Netflix’s ‘Shuffle Play’ feature is another step towards algorithmic living

Tech boffins in Silicon Valley think we're all slack-jawed idiots who need to be spoon-fed content

Those A level students that fell foul of the automated grading system a few weeks ago were, ironically, taught a hard, harsh lesson that they will hopefully take heed of for the rest of their lives. And it is this: the algorithm underestimates you.

It thinks you’re, at best, average. Most likely as dumb as a dongle. It gives you no credit for individual talents or interests. It has no concern or consideration for what might make you stand out. It thinks your entire person and intellect can be quantified, computer-profiled and boxed away alongside millions of other people it assumes – thanks to extremely basic factors such as class, background or location – are exactly like you. In any area it’s given free rein, it calculates the lowest common denominator and chains you to it, never to escape. It’s a kind of techno-Trump.

We’ve already seen the devastation it’s wreaked on music. By automatically gullying billions of passive streams – playlists left running or YouTube windows left open in the background – towards the most popular middle-ground content (which in itself is a self-perpetuating cycle as the tracks the algorithm guides you to inevitably gets classed as ‘popular’), it’s created an impenetrable upper tier of vacuous conveyor belt R&B/rap/pop/tat largely featuring Drake, while anything more ambitious, challenging or inventive, starved of the oxygen of reasonable funding, suffocates beneath the crush.

And now it’s coming for TV. Netflix has announced that it’s testing a new feature called ‘Shuffle Play’, designed “to make it easier for members to find something to watch”. The plan is, by suggesting shows for you to watch based on your previous viewing and playlist preferences, Netflix will finally take the immense hassle out of having individual taste or an original thought in your head.

Stranger Things
Would the ‘Shuffle Play’ function have suggested ‘Stranger Things’ before anyone knew how good it was? Credit: Netflix

Because, I don’t know about you, but the 60 seconds it takes to scroll through a ‘New Releases’ menu to find something that piques my interest is 60 seconds I’d rather spend eating detergent pods on Instagram or following governmental advice to go to restaurants. I’m unable to read any of the thousands of TV and film articles and reviews directing me to the best upcoming releases, I just want to consume whatever Netflix decides to hose full-force into my eyeballs. I’m sick to death of all this character-building discernment that has shaped my cultural life for decades. I want an equation to tell me who I am and what I like and my TV to take complete control of me, like Poltergeist with more hamburger-crust pizza.

TV and film promotion has been enticing you with comforting subliminal signals of familiarity for eons, from poster fonts to trailer soundtrack atmospherics to ‘from the second cousin of the costume designer whose uncle once met the guy who mixed the fake blood for Reservoir Dogs…’. Until now, though, the choice to actually give your precious time over to a film or show was entirely your own, and often swayed by numerous personal variables – ratings, word-of-mouth, percentage of Cumberbatch. When we give over control of the ‘play’ button, we give the number men permission to dumb us, and our entire culture, down.

Lucifer season 5
More ‘Lucifer’, anyone? Credit: Netfix

It’s not necessarily Netflix’s fault. They likely just want to make the consumption of their content as easy and seamless as possible, and as a way of sampling new shows aimed at your demographic for a couple of minutes ‘Shuffle Play’ might have some benefit. It’s not even the algorithm’s fault; it only wants to give you what it assumes you’ll want. But it will underestimate you. It won’t dare give you anything that might scare you off or make you question whether the platform understands your tastes. It will play it safe, with everybody.

It will suggest, by and large, unadventurous, formulaic, box-ticking fare which then, thanks to its technological leg-up, becomes phenomenally successful without anyone particularly liking it. So producers shift their budgets away from riskier, boundary-pushing projects to make more and more of the same, leaving truly ground-breaking scripts to flounder unfunded. Eventually, at production company board meetings, a new ‘analytics’ team member will show up with a pad full of numbers, the accountants will start asking if the algorithm will ‘like’ a particular series before they commission it and this new golden age of television will wither on the vine. This isn’t guesswork. It’s how we ended up with Tom Walker.

Maddie Phillips, Anjelica Bette Fellini, Teenage Bounty Hunters
Would the ‘Shuffle Play’ function turn more people onto ‘Teenage Bounty Hunters’? Credit: Tina Rowden/Netflix

You can’t blame the algorithm for assuming the human brain is built for pliant, compliant idiocy; it only has to look at who we’ve democratically elected. And it’s right – the slack-jawed masses will no doubt be happy to be spoon-fed by-the-numbers fantasy epics and Friends reruns without ever noticing there hasn’t been a new Black Mirror for ages. But let us not, discerning readers of NME, play into its reductionist hands. Shun ‘Shuffle Play’ with all your might, hunt out only the finest televisual offerings and help keep creativity at the heart of mainstream television. Otherwise the age of limitless choice might start feeling like the Ludovico Technique from A Clockwork Orange, but with way more straight-to-video Will Ferrell.

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