Algorithms vs Art: Saving our culture from cowboy capitalism

This town ain't big enough for the both of 'em

The absurd financialisation of markets means we live in a world where an unprecedented number of adult millennials live with their parents while a Goldman Sachs executive can retire after making millions betting on meme cryptocurrency, Dogecoin. We’re living through the Wild West of neoliberalism—what academics call late-stage capitalism—and its influence permeates, if not defines, just about everything.

The impact of financialisation on artists, in particular writers and the publishing industry, was one of the topics I explored on this week’s podcast episode with phenomenal poet, Joelle Taylor. She discussed why much of her work has been to bridge the gap between the working class talent too long ignored by a snooty publishing industry, and how the industry must evolve from diversity to inclusion. (As an aside, note that inclusivity becomes inclusion while diversity becomes diversion.)

As subscribers of this newsletter would expect, neoliberal capitalism came under swift attack in our conversation. Joelle talked about what she calls the “star system”, the “prop for neoliberalism” that sentences a whole industry of authors to remain in the star’s shadow. She discussed the requisite social capital a writer must accumulate nowadays in order to make it, and the gauntlet of hoops creators must jump through just to be seen by the archaic industry.

Evaluating Value

One of the things that drives both the incredible development and horrors of the human race is our ability to communicate the abstract, allowing ideas and ideology to permeate every facet of social organisation. To refer to capitalism as merely a financial system would dramatically misrepresent its impact and effect on modern culture, just as any other idea, once adopted, permeates the homes of individuals in that society. In fact, as Joelle astutely discusses on this week’s episode, the financial system of capitalism has come to not only rule every industry, but to replicate itself in the values of that industry.

One quick example in publishing is that when pitching a piece of work to an agent or an independent press, many specifically ask for details of your social media presence; how many followers or subscribers one has accumulated online is a factor in the decision-making process about a piece of literature. Why? Because in an industry governed by capitalism return on investment is key. This is evident, but what I find particularly interesting is that the accumulation of requisite social capital in order to build a platform follows the same rules as the accumulation of requisite financial capital to build a business: the more one begins with, the more one receives. We value that which already has value; one silver lining of this equation is we at least still trust our fellow man’s values in order to stake our claim behind what’s popular.

But is popularity equal to or reflective of value? Perhaps not. The popularity of a thing is rather easy to estimate, the value of a thing much harder given the multitude of values it can hold: financial, emotional, cultural, political. Take the Kardashians—their popularity is undoubtable by any calculation. They enjoy invites to A-list events, have some of the highest follower numbers on social media, enjoy successful businesses, and their images are copied all over the world by men and women alike. Their financial value is equally undeniable—every single woman in that family has become extremely wealthy in the past decade, with the youngest flirting with billionaire status over the past few years. However, their cultural value is highly debated. Having cemented the “famous for being famous” paradox, they are often accused of perpetuating bad body image, the sexualisation of women, and superficial connections; one need only watch them glued to their phones at every moment to discern that emotional value is not their currency of choice.

It would be oversimplified to say our value system reflects our financial system, but given the popularity of figureheads like the Kardashians one could argue that values are not the stars of the modern show. Indeed, an even more insidious corner of social media is home to a plethora of spiritual and wellness influencers who endorse a varied understanding of Hinduism, Buddhism, yoga, self-help and “spirituality” in order to sell products, retreats and cult-dom. This guy, whose Fortune 500 company received government aid despite making huge profits during the pandemic, had the gall to sell a $10,000 ‘Fit For Service’ membership as millions of Americans around the country were falling into poverty.

That’s capitalism for you. Ascribing financial value to all things in a capitalist mode creates a “star system” of values for the thing itself, with price always taking the top spot: sell a feeling, demand a price. (Studies have even shown that the more expensive a product is the more enjoyment the consumer feels while using it—we literally pay for the placebo pleasure!) This means that as a capitalist market saturates, the value of innovation comes in second to the value of making a quick buck: algorithms exist to not only show a consumer what they like, but also to show a seller what consumers like. As Joelle says during our interview:

“Star authors these days are based on views.”

Cracking the code

When art industries are financialised to the extent we see today, these algorithms plays a role in deciding what art is. A few years ago there was work written on whether or not computers and AI can create art; I would argue that they have been since the first computer could collate marketing data. Booksellers like Amazon establish what is popular and then replicate that popularity in a similar thing by pushing it to the top of their algorithm, which then feeds back into itself as people purchase the suggestions. Upon seeing what is popular in the market, agents and publishers will commission and search for similar books in order to mimic that same success. The whole industry—from creation to publishing to selling—becomes a simulacrum—a copy—or hyperreal depending where you fall on the spectrum of continental philosophy. The value of the thing is how well it can imitate an original in order to accumulate capital—social, cultural, emotional all funnelling into the star: financial.

What’s to be done? In our discussion, Joelle and I explore collective organisational strategies to combat Amazon’s monopoly on sales and on the zeitgeist. Why collective? There’s not much the average person can do to challenge a value system today without an unequal distribution of capital on their side. However, we, the average crowd, can do a lot to affect popularity, and whilst popularity does not reflect value, it can affect value: Uncle Tom’s Cabin told the horrors of slavery and cemented the the abolitionist cause; De Beauvoir’s Le Deuxieme Sexe sparked a new wave of feminism; even hidden under the guise of entertainment, today RuPaul’s Drag Race has been a wonderful trojan horse for LGBT issues all over the world.

Yes, an individual can’t change the world without some kind of capital behind them. People, however, can.


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