David Byrne, who is curating the Southbank Centre's Meltdown festival. Photo: CHALKIE DAVIES/GETTY IMAGES
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David Byrne: a great curator beats any big company's algorithm

The Talking Heads member on curating the Southbank Centre's Meltdown festival, the unfairness of book awards, and why the best line-ups surprise.

I was asked many months ago to suggest acts and shows for this year’s Meltdown festival at the Southbank Centre in London. I’ve already done it – we’re now adding a few more acts and tying up loose ends. In contemporary parlance, the verb “to curate” is often employed to describe this process and quite a few of us hold our noses when we utter it as a result of its perceived overuse. It does, however, describe something valuable, beyond making a seemingly random selection based on simple criteria such as top-selling, most emailed or newest (though those, technically, are forms of curation, too).

Nowadays, everything and everyone can be curated. There are curators of socks, menus and dirt bike trails. Art museums and biennales flaunt their curatorial credits. Bard College, near New York City, offers degrees in curatorial studies. That doesn’t mean choosing socks and cheeses but aren’t the process and effect somewhat similar? Anyone who has come up with a top-ten list is, in effect, a curator. And anyone who clicks “Like” is a curator. Everyone does it – but what does “it” mean?

Why now?

Why this insistent emphasis on choices and filtering now? It’s obvious: when everything is available, within reach, accessible, the problem becomes not one of scarcity but of abundance. Where to find, amid the glut, what is right for you? How to separate the music from the noise? Pre-internet (and before there was a host of world music guidebooks), I used to go to a record store in Times Square subway station and buy Latin records. Did I know anything about them? Very, very little. I was following vague clues – the cover graphics, the producer, the band members, the other artists on the same label. A risky way to find stuff, it would seem, but once you learn to read those clues, the odds are surprisingly good. Still, I got some real clunkers. I then made compilations, so others wouldn’t have to do what I did.

Who could parse all those cover art clues, now that there aren’t many stores? Who should you trust in helping with your choices? That bestowal of trust, as we drown in information, becomes incredibly valuable. A music and arts festival helps us find a path through the thicket of offerings. Recommendation allows us to find what we might love (matchmaking services offer a kind of curation, too) and to find our material and fulfil our pragmatic needs without wandering in the wilderness. It is as valuable, one might say, as the things themselves. Hello, Google? Isn’t its search algorithm a form of curation? Scoff at curation all you want – it’s only going to loom larger in your life.

The most trusted and effective curation comes from our friends and I don’t mean our social network friends, many of whom we’ve never met. Personal curation – making a mix tape or recommending a book or some music to a friend – initiates a kind of potlatch process, an exchange of information that you not only take seriously, as it’s from a friend, but that will continue as you in turn recommend something on some future date. Curation of this sort is a kind of social glue. There is another benefit from an exchange with someone you trust. The act of gift-giving releases oxytocin in the brain; the same thing happens when you feel trusted. If you inhale oxytocin in a laboratory experiment, your generosity to strangers skyrockets. So this kind of curatorial exchange doesn’t just spread information and feel good – it ripples out and is good for society as a whole.

Awards as curation

The Turner, Booker, Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes and the Oscars, Grammys and Tonys all help us focus on a manageable number of options. The effect is profound. Here, from an anonymous source, is the rough effect of the Booker Prize on book sales. The average work of literary fiction in the UK sells between 500 and 1,000 copies; if one gets on to the longlist, sales can then jump to between 10,000 and 50,000. If a book makes it on to the shortlist, I’m told, it goes higher, culminating in sales for the winner that can reach around 500,000 or more.

There is a churning mass of writers down at the bottom and then there are those who might be able to make a living from their writing, all based on one damn prize. There are also the Oprah’s Book Club picks. With these, one has to identify with Winfrey’s sensibility somewhat to be influenced, so not everyone buys in to her suggestions. One has to choose carefully who to trust for recommendations. We are curating the curators.

On Broadway, plays on the verge of closing can spring back to life if they get a Tony (A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder was affected last year). Do Oliviers bestow the same effect? Ask Ray Davies . . . I don’t give Grammys much credence but they do have an effect on artists who aren’t big stars yet. The list goes on. With these prizes, one assumes they are not based on personal taste or on kickbacks to the judges – so even if one does not agree with the generally unadventurous choices of the Oscars and Grammys, the effect for some is significant. The huge disparity between the sales of the nominees and those of the overlooked seems unfair. Surely there are worthies among the left-behind gems lying undiscovered, ignored for the moment, only to be celebrated 50 years hence as the works of genius they always were? Curation, when there are so few winners, isn’t fair.

The impersonal curator

Social media recommendations, of course, are a form of curation. The internet memes and viral eruptions, the algorithms and whims of the herd, sweep us along and these, too, increase the value of the things they recommend. Are they unbiased? Not so much. They’re often trying to sell you something, or gather information on you that they can then sell to someone else, so trust in that world is a rare commodity.

