Bob Dylan, Richard Wager. . . what algorithm could contain both? Photo: Pierre Guillaud/AFP/Getty Images
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SEO and algorithms? Numbers can't match up to plain good taste

Truly independent expertise can never be swayed. Numbers, on the other hand, can be manipulated reasonably easily.

After 30 years in business, Video City on Notting Hill Gate has been forced to shut. The much-loved DVD shop in west London was a victim of soaring business rates, escalating property prices (leading to the flight of bohemia) and, finally, the modern technology of streaming films on the internet.

I feel a personal debt of thanks. The films that have left a lasting impression on me in the past few years were mostly recommended to me by staff at Video City – The Lives of Others, a superb take on life in 1980s East Berlin; the Argentinian thriller The Secret in Their Eyes; Marriage Italian Style, starring Marcello Mastroianni.

They were much too smart, however, to think that good cinema had to be art-house or foreign-language. The best recommendation of all was Friday Night Lights, the television series about a high-school American football team in small-town Texas that hovers somewhere between Shakespeare and Home and Away.

It is true that the DVD rental store, like the CD shop, is a business model in apparently irreversible decline. Yet this column is not just a futile lament inspired by nostalgia. Some technological advances are victimless. With the exception, perhaps, of the bank teller, the ATM has been good for everyone. Sometimes, however, a new convenience comes with grave costs that emerge only slowly.

Visiting Video City was an experience, not a convenience. It was independent in every sense, an independence founded on disinterested expertise. Instead of deals with Hollywood studios and PR departments, its only leverage was good judgement. Its staff kept recommending good films, so customers kept going back.

To borrow a phrase from public service, this expertise was supplied at the point of delivery. And the expert had skin in the game. So the business relied on trust: the consumer trusted the knowledge and taste of the vendor. None of this applies to the industry that has replaced shops such as Video City: internet streaming. Because there is no human being present during the sale, streaming is good at providing you with what you already knew you wanted – or thought you wanted. It is bad at leading you towards things you didn’t know you wanted. As Henry Ford pointed out, “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.”

Instead of human expertise, streaming companies use an algorithm to make “recommendations” based on customers’ buying or search history. Amazon uses a similar technique. The algorithms are improving all the time but they usually make a central assumption that poorly serves a whole category of viewers and readers. Algorithms push viewers towards works in the same genre.

But what if you don’t have any genre preferences? What if you care only about quality (or, at least, your perception of quality), regardless of subject matter or genre? Using the four rentals I mentioned earlier as a guide, I might be recommended Spanish-language films about an American-football-playing prostitute. My wider aesthetic tastes tend towards Richard Wagner, Vikram Seth, Roger Federer and Bob Dylan. No algorithm is likely to capture all of these.

This has a troubling knock-on effect on the creative industries, as well as on consumers. It reinforces two forms of risk aversion. First, it encourages derivative works that try to cling to the coat-tails of recent successes. Second, genre dependency discourages artists – or those preoccupied with finding a reliable market – from moving between genres and seeking challenges. After one success, writers and directors are advised to spin it out in a series, a dubious franchising of the creative process.

Yet a common characteristic of the superb talents I listed above (with the exception of Federer) is that no sooner had they mastered one genre than they moved towards an entirely different one – usually by inventing or reinventing it.

It is also a misconception that doing business on the internet inherently tends towards democracy, as it uses numbers to gauge tastes. Quite the reverse. Truly independent expertise can never be swayed. Numbers, on the other hand, can be manipulated reasonably easily.

This is what happens when a firm offers to supply “search engine optimisation”. The product on sale here is the conscious and deliberate manipulation of the apparently democratic results that come up when words are typed into an online search engine. The larger a firm’s budget, the easier it is to pretend that its product – whether it is a service, a good or a person – is the most searched-for item when that cluster of words is typed into Google. “Democratic” ranking, to a degree, can be bought.

What about chat rooms and viewer reviews? With the decline of professional criticism (by which I mean properly paid professional criticism), people are increasingly likely to turn to amateur reviews. Most of these are doubtless authentic. The creative industries, however, have become all too worldly about social media “campaigns” that are designed to look spontaneous and organic.

In his book The New Few, Ferdinand Mount makes the persuasive point that ­corporate systems naturally tend towards oligarchy. The big players in any game have a self-interest in achieving a lockout of smaller upstarts.

With the extinction of a small, independent DVD shop in west London, a tiny bulwark against corporate control of the film industry has been lost. And it is another ­defeat for the true expert – the noble middleman – who makes his living by steering us gently towards what we didn’t know we wanted.

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 09 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The austerity war

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It's Gary Lineker 1, the Sun 0

The football hero has found himself at the heart of a Twitter storm over the refugee children debate.

The Mole wonders what sort of topsy-turvy universe we now live in where Gary Lineker is suddenly being called a “political activist” by a Conservative MP? Our favourite big-eared football pundit has found himself in a war of words with the Sun newspaper after wading into the controversy over the age of the refugee children granted entry into Britain from Calais.

Pictures published earlier this week in the right-wing press prompted speculation over the migrants' “true age”, and a Tory MP even went as far as suggesting that these children should have their age verified by dental X-rays. All of which leaves your poor Mole with a deeply furrowed brow. But luckily the British Dental Association was on hand to condemn the idea as unethical, inaccurate and inappropriate. Phew. Thank God for dentists.

Back to old Big Ears, sorry, Saint Gary, who on Wednesday tweeted his outrage over the Murdoch-owned newspaper’s scaremongering coverage of the story. He smacked down the ex-English Defence League leader, Tommy Robinson, in a single tweet, calling him a “racist idiot”, and went on to defend his right to express his opinions freely on his feed.

The Sun hit back in traditional form, calling for Lineker to be ousted from his job as host of the BBC’s Match of the Day. The headline they chose? “Out on his ears”, of course, referring to the sporting hero’s most notable assets. In the article, the tabloid lays into Lineker, branding him a “leftie luvvie” and “jug-eared”. The article attacked him for describing those querying the age of the young migrants as “hideously racist” and suggested he had breached BBC guidelines on impartiality.

All of which has prompted calls for a boycott of the Sun and an outpouring of support for Lineker on Twitter. His fellow football hero Stan Collymore waded in, tweeting that he was on “Team Lineker”. Leading the charge against the Murdoch-owned title was the close ally of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and former Channel 4 News economics editor, Paul Mason, who tweeted:

Lineker, who is not accustomed to finding himself at the centre of such highly politicised arguments on social media, responded with typical good humour, saying he had received a bit of a “spanking”.

All of which leaves the Mole with renewed respect for Lineker and an uncharacteristic desire to watch this weekend’s Match of the Day to see if any trace of his new activist persona might surface.


I'm a mole, innit.