"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Science of Attraction

Recently Netflix produced a movie based on big data.  It collected, culled, and analyzed millions of emails, coded sentiments, movie receipts, celeb pix in People Magazine, and information from thousands of other sources to come with the conclusion that viewers liked Kevin Spacey, David Finscher, and political dramas.  Based on these data, Netflix went on to make House of Cards. The latest ticket sales show that they were right – it is a success.

Netflix did not stop at actor, director, and story; but constructed the pacing, color, and design based on data collected from their online viewers.  Netflix knows when a streaming viewer hits the pause, fast forward, or rewind button; or adjusts the sound, color, or brightness; and it is easy for them to correlate these actions with what is happening on the screen and whether viewers are bored, engaged, or indifferent.  After analyzing millions of bits of consumer-generated information like this, Netflix – or any Hollywood company – can create just the right atmosphere, rhythm, design, and music for different segments of the film. 

The rise of streaming video analysis opens up the field of consumer preference data to an entirely new level; and filmmakers are experimenting with truly interactive viewing.  If a viewer finds too much shoot-‘em-up, he can insert a quieter scene, perhaps some romance.  He can also choose from a variety of different endings and select the one that best suits his mood that day.

This trend has thrown a lot of traditional observers into a bit of a tizzy.  What about the artist? What about the creative process?  If we leave filmmaking to the boobs who consume our movies, we will end up with the same, predictable dreck in all our movies.  That is, although most movie moguls are quite happy to rake in cash from predictable storylines with cash-cow actors (think of recent action movies starring an aging Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Bruce Willis); some would still like to protect and promote ‘talent’.

Yet, what is talent, exactly, and where does it come from? The old mathematical axiom – that an infinite number of monkeys banging on an infinite number of typewriters will eventually produce all the works of Shakespeare – is slowly coming true. Crowdsourcing, whereby millions of people are asked for ideas and solutions, has produced remarkable results.  The theory goes that while any one American might be a total jerk, if you canvas 10 million Americans, you are very likely to unearth a lot of genius.  Few people today doubt that if you ask enough people to write a movie script, you will generate enough great ones to put professional screenwriters out of a job.  If you add the big data element – in this case providing the parameters of Kevin Spacey, David Finscher, and political drama – you are absolutely certain of a hit.

Big data and crowdsourcing don’t just give screenwriters the willies.  Every scientist, mathematician, Silicon Valley techie – everyone squirreled away working to come up with the next best algorithm, the cure for cancer, or the most intelligent foreign policy solution to the Middle East – has the yips.

Add neuroscience to this mix, and you have a very potent concoction indeed. In an article in the NY Times (2.16.13) Lance Hosey writes about why we love beautiful things, and describes brain research which shows that human beings have innate or deeply-rooted acquired preferences.  In other words, our preferences are nowhere near as personal and special as we might think.  Not only do all human beings behave in the same aggressive, self-protective, acquisitive, belligerent ways; we like and demand the same things.

Simple geometry is leading to similar revelations. For more than 2,000 years, philosophers, mathematicians and artists have marveled at the unique properties of the “golden rectangle”: subtract a square from a golden rectangle, and what remains is another golden rectangle, and so on and so on — an infinite spiral. These so-called magical proportions (about 5 by 8) are common in the shapes of books, television sets and credit cards, and they provide the underlying structure for some of the most beloved designs in history: the facades of the Parthenon and Notre Dame, the face of the “Mona Lisa,” the Stradivarius violin and the original iPod.

Experiments going back to the 19th century repeatedly show that people invariably prefer images in these proportions, but no one has known why.

Then, in 2009, a Duke University professor demonstrated that our eyes can scan an image fastest when its shape is a golden rectangle. For instance, it’s the ideal layout of a paragraph of text, the one most conducive to reading and retention. This simple shape speeds up our ability to perceive the world, and without realizing it, we employ it wherever we can.

What is perhaps more surprising is our appreciation of fractal geometry.  A fractal is a seemingly-irregular shape (such as a coastline or cloud) or structure (such as a tree or mountain) formed by repeated subdivisions of a basic form, and having a pattern of regularity underlying its apparent randomness. That is, no matter how closely you zoom in on a snowflake, you will see the same patterns repeated over and over again:

In recent years, physicists have found that people invariably prefer a certain mathematical density of fractals — not too thick, not too sparse. The theory is that this particular pattern echoes the shapes of trees, specifically the acacia, on the African savanna, the place stored in our genetic memory from the cradle of the human race. To paraphrase one biologist, beauty is in the genes of the beholder — home is where the genome is.

Recognizing and utilizing these innate neurological preferences can produce remarkable results:

LIFE magazine named Jackson Pollock “the greatest living painter in the United States” in 1949, when he was creating canvases now known to conform to the optimal fractal density (about 1.3 on a scale of 1 to 2 from void to solid). Could Pollock’s late paintings result from his lifelong effort to excavate an image buried in all of our brains?

We respond so dramatically to this pattern that it can reduce stress levels by as much as 60 percent — just by being in our field of vision. One researcher has calculated that since Americans spend $300 billion a year dealing with stress-related illness, the economic benefits of these shapes, widely applied, could be in the billions.

Such innate preferences can be used in films, product packaging, advertising, and anything with a visual component.  So, in addition to Kevin Spacey, David Finscher, political drama, consumer-generated pacing, rhythm, and music, Netflix in its next film will likely have a lot trees, clouds, and coastlines.

Crowdsourcing and big data appear to some to be the death knell of creativity, and an elimination of individual talent.  On the one hand, this criticism is accurate; for if film companies rely only on consumer input for the script, design, music, and cinematography, the classic creative artist is dead.  On the other hand, crowdsourcing is the most democratic way possible to identify talent, unique brilliance, innovation, and creativity.  It is the think tanks, pollsters, scientific and academic enclaves which will go out of business as the people weigh in and unheralded, unnoticed, but brilliant people generate brilliant ideas.

In short, creativity has not died; just the peddlers of the old-fashioned version.

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