Occasionally, though, there appear to be no strings attached and something interesting, unexpected and worthwhile sees the light of day. Algorithms that imitate how we make choices have rushed in to direct us surreptitiously towards products and services for which they have determined that we must be the perfect demographic. Recommendation algorithms seduce us into buying products. They are a kind of invisible marketing that pretends to be altruistically helping you to find a book that is just what you were looking for. (If you like this, then you’ll like that.) And as those algorithms become better and get more access to your data, their predictions will become uncannily accurate. The machine becomes your trusted friend. We begin to love our algorithms and the gadgets that deliver them, mistaking the messenger for the message.

The recommendations of the herd also have an undeniable curatorial power. I check Amazon’s customer reviews (and the website’s suggestions based on my previous purchases); Rotten Tomatoes wields more power than most film reviewers and Trip­Advisor and Yelp live or die based on the presumed usefulness of the reviews of a herd of amateurs. I recently got a colander that I suddenly realised I needed; a CD (yes, it was the only available option) by an Italian singer whose other record I loved; and a book on psychedelic therapy (not for me, you understand!).

Presumably the same thing could be applied to all aspects of our lives. Our past choices in all areas can be analysed to predict future choices. Our taste in music, movies, books, news articles and clothes can be analysed – but also our sexual proclivities, political alliances and moral decisions. Those can be deduced and used to make recommendations. Everything we think we are, it seems, can be predicted, the probabilities sifted – and the chances are that what we do will fall inside the bell curve of predicted behaviour. Free will? Are you kidding?

Secret curation

Facebook curates what the folks who use it see first. Last year, it revealed that it had tampered with news feeds in an experiment to see if it could affect the moods and emotions of its “customers”. Not surprisingly, this did have an effect. Would you like more happy news? Do happier customers buy more, or click more? Is this a kind of curation by our own secret selves? As Facebook knows so much about us, happy news could be tailored based on our previous behaviour. We are happy denizens of the matrix.

That’s an exaggeration but it could happen. Facebook got criticised for treating people like guinea pigs – albeit happy guinea pigs – but the chances are that there are lots more social media services filtering what we see surreptitiously and sometimes to our innocent and blissfully ignorant delight: to make the world a better place, as the people in Silicon Valley endlessly repeat.

Should we welcome any happiness increase, even if it’s based on illusions? In a thought experiment that the philosopher Robert Nozick named the “Experience Machine”, one was given the option of infinite, ignorant bliss. Most people declined to accept – we’d prefer some squalid reality, The Matrix’s red pill – but we do seem to accept the idea if the illusion is presented as being the result of our own choice.

Surprise!

In contrast to all of the above, what I and other “experts” offer is surprise. Many of us are strays from the herd. We artists are the antennae of the society, Ezra Pound once said. I’m not sure I would make that claim but let’s assume that some of my recommendations are unexpectedly prescient. Can one place a value on being surprised? While the wisdom of crowds has been a popular digirati meme, sometimes the outlier – or a small group of them – is the one who has taken the time to find a better way or to try something new, to take a risk on something surprising. In some ways, we ensure the survival of the soul. It’s a bold claim and some will scoff, depending on whether their tastes align at all with mine.

What is the value of the information brought back by the bee that is willing to explore an unusual flower? The value of encountering an idea, an artist or a writer outside the well-trodden and machine-predictable paths? I would never call myself an expert but my point of view and experience, being a wee bit outside the norm, are a little more biased, skewed, pre-edited and peculiar than what those herd-based and algorithmic services come up with. I’d love to think that what I’m doing serves this need in a way that big data and learning algorithms cannot. Those choices stem from my natural curiosity, which leads me to some wonderful places; there is the time I allot to poking around, listening to music and checking out unusual performance groups. Most people don’t have the time or incentive. They rely on people such as me to do it, which I happily do.

My choices for Meltdown were never completely free, unlimited and indulgent – they are not the result of blue-sky thinking and wishing. I know that I can’t have whatever act or show I want. There are economic factors at play: what kind of shows can go on, weighed against the cost of those shows. It’s a bit of a Tetris game. Fun puzzle-solving.

What does it all mean?

Having a choice, according to a study by Ruut Veenhoven at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, increases happiness in our lives – political choices most of all. (Or maybe just the illusion of choice will do.) But how much can we take of those exponentially increasing happy choices before we are overwhelmed with options and the forking paths lead us not to happiness but instead to anxiety and malaise? When do we reach the point at which we raise our voices and cry for the nearest available curator to help us out of our misery? This is the curator as superhero – and it means, I think, that we noise-filterers who are quirkier and less predictable than an algorithm or the herd might still have a place.

David Byrne’s Meltdown starts in August at the Southbank Centre, London SE1

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Saying the Unsayable

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How the death of a militant in Kashmir went viral

Burhan Wani was a 22-year-old Hizb al-Mujahedin commander. In life, he resuscitated the flagging insurgency. Now, his death has put it on a firm road to revival.

