Transforming Hollywood 8: The Work of Art in the Age of Algorithmic Culture

A Message from the Directors

Transforming Hollywood 8: The Work of Art in the Age of Algorithmic Culture, reframes Walter Benjamin’s oft-quoted essay about technology’s double-edged sword: Mechanical reproduction fundamentally alters the original artwork’s unique auratic properties but makes it accessible to the masses. According to University of Colorado Boulder Professor Ted Striphas, “the growing prevalence of recommendation features such as those you find on Amazon.com signals the displacement of human judgment into algorithmic form, which raises all sorts of questions about taste aggregation — questions with which scholars in the humanities…have only begun to grapple.” Streaming on-demand services grant consumers greater choice and democratic access to media content (letting us choose what to watch and when to watch it); however, the price of this exchange is unfettered access to our consumer impulses via sophisticated surveillance tactics that track our online activities 24/7. Ted Hope, the newly appointed head of Amazon Studios’ film division, lays out the implicit pact we’ve forged with the major tech platforms: “Amazon Studios’ flood of investment in the movie business is designed to revive a market for independent films,” he says. At the same time, however, he observes wryly: “At Amazon, to quote Jeff Bezos, we make movies to sell shoes. The movies are essentially advertising for the (e-commerce) platform.” Welcome to the future of art (as advertising) in the age of algorithmic culture.

While Netflix has received the lion’s share of press and notoriety for disrupting traditional Hollywood, given its $6 billion investment in original content and its global expansion to 190 territories, the “big four” tech platforms — Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon (GAFA)—have infinitely more capital (and data) to spare when it comes to the risky business of growing a media and entertainment industry. Each has its own core business to fall back on: Google has search and advertising; Apple has its hardware-software business; Facebook has social media and advertising; and Amazon has its e-commerce business. Media, it turns out, is the ideal lure to keep users inside their powerful digital ecosystems as long as consumers accept datavaillance as the price of admission.

As Hollywood and Silicon Valley battle for supremacy, the current crisis in media stems from an unmanageable sea of online content made available by competing subscription-based (SVOD) and advertising-supported (AVOD) streaming services, including Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, YouTube Red, Vimeo, Seeso, Crackle, CBS Everywhere, HBO Go, CW Seed, Verizon Go90, and so forth. Streaming music services, such as Spotify, Pandora, Apple Music and Tidal, have also joined the original content derby, with Apple’s repurposing of James Cordon’s Carpool Karaoke and Tidal’s exclusive streaming of Beyonce’s Lemonade being prime examples. Compounding the existing churn of data-driven content is what’s being generated by millennial-facing online news formats such as Vice, Buzzfeed and Mic; each is disrupting legacy news organizations — The New York Times, The Washington Post and Wall Street Journal among them — once revered for their veteran editors who curate the news and seasoned reporters who research all sides of complex issues. The backlash that followed the recent election cycle prompted Wired to report: “There’s a very dark mood in Silicon Valley right now…Google and Facebook also seem to be feeling a need to grapple with the role they have played. Both have undertaken highly visible initiatives to curb fake news…” While the platforms were able to scale rapidly by giving unfettered access to all forms of third-party-generated content, in their new role as original content producers the tech founders are starting to reflect on their social responsibility to curate culture. This year’s conference examines the legacy of Netflix and YouTube, as influencers, creator-entrepreneurs and engineers contribute to the seemingly endless flood of scripted series and short-form, snackable content that vies for our attention. One question looms large — will flesh and blood experts or data-driven algorithms ultimately control the production, delivery and reception of our shared cultural knowledge going forward?

— Co-directors Denise Mann and Henry Jenkins

Proudly presented by the Andrew J. Kuehn Jr. Foundation