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1 June 2015

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.

By David Byrne

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.

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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.

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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.


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