Huxley, Big Data, and the Artistic Mind

Imagine you’re a famous painter, but in an effort to get with the times, you crowd-source your newest painting. You make a nice big show of it, being creative in your soliciting of ideas, bringing people to your studio (and sharing the encounters on social media), maybe even hosting some focus groups to discuss themes, content, and forms. You finish a painting that is the result of a process of dialogical exchange with your audience. 

Most thinking art scholars and critics would call that a pretty creative artistic endeavor, and because you facilitated it, you’d get credit as the artist, even though the intent of the “performative” and creative aspect of the art was to de-center yourself as the artist. 

What if you were a musician and you did something similar? Maybe you’d invite audience members to hum into a recording device, and then you mix the sounds into what you believe to be optimal if somewhat discordant combination. Obviously, this would be considered a creative act by you as well. The inclusion of audience suggestions is part of the aesthetic experience. It calls into question artistic individuality, making an important philosophical point that you, the individual artist (see what I did there) get credit for developing and illustrating. 

These innovative gestures that blur the line between artist and audience are not problematic in the same way that concerns have been raised about the relationship between big data and artistic expression. In the forthcoming book Beyond the Valley: How Innovators around the World are Overcoming Inequality and Creating the Technologies of Tomorrow, Ramesh Srinivasan explores more concerning technological questions: fashion designers whose creative work is based on algorithms developed by consolidating millions of users’ preferences, for example, or art and music created to specifically appeal to the semiconscious desires of listeners, but the data that goes into making that music is mass data, not individual aesthetic experiences or individual expressions of desire. 

Srinivasan seems mostly concerned that big data produces “undemocratic” outcomes, but I don’t think he means this in a strictly political sense. I think he means that democracy carries a certain expectation of self-consciousness. Even the experimental collaborative art and music I imagined earlier is self-consciously participatory. The participants know they are helping create something, and are intentionally contributing. This isn’t the case when the list of acceptable preferences distilled and given to artists is based on millions of pieces of data. 

This is not to say that big data can’t or shouldn’t play a role in developing products with an aesthetic value like furniture or clothing. This seems like a legitimate form of product development and there’s nothing inherently wrong with it. But it would be a mistake to call it “artistic” without a radical redefinition of the word—because the “art” in it is not conscious or intentional in the same sense that an individual artist’s painting or even an ensemble collectively-written piece of theater is. 

This depersonalization of aesthetics through big data was anticipated by Aldous Huxley (who Srinivasan cites in his book) in books like Brave New World, and Huxley was concerned about industries and politics and other endeavors lacking transparency—not just where stakeholders were able to see the decisions being made, but participate in them too. “Whatever passes for transparency today seems one-directional,” Srinivasan writes. “Tech companies know everything about us, but we know almost nothing about them. So how can we be sure that the information they feed us hasn’t been skewed and framed based on funding models and private news industry politics?”

Huxley, who died 56 years ago on the same day as JFK, November 22, 1963, has developed a reputation as a scathing critic of industrial society, but he was more than that. His thoughtfulness about ethics wasn’t abstract: when he became relatively wealthy working as a Hollywood screenwriter in the 1930s and 40s (he’d immigrated to the U.S. and settled in Southern California), Huxley used a great deal of that money to transport Jews and left-wing writers and artists from Europe to the United States, where they would be safe from fascism. Huxley saw the threat of depersonalized and depersonalizing technology as “an ordered universe in a world of planless incoherence.” That’s not far from how big data skeptics describe the data industry. 

In a recent Washington Post piece, Catherine Rampell echoes these concerns. The “vast troves of data on consumer preferences” owned by large firms are largely collected surreptitiously. “There are philosophical questions,” she writes, “about who should get credit for an artistic work if it was conjured not solely through human imagination but rather by reflecting and remixing customer data.” 

If the fashion or informational choices of big data are alienated from the conscious preferences of audiences or consumers, there is at least one theory of art that holds that artists themselves should be consciously removed from the preferences of audiences who otherwise appreciate the art. It’s the “theory of obscurity,” made (somewhat) famous by San Francisco avant-garde band The Residents, who borrowed it from N. Senada, a musician who may not have existed as such. The theory holds that “an artist can only produce pure art when the expectations and influences of the outside world are not taken into consideration.” In other words, a true artist can’t worry about what the audience thinks. N. Senada had a corollary theory, the “theory of phonetic organization,” holding that “the musician should put the sounds first, building the music up from [them] rather than developing the music, then working down to the sounds that make it up.” Big data aggregation could not play any meaningful role in such work. Perhaps listening to avant-garde music is the best way to avoid being assimilated into a giant cybernetic vat of data goo. But I doubt such a solution can be implemented universally since very few people enjoy that music.

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