Netflix keep making eye-rolling recommendations? Writer Chris Jones explores why analytics get us wrong

We live in a world guided — if not governed — by analytics. While this state is most obvious in the algorithmic “suggestions” for our consumption (“Customers who bought this also bought …” and the perennial Netflix suggestions based on our viewing habits), the analytic foundations of our culture have been present, and powerful, for a long time, from the disability payouts and life expectancy equations of insurance policies to the banking analytics that determine whether someone is a good risk for a mortgage.

While the math underlying these analytics is largely sound, they often fail to address a certain X factor. How many times, for example, have you rolled your eyes at a Netflix suggestion? And why is it a working couple doesn’t qualify for a mortgage with payments of $1,500 a month, when they are paying $1,750 a month in rent?

That ineffable X factor is the core of the new book from Port Hope journalist Chris Jones, “The Eye Test: A Case for Human Creativity in the Age of Analytics.” Jones deeply explores the limitations of analytics and, with a broad social scope, unfolds it with a heightened rigour across such diverse fields as entertainment, sports, weather and money.

The “eye test” to which the title refers is a colloquial measurement of human input and response, which is impossible for an analytic to perform, no matter how sophisticated. The concept is drawn from a Twitter conversation Jones had with musician Jason Isbell, prompted by Jones asking Isbell how he became a good listener (and how Jones, who admits to being tone deaf, could learn the same skills). Isbell replied, “‘I think it’s like art criticism. If you look really hard at a million paintings, you’ll know what makes a good one.’” An analytic can reflect and incorporate key tenets of the form. The fact that “most paintings and photographs obey the Rule of Thirds or subscribe to the Golden Ratio” is measurable and quantifiable; the emotional force and the subjective quality of a piece of art are ineffable.

The great strength of “The Eye Test” is Jones’ training as a journalist (he got his start as a sports reporter for the National Post) and the tremendous backlog of stories he has covered. Many of the chapters are rooted in people and situations he has previously covered; revisiting these stories shows the development of Jones’ thinking on analytics, his slow realization of their limitations. It also incorporates precisely the human factor Jones is exploring: the narratives are powerful in a way numbers can never replicate.

For example, Jones avoids talk of focus group responses shaping movies. Instead, he explores the work of Ryan Kavanaugh who, in 2009, “announced his plans to burn Hollywood to the ground.” His Relativity Media’s “army of quants plugged countless variables into their mainframes” when evaluating a script, “divining patterns of what had previously worked, where, and when.” The plan was to separate art from the product, which Kavanaugh referred to as widgets, not films. Ultimately, it didn’t work: “in 2012, Relativity lost $85 million. In 2013, it lost $135 million.”

Particularly powerful is the story of Kenneth Feinberg, the Boston lawyer who led the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund. Rather than simply writing cheques based on the analytics, which assessed a dollar value for the lost life of each victim (“years of earning potential, multiplied by expected annual incomes”), Feinberg personally visited each of the victims’ families, working through the process on a case-by-case basis. The result was perhaps less efficient in terms of time spent but was more humanizing, rather than victims remaining merely a series of numbers in an equation. He settled with 97 per cent of the families, paying out more than $7 billion. “We want witnesses, not just statistics,” Feinberg said later.

Feinberg’s story of meeting a Sept. 11 firefighter’s widow who didn’t quibble about the payout amount, but requested the amount in a seemingly impossible 30 days, is particularly telling. “‘I have terminal cancer,’ she said. ‘My husband was going to survive me and take care of our two children, and now they’re going to be orphans. I’ve got to get that money to set up a trust fund, because I’m not going to be around much longer.’” As Jones recounts, “The widow got her check (sic). She died eight weeks later.”

There is no denying analytics have a powerful role to play in virtually every sphere of life, a fact Jones acknowledges early and often. “The Eye Test” is less a jeremiad against analytics than it is a call for greater human creativity, an openness to wonder and to human connection. The book is a bit of a crusade, but one that his readers will be eager to join.

Robert J. Wiersema’s most recent book is “Seven Crow Stories.”

Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.