Perhaps one of the more interesting five-minute fads of the internet in 2014 was the concept of a nutritional drink called Soylent. Its creator, software engineer Rob Rhinehart, managed to crowdfund over $2.1 million to research a drink that could act as the ultimate food: a single substance that you would consume for three meals a day and in doing so satisfy all your nutritional needs. With less time spent worrying about how to cut spuds into julienne, you could then devote more hours to browsing the web for the next five-minute fad.
The obvious counter-point to an idea like Soylent is that it drains the enjoyment out of food, would put Delia Smith out of business, and make eating just another one of those things you have to do before you can have fun, like taking out the rubbish or calling your mother back.
But interestingly, the model for Soylent shares many comparisons with what video-on-demand behemoth Netflix are currently researching for the field of entertainment. Tim Wu wrote recently in the New Yorker about the arrival in Sundance of a new documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone, that was funded by Netflix and based in part on data they have accumulated around peoples' viewing habits, in an attempt to form a piece of entertainment that matches what people already like.
Furthermore, the Netflix blog is loaded with information on the kind of things they access in peoples' account histories; going beyond simply what people have most watched, they now consider a host of factors, such as at what point you stop watching something, and which different things people are watching concurrently. They do this mainly to hold your place for you until you next sign in, but the implications are clear: with this kind of market research directly to hand, Netflix could now theoretically feed all this ready-made market research into a Rube Goldberg machine and come out at the end with a film or show that everyone will love; a Soylent Movie, if you will. Their crowning original achievements House of Cards and Orange Is The New Black serve as testament to this formula at its most successful.
Of course, deciding on what people want to see by considering what is already popular is not so much an old idea as it is the absolute prime directive of movie and TV producers since day one; what's new is the range of data readily available. Rather than the limited accuracy of something like Nielson ratings, collating data from a small sample group to make assumptions about the whole, Netflix has access to the whole, and merely needs to find the patterns; Wired recently ran an article going as far as to examine the colour palettes of different posters to show how we can be convinced to tune-in through certain colour schemes.
The longer this continues, the more hits they have to work from, could this potentially result in an Ultimate Diversion? Something that recalls the sinister Entertainment from David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest? One of the many plot strands in Wallace's seminal 1996 novel involves a man directing a film so utterly watchable that it renders the viewer glued to their sofa until they starve, creating in effect something so enjoyable that it ends up being disseminated by terrorists to lull the masses into submission. While the outcome doesn't have to be viewed with such a pessimistic slant, it brings up further questions about the ability in our current technological age for companies to pinpoint so specifically what people want before they themselves are even aware they wanted something.
During a recent failed foray into online dating, I filled out an endless personality questionnaire on Plenty Of Fish, and was asked things ranging from the cute and innocent ('Are you generally more of a messy or a tidy person?') to the soul-crushing ('In general, how afraid are you of failure?'), and was amazed to find at the end that Plenty Of Fish knew my 'type', to a eerily specific degree: I want a quirky girl next door Juno who plays a ukulele in a local skiffle band, reads young angry authors and enjoys alternative baking. It then cobbled together a rough list of fifty or so girls within a mile of me who came close to that.
On one hand, this paints a future infinite Golden Era of film and television and dating, in which Netflix can personalise every new film I watch to be the Best Film I've Ever Seen, and Plenty of Fish can create endless unrequited lists of Ones that can Get Away. But this ideal Stepford televisual and romantic paradise is disturbing in its implication: I am not a unique snowflake. Everything I enjoy is the result of brain chemistry that can be replicated in a lab. You have as little choice in how your taste matures as you do in deciding your shoe size or which tube train to take to get you from King's Cross to Victoria.
But for Netflix at least, they still seem quite a long way off from knowing exactly what it is I want. I appreciate your trying, Netflix, but despite my admitted interest in independent and foreign cinema, I wasn't too excited by your recommendation of The Human Centipede. Better luck next time.