Culture Trips

If you enjoyed that, you will like this: but can we break free from the algorithms’ grip? | Culture

Are you reading this by pure chance? Or are you on the lookout for articles about the value of serendipity and random encounters?

In an age of online shopping, commercial algorithms and streamed entertainment, most of us are rarely confronted by things that have not been digitally matched to our previous interests or prejudices. Few will have avoided the suggestion “if you’ve enjoyed X, then you’ll like Y and Z” as they browse the internet looking for books, films or music.

But now there are efforts to fight back against the emergence of this all-pervasive cultural and retail echo chamber. In both the arts and the media, a series of new projects are celebrating the importance of coming across the unexpected.

This month sees the launch of Stack Radio, an app that deliberately delivers music chosen by someone else, while for the adventurous a more eccentric service, Trade Journal Cooperative, is offering to send a different niche publication direct to your door four times a year, from Professional Pasta to American Funeral Director or Plumber Magazine.

The vital role that chance plays in enriching our lives and thoughts is also the subject of a new self-help book by an American academic and doctor. In Neil Farber’s new book, Serendipity: Utilizing Everyday Unexpected Events to Improve Your Life and Career, he claims the positive role that chance could play in our lives should not be underestimated.

Rummaging through a bookshop’s shelves can uncover some surprises.
Rummaging through a bookshop’s shelves can uncover some surprises. Photograph: Kumar Sriskandan/Alamy

“Most people go through life believing that unexpected, fortuitous events that often bring fame and fortune happen to only a lucky few individuals,” Farber argues. “The truth is that unexpected events frequently happen to all of us. They may not bring tremendous fame or fortune, but they can be recognised and utilised to significantly improve one’s professional and personal life.”

Farber believes trusting to chance and taking a leap of faith can be developed as a skill. “You have to have a mindset that allows you to think that such events can happen,” he explains.

In contrast, today much of what we read, watch or listen is unchallenging and has been delivered to order, selected on the basis of previous choices, or driven by our own comfortable habits. Last summer the Bookseller, the trade journal of the publishing industry, tackled this issue head-on in an editorial prompted by the way lockdown in Britain was keeping readers from high street bookstores.

“While we can request specific books via phone, email or the shops’ websites, we lack the opportunity to browse their shelves and happen upon something new and wonderful and surprising,” it complained.

“In both libraries and bookshops, the holy grail of online discovery is not search and retrieval of items the seeker already knows, but serendipity – a word itself invented by incurable bibliophile Horace Walpole and based, he said, on a tale called The Three Princes of Serendip: ‘as their highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of.’”

To steer away from those familiar online highways and avoid insular “silos” of thought, how about reading a trade journal like the Bookseller, or perhaps something more obscure? Author and businessman Tim Hwang describes his Trade Journal Cooperative as a subscription service for “lovers of overlooked industries”, those who are keen to spot a new business idea, or mere casual readers. Each issue arrives with a newsletter from the editorial board with “commentary, historical analysis, and various amusing tidbits”.

The designer Pam Hogg
The designer Pam Hogg, whose ideas contribute to the playing list of the Stack Radio app. Photograph: David M Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images

Hwang’s influential recent book, Subprime Attention Crisis, also examines the way big tech has monetised the content we search for. He explains how digital advertising is pushing this trend to the edge of a collapse he thinks will resemble the far-reaching housing crisis of 2008.

In contrast, Stack Radio has been set up in response to the vast tracts of unknown music available to download. According to co-founder Max Wigram, this wealth of content means fans end up making a series of safe choices. The music on Stack is instead chosen by a succession of DJs and musicians – and, importantly, listeners cannot influence what it plays.

“It’s not designed around your usage,” says Wigram, who is an art dealer. “It’s the opposite of the way that everyone else is doing things, but it removes the anxiety of having to ‘like’, or ‘liking’ something by mistake, and suddenly being recommended tracks that you don’t even like. Algorithms reduce diversity and eliminate chance. And it’s that element of chance, of discovering a new track, or rediscovering an old track that you love, that an algorithm can’t compete with. I do believe that human beings can do it better than algorithms.”

Described as a simple radio app, Stack offers every kind of music, from rock to classical, and relies upon the varied tastes of people such as the designer Pam Hogg, the lead singer of Texas, Sharleen Spiteri, the celebrity DJ Fat Tony and the actor Russell Tovey. It costs £20 for a 12-month subscription.

“In a world where we are being force-fed a diet of suitable matches, we’ve taken the plunge and decided for you, rather than leave it to an algorithm to match or sync you on the basis of a derivative,” said Stack Radio’s co-founder, and the founder of Kiss FM, Tosca Jackson. “We have done the thinking in an erudite, cerebral and personal way, not with the click of a button or switch.”

So the prospect of an interesting future, according to Hwang, Wigram and Jackson, depends upon a good mix of blind chance and trusted human recommendations – a bit like the racks and shelves of the old independent record stores and bookshops.

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