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  • Writer's picturethree bent legs

How Algorithms affect Creativity

In today's post I wanted to share my thoughts on web algorithms and how they affect us creatively.

To begin at the beginning.

When I was a wee lass, my family would go to the video store every week. My local was Video Ezy. We would spend over an hour going through the aisles, reading the blurbs on VHS and DVD covers and finally picking our movies after a painstaking process of elimination. It was a task of the utmost importance, a duty not to be taken lightly. It could not be rushed - if only to avoid the fury of your family if you picked something godawful. See, back in the olden days (where I come from), there was only one TV in the house and we'd have to watch each other's movies.

Just take a look at that graphic design.

My mother loved thrillers - a real fan of bunny boilers - so there was always one of those in the bunch. My brother would pick something like Reservoir Dogs, that sort of thing. And I would likely pick some favourite of the prepubescent '90s female, something like Cruel Intentions or The Craft.

Some part of me still thinks I'm a witch.

Walking through the aisles of the video store, I was exposed to a lot of movies I might not have found otherwise. Even if I was looking within a particular genre, I didn't know what I might find. And then, because we only had one VCR in the house, we all watched each other's movies - whether we liked it or not. So I saw a lot of films and different genres that I might not have necessarily gravitated to if left to my own devices. For which I'm very grateful.

Now it's easier than ever to find movies from all around the world, instantaneously - it's also cheaper than ever with the multitude of streaming services. So does this mean we're more cosmopolitan in our tastes than our forebears? Heck no. In fact, probably the opposite is true. Just because it's easier to access a wide variety of art, movies, literature, fashion, culture, etc., etc. ad nauseum, doesn't necessarily mean that we seek out greater variety.

In fact, The Algorithm more often than not pushes us towards more of the same.

I myself have fallen foul of The Algorithm, dear reader. Guided by the malevolent hand of The Algorithm, I, too, have fallen down Netflix bingeholes more times than I care to count. In these filthy, sordid bingeholes I've found myself watching movies and true-crime documentaries that all look and sound and feel the same. And they are, of course, presently enjoyable but ultimately unsatisfying.

"Recommended for you": what kindly, sinister words.

It makes for an easy and comfortable watch. And you don't have to look too hard. As my father is wont to say, "Humans are naturally lazy creatures."

In the long run, you miss out on gems.

I find the same thing happening when I look on my Instagram explore page. Like a baby bird greedily devouring its mother's regurgitation, I'm fed mostly only the content that I've "liked," recently searched, or whatever's "trending" - which, don't get me wrong, The Algorithm has its benefits, sure - but it's not great to always see what you've always seen. If you're never exposed to ideas that are challenging or outside your realm of experience then you may as well take your ball and go home.

The fundamental problem with The Algorithm is that is does not reward genuine creativity or insight. It rewards More of the Same. And as social media platforms and streaming services become ever more important to businesses and artists, there is a compulsion to deliver what The Algorithm is hungry for if you are to be able to compete. If being genuinely different gets you shuffled to the bottom of the deck, it just doesn't pay to be different.

Anyway, to the meat and potatoes of the thing.

What lead me here is this: the other night I was wandering about the internet and a Buzzfool article appeared, and in that article there was a picture, and in that picture there was a person standing in a Blockbuster Video. I had a proverbial whirlwind of emotion. I thought about how my children won't get to experience movies in the same way I did, and that no matter what streaming services they use, they will be constantly referred to things that are like the things they've already seen. They will not know life without The Algorithm.

I can't find half of the older movies that I'm looking for, things that I have seen and know exist, on these streaming platforms. A lot of them just aren't there. And there's no longer any video store that I can pop down to and rent them. For all intents and purposes, these movies are gone. So it's very unlikely that anyone will stumble over these things by accident and discover them that way we used to.

Forgive me if I'm beginning to sound like she looks. Back in my day, etc...

The power of The Algorithm means that this cultural amnesia extends across all the content that we consume.

Why spend the time finding or doing something challenging or different when easily-digestible entertainment is a click away? The Algorithm is your big birdie mama, and she wants to feed you some pre-digested content.

Boredom and solitude have always been necessary for my creativity. I think that's true of everyone, in order to do something truly creative. One of my favourite things to do when I get stuck is to go for a walk by myself or sit in a room with nothing to do and no distractions.

Anyone who grew up in the 1990s will remember only going on the internet for only like an hour a day. After fighting your siblings tooth and claw over the computer. It took forever and it felt really special.

But today, having the internet at your fingertips all day, full of things to distract you, screaming for your attention, is a huge bummer, man. Like, be careful what you wish for, y'know?

At the risk of sounding like a grumpy old codger, The Algorithm has already made us demonstrably more narrow-minded, has shortened attention spans and fostered an avoidance of anything challenging - it even feeds political division. Creative industries like movies, music, fashion, and photography are going as stale as last week's bread. Increasingly, things look, feel and sound alike. And the people who risk doing things a little differently get pushed out.

The Algorithm is like the popular kids in an American high school movie. They decide what's cool, and they freeze you out if you ain't it. But the popular kid sucks, man. She's boring and her parents are alcoholics. She ain't shit. Only you find that out too late.

But hopefully there will be a turning point. As content creators continue to feel compelled to produce uninspired content to compete on these platforms, hopefully audiences will at last have a thirst for what is new and different. Things that actually enrich us and add to our lives.

And if you got this far, thank you. I know my rants may not be the funnest but I have something to say god damn it.

See you in the next one

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