His photographs began to circulate on Facebook last year. In one, he leans against a cedar tree in a forest in southern Kashmir, a Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder. In another, he stands before lush green mountains under a cloudless sky.

But the picture that created the myth of Burhan Wani, the 22-year-old Hizb al-Mujahedin commander, was a group shot with ten armed associates standing around him. They faced the camera calmly, a hint of a smile tugging at their lips. The photograph went viral, not only in Kashmir but also across India and Pakistan.

On 8 July, when Wani and two other rebels were shot dead in a joint operation by the police and paramilitary forces, thousands of people across southern Kashmir took to the streets to mourn and protest. The mosques reverberated with slogans of freedom – a throwback to the late 1980s, when armed struggle against Indian rule broke out in the region. The protesters lobbed stones. The police fired back.

The following morning, news of protesters’ deaths started to emerge. The injured, numbering in their hundreds, began to reach the hospitals in Srinagar. Many had been hit in the eyes with pellets from pump-action guns, non-lethal weapons used for crowd control in Kashmir since 2010.

The eye doctors at Sri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital said that more than a hundred people had been partially or completely blinded. Among them was a 14-year-old schoolgirl, Insha Malik, who lost the vision in both eyes. A picture of her pellet-riddled face has become the symbol of the ongoing mayhem.

The fury soon spread across Kashmir. Mosque loudspeakers boomed with slogans and songs calling for resistance against India. Apart from the government-owned broadband service, internet and mobile-phone networks were shut down. Yet this made little difference. Roughly sixty people – many of them teenagers – have lost their lives. According to figures presented to parliament by the Indian home minister on 11 August, 4,515 security personnel and 3,356 civilians have been injured in the protests.

What made Burhan Wani important enough to warrant such widespread mourning and anger? The answer is tacitly understood in Kashmir but little articulated. In his six years as a rebel, Wani revived anti-India militancy from near-extinction. His strategy was primarily tech-driven – according to police in Kashmir, he hadn’t fired a single shot.

The image of a handsome young man in battle fatigues against a pastoral backdrop, calling for a new attempt at jihad against India, held a powerful appeal for a young generation in Kashmir. These are the people who are enduring the fallout of more than two decades of separatist insurgency, and they are bitter about New Delhi’s oppressive hold over their homeland. With his fresh, viral image, Wani separated his movement from Kashmir’s history and bestowed a new moral glamour on their actions.

He was soon joined by scores of recruits. In 2015, for the first time in a decade, local militants outnumbered outsiders. This year, out of 145 active rebels, 91 are from Indian-administered Kashmir and most of the rest are from Pakistan or Pakistan-administered Kashmir (though this is still a far cry from the early 1990s, when thousands of militants, both local and from elsewhere, roamed the valley). The recruits – many of them home-grown, Wani-inspired youths – are replenishing the ranks as others are killed.

As the ongoing turmoil shows, Wani long ago transcended his modest militant credentials. He has become an emblem of Kashmir’s deepening alienation from India and a role model for young people for whom guns seem to be the only route to a better future.

In life, he resuscitated the flagging insurgency. Now, his death has put it on a firm road to revival. Unlike during the mass uprisings of 2008 and 2010, Kashmir today is drifting back to active militancy, with the myths about Wani enlivening the separatist narrative.

“You will kill one Burhan; thousands of Burhans will be born”, one slogan goes. “Burhan, your blood will bring revolution”, promises another. The millennial generation has little memory of the horrors of the 1990s, of the innumerable killings and disappearances. An estimated 60,000 people have been killed in the armed rebellion against New Delhi, in part aided by Pakistan (which claims Kashmir as part of its territory, in a dispute that stretches back to the 1947 partition of India). Human rights groups put the number of enforced disappearances in the present conflict at 8,000.

Contributing to this mood are India’s rightward turn under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the perception that New Delhi wants to forcibly change the demographics in Kashmir. This fear has been reinforced by recent government measures to set up colonies to be settled by Indian soldiers and Kashmiri Pandits – the latter from a small Hindu community that was forced to flee the region during the separatist violence.

At Wani’s funeral on 9 July, all eyes were on a group of masked rebels in the front row. They fired their guns in salute to their fallen chief. When prayers ended, the mourners strained to catch a glimpse of Wani’s comrades. Those who were close enough kissed them on the forehead before they escaped.

More than a month later, the anger on the streets shows no sign of abating. Protests take place daily across Kashmir. Businesses are shut down for most of the day, opening only briefly late in the evening and early in the morning. Internet access is restricted, except through the state-owned broadband. With each week of disturbances, the numbers of deaths and injuries continue to mount.

Meanwhile, a new video has appeared on Facebook and YouTube. This time, it comes from Sabzar Ahmad Bhat, Wani’s successor. Again, it shows a commander and his associates in battle fatigues, in a forest in southern Kashmir. Bhat waves to the camera as the others remain engrossed by their phones. It, too, has gone viral. 

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge