'Personalised BBC' can algorithmically pander to your prejudices

Narrowcasting and the battle of the robots

Comment Rejoice! The BBC boffins can customise their broadcasts to suit your prejudices.

The “Visual Perceptive Media” project invites us to “imagine a world where the narrative, background music, colour grading and general feel of a drama is shaped in real time to suit your personality” – and will even tweak the output to “fit your mood”.

It does so by creating a personal data profile of the user from a database of their viewing habits “and some personality questions”. This is then used to tailor anything from the real-time effects, to the outcome of the plot.

It raises several disquieting issues which are unlikely to please traditionalists.

Firstly, this isn’t really broadcasting in any real sense of the word. It’s narrowcasting, and narrowcasting to what Adam Curtis calls “the rat of the self”. Rather than taking the viewer beyond their prejudices or acquired experiences, it’s confining the viewer within the prejudices and experiences that they have already acquired, and building a large digital fortress around them. This is at odds with the high-minded Reithian mission of expanding the viewer’s horizons.

Secondly, a BBC which narrowcasts rather than broadcasts ceases not only to be a “Broadcasting Corporation”, but it also ceases to be British. It’s simply another bunch of algorithms, competing with algorithms created by boffins and maths nerds at Google or Apple. Perhaps to a boffin, the power and status this confers upon them is irresistible – they become not only the commissioning editors but real-time schedulers, too.

Yet the BBC would only be a “BBC” only because of residual branding: like Apple and Google it would really be an “Algorithmic Media Company”. AMC1, AMC2, AMC3…

Thirdly, the BBC surrenders all of its moral authority once it begins narrowcasting to our prejudices. And it very much needs to not do this if it is to retain its current business model. In its submission to the current BBC Charter Review, the Corporation argues (2.5, pdf) that “universality” is the cornerstone of its legal privilege to charge every household.

“As the BBC has a universal mission,” it writes, “it is necessary and appropriate that it should be universally funded.” The justification for the universality is that it produces material the market wouldn’t otherwise provide: TV and radio would become a “race to the bottom”. Leaving aside the point that it is regulation (particularly the requirements to produce home grown material, and schedule specific amounts of specific material at certain times) rather than funding that distinguishes the BBC from Sky, this is an unpopular argument to make, as it carries the whiff of elitism. Broadcasters hate to be seen to be elitist.

Narrowcasting however, largely destroys the moral justification, since the broadcaster is responding to a market of one: the individual. The viewer is simply choosing between algorithms. So the “race to the bottom” takes place anyway: who can pander to the individual most effectively?

And why stop with drama? Why not personalise news to your prejudice or mood?

Eight years ago, the BBC’s Adam Curtis warned:

What a journalist's job is to try and do, is go a tiny bit further than that, and actually try and open people's minds up, and ask, ‘Have you thought of looking at it this way?’ … What's happening on the internet is that people are retreating into their citadels where they will not have that. And if you try and do it, they don't like it. Because you're joining up the dots in a way that isn't the way they joined up the dots. What really happens now, is that they're so entrenched in their self-referential groups, anyone who joins up the dots any other way is a bad person.

The project is pandering to that demand.

As I wrote on Facebook's 10th anniversary, social networks and the mania for personalisation draws on trends in psychology that emerged in the 1970s. The mind can't be "understood", so a person's surface traits and behaviours are instrumentalised, instead.

By signing up to a Facebook, Cortana or a "Personalised BBC", you are diagnosing yourself. You can then be nudged, perhaps to eat five or day, or do more recycling. The algorithms are confused by people who cross boundaries – which it turns out, is most of us.

Find out how you'll be profiled here. ®

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