivity with emotion.

Just about anything by Jonathan Harris hits this spot on. His "We Feel Fine" from 2005 is an exploration of human emotion on a global scale. It's a brilliant coming together of art and mathematics, a fusion of art and the algorithm, resulting in a compelling, immersive experience that touches users (still) because it is profound, simple, beautiful and occasionally funny all at the same time.

But too little work has played in this area. Only a handful of businesses of any shape, size or persuasion seem to have succeeded in marrying the two -- art and the algorithm, magic and interactivity, surprise and efficiency -- in how they operate and in what they produce.

How might this be achieved?

One, creative businesses need to cherish and empower the people who understand technology, consumers' relationships with it, and brands potential uses for it. Technology must be the catalyst of a new creativity, not just a set of new delivery channels or production options.

Two, creative businesses need to create arranged marriages between these people (the algorithmicists) and the magicians or artists. Only a fusion of these two strands of creativity at the earliest conceivable opportunity in a process will lead to the most adventurous outcomes.

Three, in an era where everything that was once solid does appear to be melting into air, creative businesses need to recommit to surprise as a potent strand of engagement. To paraphrase Ming Yeow Ng, one of the founders of Discover.io, if discovery is the new cocaine, then we'd all be wise to get a whole lot better at dealing in not just relevance, but revelation.

We believe this is the opportunity for the marketing and communications industry. Exploiting the awesome power of the new world of relevance whilst creating more surprising and engaging experiences. In short, then, how can we encourage a collision between art and the algorithm?

Far from having all the answers, we have so much to learn. So more immediately, we'd really appreciate your feedback, ideas, and viewpoints.

Go on, surprise us.

Editor's note: If you'd like to contribute to this newsletter, see our editorial guidelines first and then contact Nina Lentini.

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3 comments about "The Battle Between Art & The Algorithm ".
  1. Margie p. Jepson from Entergy , April 27, 2009 at 10:05 a.m.

    This is a well-thought-out, eloquently delivered NEW thought for communicators across a broad range - PR, marketing, search, etc.
    Ben, thanks for SURPRIZING us and challenging us to be innovative on a higher plane.

    Margie

  2. Albert Azout from Sociocast Networks , April 27, 2009 at 12:19 p.m.

    Ben, great piece. I certainly think the future of personalization is (a) injecting novelty (i.e. new but familiar surprises) and (b) leveraging the power of emergent contextual networks to tie the knot between passive information retrieval and the flow of influence and expertise. We are working on this at Sociocast. The "art" of it all is in building real utilities that bring that elegant surprise factor. Thanks!

  3. Craig Elimeliah from Freedom + Partners , April 28, 2009 at 11:09 a.m.

    Very well written piece, however its hard for me to believe that anyone will stand behind this. We all find ourselves in this trap to appease our clients and executives, to just produce crap that turns our audiences into mindless drones and to create work as uninspired and soggy as day old cereal.

    When will we all wake up and return to the days where we have fun selling things, where we appeal to the human soul rather than the evil inclination, where we sell good things to good people and not use trickery and mind games to seduce the public to over indulge in garbage that they simply dont need?

    We are way too targeted, we are way too smart for our audiences and what will happen is it will backlash, we will no longer be trusted not to peer into the private lives of the public and they will go into hiding in order to avoid our foot in the door.

    What needs to be done is to re-establish our relationship with the public, to make the consumers feel good about themselves again. Tactics like fear and insecurity, greed and sex are so easy to implement, like selling candy to child. What we need to do is to challenge ourselves as an industry to sell through what you have described.

    Surprise!

    That feeling of walking past that store window with no intention of buying anything that day but seeing something that caught your eye and you simply must have it.

    Or to surprise people with more value but educating them about the products that they already use and to make them feel better about using them.

    We got to get this right or we will find ourselves living in that world of Minority Report.