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The Brave New World of Big Data

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 Internet.

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 Automated?”)

“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 katepstein@gmail.com.

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