In the House of Cards

In the House of Cards: The Aesthetics of Abstraction1, Finn claims that as Netflix through algorithm and the aesthetics of abstraction is controlling culture and that it is not as personalised and efficient or based on computation as we perceive.

Finn argues that Netflix’s algorithmic model fully embraces the gap between computation and culture. He explains how it quantifies complex cultural concepts, using the example of anonymous taggers supporting the culture machine behind the facade of computational efficiency, to prove that a hybrid is at play and that humans are integral to the arbitrage between culture and computation.

In addition, Finn argues that there exists corrupt personalisation, where algorithmic culture blurs the lines between our genuine interests and factors that may not be genuinely relevant. He exemplifies this through Netflix which seemingly customizes its offerings for every user, yet it provides advertising to benefit their originals.

Finn also posits that Netflix created a culture which created an aesthetic which is abstracted out, causing a loss in the creativity in art. He supports this by arguing that in the House of Cards, algorithms were used to shape the creative process. Netflix micromanaged distribution and creative decisions were scoped by algorithmic modelling.

To further the argument on the aesthetics of abstraction, Finn argues that Netflix’s release of entire seasons at once is an aesthetic abstraction that undermined more traditional culture machines like scheduled broadcasts. Which leads to a reinvention of content and user behaviour, and a new model of artistic engagement based on binge-watching. Which according to Finn is just a remix of the current culture.

Finn ends off by claiming that algorithmic arbitrage’s seemingly democratic interfaces are facades for the much deeper edifice of algorithmic arbitrage which mix user empowerment with strict informational control to encourage particular behaviours.

In my opinion, Finn exaggerates when claiming that Netflix has “fully embraces the gap between computation and culture”. It is unlikely that the gap between computation and culture can ever be fully embraced especially by trying to quantify cultural concepts. Culture has many different aspects2 and is always in flux, making it difficult to grasp and fully be accounted for by computation. I do however agree with the author that “humans are integral to the arbitrage between culture and computation”, because humans are most likely to understand and embrace the nuances of culture and even create the culture3.

Contrary to Finn’s argument that the culture Netflix created, resulted in the “loss of creativity in art”, I believe that Netflix’s model actually helps increase creativity in art. Finn only looked at how algorithms may have stunted creativity but brushed across the fact that the directors had total autonomy to create the show, a two-season guaranteed space and Netflix provided the necessary following to be creative4. Netflix’s model favours greater creative freedom. They have no advertisers to offend, only customers to impress, which gives them more leeway for content5.

I agree that Netflix has reinvented content and user behaviour with its releasing of whole seasons at a time. However, I believe the extent is greater than just a “remix of the current culture”, it has changed culture. People no longer discuss shows that were just aired or choose to catch shows together, because everyone is at a different pace, behaviour has changed. Shows no longer require cliff-hangers, content has changed, and media content shapes culture6. However most of all, it is now acceptable to watch entire seasons alone, what is seen as acceptable is a social construct, the foundation of culture and that has changed7. Thus, showing a change rather than an edit of culture.