THE BLOG

Serendipity: A New Boost to the e-Consumer

06/18/2015 11:01 am ET | Updated Jun 17, 2016

Should we not prefer making a surprising "find" rather than a comforting search? In a world in which attention is a necessary condition to the value creation of works, anything goes when it comes to prescribing a way for the overwhelmed E-Consumer about where to look.

The relevance of this recommendation increases the power of value creation. In a world in which access to works is always a click or a screen away, the only limit is neither the cost nor the rarity anymore but the e-Consumer's free time and attention. According to Philippe Pestanes, a partner at the consulting firm Kurt Salmon, "This permanent solicitation is experienced as anxiety-producing." The consumer expects to be guided by a recommendation tailored to his tastes. The relevance of the "predictive oracles" depends less on one's socio-cultural class and heritage--what Pierre Bourdieu calls "distinction"--than on the result of the aggregation and cross-checking of one's personal data, sometimes on the fringes of legality, thanks to the programmers' ingenuity.

Paradoxically, the aim to make one consume as much as possible via self-guidance also initiates an overbid of creation of targeted programs. An excellent example is Netflix's hit series House of Cards. "Beyond the efficiency and performance gains, through a sharp knowledge of audiences' and users' behaviors, thus through a greater ability to anticipate their expectations, cultural personal data represent for the sector of media and cultural industries a great opportunity to revolutionize their economic model so as to stimulate creation... infinitely," notes Bruno Perrin, a partner at Ernst & Young, recalling that the increasing segmentation of tastes and uses is a societal phenomenon that goes beyond cultural goods and services. This increasing segmentation reaches its peak while accelerating a paradigmatic shift: from the value based on the knowledge of the individual to the value based on the knowledge of works. Hence there is an awareness of the demand in a field in which artists traditionally fixed the limits and exceeded them.

The era of made-to-measure statistics

This shift is exclusively based on individualized expectations and practices already known statistically: "A double normative principle is being established, says the philosopher Eric Sadin. "First, from the self to the self: everyone being ruthlessly thrilled to phrase his inclinations or being ruthlessly reminded of his inclinations, according to a never impeded equivalence between identity and identical." With a risk of permanent cloning for "not exactly the same, nor exactly another" and to paraphrase Verlaine, the abundance of proposals nourishes an obsolescence of the works and its corollary, a generalized zapping: "Both zapping and addition go together," the philosopher Yves Michaud confirms. "Addiction and indifference are two sides of the same coin. The addict is the one hooked because of the inability to choose and who finally let himself be chosen by drugs. It is the same when there is nothing to choose, we still slide. Zapping configures in a certain way the mind and attention. This culture addresses an individual who struggles to gather his avatars or profiles. To the 'you' of Youtube responds the 'I' of 'I as a profile'".

Vigilance and ethics

Primarily, the risks of dependence and the individuals' passiveness--the "corporate favoritism"--and the absence of transparency need vigilance and ethics. The State Council invites us to reconsider concretely the protection of fundamental rights by defining a right for predictive algorithms. The French broadcasting regulatory body, the Conseil Supérieur de l'Audiovisuel, wants safeguards to set boundaries to any temptation to manipulate, or even to the "threat of a standardization of creation," all the more as the predictive integrates more and more intrusive behaviorist or cognitive approaches!

Some holistic approaches regarding the use of personal data give reasons for hope. Mats Carduner, co-founder and CEO of the data expert agency, fifty-five, claims that for data ethics to establish an environment of trust: "there is currently an important asymmetry between the web users and those who understand its operating principles. Let's bet that the reduction of this gap is only a matter of time. Meanwhile, it is the responsibility of the organizations that collect and exploit data to do it in a transparent and responsible manner."

E-consumers must also be responsible by getting involved, literally and figuratively, to prevent algorithms from bogging them down, no matter how sophisticated those might be. Nothing can ever replace the familial word-of-mouth or a friend's piece of advice. "Social networks have the user get out from his isolation to make him rediscover - at least virtually - the pleasure of a shared emotion" Laurent Colombani, a partner at Bain & Company , analyzes. "Social web reintroduces human being in online recommendation and curation processes." An algorithm will not abolish chance, even with a lack of curiosity and desire.

The virtues of discovery

Making a "find" means finding fortuitously something extraordinary, well adapted and successful, according to Le Larousse dictionary. Platforms such as OCS by Orange or INA have already understood that they needed to insert serendipity in their recommendations. Yves Riesel, founder of the music website Qobuz, has anticipated it by valorizing the artists he wants to defend: "The platforms will not be distinguished by their catalog, nor their recommendations, but thanks to their commitment to the artists and the relevance of the metadata on their works. The challenge is to anticipate the cultural profile of tomorrow's consumer" and to replace humans--with their strengths and their weaknesses--at the heart of the editorial proposal.
"We can consider this critical attitude as being itself obsolete," admits Yves Michaud. "The quantification has made us enter another world perfectly new and surprising, where metadata think, so to speak, by themselves and rule all the actions, thoughts and desires of the digital human. The transhuman could be this humanity governed and acted by quantification itself." It is time to develop ethics regarding personal data and the algorithms that exploit them. Our personal identity is too important to come down to 0s and 1s. Let's bet on the artists to help the engineers.

The Forum d'Avignon is an international think tank aiming at bringing together the cultural and economic sectors.

2013-11-15-logoforumavignon.jpg