One for all and all for one

The Politics of Televisual Personalisation

David McCandless creates wonderful data visualisations*.  Here’s a favourite – in which he maps the differences between being left-wing and right-wing. It tries to be even-handed, though its creator admits that at times it reflects his own position on the continuum.   On the left we find a leftist society and viewpoint: an inclusive world of equality, empathy and egalitarianism.  On the right it’s centred on freedom and self-reliance, morality and individuality.  The diagram simplifies many complexities, but it makes sense and looks so pretty.

Which side are you on?

1276_left_right_world But what has it got to do with television?

Well, I’ve been trying to understand why I find it so hard to get excited about personalisation in TV.  One hears about it all the time. Future-gazers look at scheduled linear TV and see it as leftism gone mad – why should we watch the same programmes at the same time?  It’s like a communist state imposing a particular size of loaf.

Video on demand, in whatever guise, whether Netflix or 4oD or iPlayer or whatever, they argue is about empowerment and individuality.  And who can complain about that?  But there’s a hint of the right about that too.  It’s choice, but on my terms: my choice to send my children to private school, to live in a gated community, to finagle a special low tax arrangement, to use this holiday cottage two weeks a year and so on. It’s freedom, but not available to all.  And has costs on society

I was at a recent media event and the MC began by telling a heart-warming story about his grandfather who was a shopkeeper.  His shop was at the top of the hill and was always busy.  A similar shop nearby was generally empty.  So he asked his grandfather why this was, and the reply was an enigmatic tap of finger to nose.  But the next day he watched as customers arrived and each was greeted by a cheery welcome from the owner, who asked how they were and after the health of their mother or children, and did they want their usual order and about something special they might like… It was the personal service that won them over and built loyalty.

The word that kept coming back through the day was personalisation.  The man from Google wrote off billboards as hopeless mass-marketed: just couldn’t see that they have a place in a modern, targeted world when we could personalise advertising messages.

The man from the IAB was very excited by it all – power had shifted from business to the individual.  Marketing was now human and not corporate: consider Amazon and Netflix  and the individualised, tailored service they offer.  But is that true?

As one member of the public pointed out, what is labelled as personalised is actually a clever algorithm that simply responds automatically to behaviour based on probabilities.  It says your name (Welcome Back Jeremy) because you told it what it was – it doesn’t really like you.  If the MC’s grandfather had run a bookshop then no amount of personal service would have saved his business from the grim logic of Amazon’s monopoly-enabled price reductions and personalised door to door delivery.

If personalisation means that we are all special in our own way and deserve respect then that would appeal across the political spectrum. But if personalisation means that the collective is bad, or that there is something weird about shared experiences  – sitting together and feeling at one with the world and with people that we will never meet – then that positions the concept firmly in the right hand side of the political spectrum.  It places a higher priority on difference, exclusivity and closed over shared, commonly available and open.

And that doesn’t apply to television.   The economics of television requires a critical mass to watch the programmes.  Critical is important here.  But so is mass.   We respond as individuals, but the programme is created for us because we are members of a very wide group.  Bolting personalisation onto the experience misunderstands what watching television is all about in a way that sounds benign, but has a pernicious undercurrent.

One or two have argued that McCandless’s diagram needs another dimension, to reflect authoritarianism and libertarianism.  So you can be a conservative who believes in minimal interference on your life, or a hippy who feels the same way.  You can hold authoritarian views from the left or the right.  So perhaps personalisation can swing both ways, but it sounds right-wing.  (And that’s fine if that’s your thing – I voted for Mrs Thatcher once myself).

But generally, things go together – so it was recently reported that people with good credit ratings submit fewer insurance claims. Cleanliness, we hear is close to godliness.

When people call for personalisation in watching TV programmes we might want to ask how they really feel about other people, about society and about what matters. Is that left-wing personalisation, or right-wing?


*I bought a print of McCandless’s Left Right visualisation and it is framed at home.  You can buy them here