“House of Cards,” Netflix, and Big Data Ambivalence

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“House of Cards,” Netflix, and Big Data Ambivalence

April 2, 2016
by Ken Gordon

Netflix seems to know what I like… and I have mixed feelings about this.

On the one hand, the ubiquitous streaming service informed me, a few weeks ago, that a hot-out-of-the-oven season of House of Cards, one of my favorites, was available for viewing. I still recall my Pavlovian gratitude when the nav bar “dinged” with the notification. A reliable Netflix recommendation cuts down considerably on search time.

But nearly as often Netflix gets it wrong. For instance, while I did check out a music documentary called History of the Eagles—I wanted to see if Glen Frey came off as badly in the documentary as I had remembered—that didn’t mean I wanted to watch a doc called The ’85 Bears (no offense, Coach Ditka!). This recommendation was so wrong it was actually funny: “You must be interested in documentaries set in the recent past with the names of animals in the title.”

When Netflix makes comically incorrect assumptions about my viewing habits, I think: (1) the Netflix algorithm is far from perfect; and (2) it’s a relief to know that neither Netflix, nor I, know exactly what I want to see until I see it. This uncertainty is what makes the search for compelling content—on Netflix, in a bookstore, or anywhere else—fun. There’s also something repulsive about a machine knowing too much about our aesthetic preferences. Netflix has clearly not reached the point where it uses customer data to make inappropriate suggestions based on our viewing habits. The imperfection of many of the recommendations makes Netflix feel weirdly human (or at least, non-robotic). As author John C. Havens recently said, “For the time being, we can still see Oz behind the curtain—at least some of the time.”

As someone who works for a company that does human-centered design, the human-feeling thing is a big deal to me. What I like so much about House of Cards is that it illustrates what life might actually feel like for Washington power players. But when I scroll back to the creation story of the Kevin Spacey series… I feel, again, ambivalence. Listen to how the late great David Carr wrote, in 2013, about how Netflix had data mined its way to House of Cards:

Executives at the company knew it would be a hit before anyone shouted ‘action.’ Netflix, which has 27 million subscribers in the nation and 33 million worldwide, ran the numbers. It already knew that a healthy share had streamed the work of Mr. Fincher, the director of The Social Network, from beginning to end. And films featuring Mr. Spacey had always done well, as had the British version of House of Cards. With those three circles of interest, Netflix was able to find a Venn diagram intersection that suggested that buying the series would be a very good bet on original programming.

The idea of art being so specifically informed by big data gave me a chill. Was there something, I don’t know, manipulative, about using this kind of calculation in producing House of Cards? It seemed to me, at least at the time, somehow unfair that they knew it would be a hit before anyone shouted, “action”!

But now I’m thinking that maybe this was just my humanistic bias. It seems heretical to think of databases as a way to create art…but if we looked at data as simply another artistic tool, we might feel differently about it. (We must also note that data informed only the creative parameters of the show. The real magic is in what Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright, David Fincher, and Co. contributed.) I recall the great Vladimir Nabokov once asking: “Does there not exist a high ridge where the mountainside of ‘scientific’ information joins the opposite slope of ‘artistic’ imagination?” I think, in a weird way, that Netflix might be the magic mountain of which Nabokov spoke.

Vladimir Nabokov once asked: “Does there not exist a high ridge where the mountainside of ‘scientific’ information joins the opposite slope of ‘artistic’ imagination?” I think, in a weird way, that Netflix might be that magic mountain.

Having finished watching season four of House of Cards, one notices that the show is quite aware of the dangers of data and customer manipulation. Without revealing any spoilers, I can say that the idea of collecting user data for extreme targeting is something the producers of House of Cards clearly understand. The show suggests that Pollyhop has so much data at their fingertips that they can significantly sway the outcome of an election.

Scary? Yes. And not just for its political implications. The Pollyhop plot seems to be House of Cards’s way of warning the audience about the dangers of making data acquisition and analysis perfect and invisible. It may well be that they’re expressing their own ambivalence toward it. Clearly someone at Netflix understands the moral dilemma, or that there is at least something potentially dangerous about all this useful data. This is something all businesses must attend to as we move toward digital transformation.

Think about how the use of big data might affect your employees and your customers. Not just by how much you’ll profit from it, but by how it might wind up crashing into their lives, for good or ill. It’s clear that big data is a power tool that companies are still learning how to handle. Now is the time to imagine how big data will affect not just the bottom line but humanity as well. And if the responsibility that this carries creates a sense of ambivalence in you, don’t worry—that reaction is perfectly human.

Image by MEDIODESOCIDO/CC/by-sa/2.0

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