In 2011, Charlize Theron appeared in an advertisement for j’Adore perfume, and despite the fact that I’m not the target market for the product, I was transfixed. The image depicted a flawless Theron with an impossibly long neck, looking like something from one of Midas’ better dreams.
Theron looks entirely impossible in this image, yet the image exists. Nobody will ever be as perfect as Theron is in that image. But we, as a culture, don’t care about that. We simply wish to see Theron-as-image, and as long as she is served up to us, we’ll evidently pay attention.
Last week a new advertisement for chocolate was released and it features the well-and-truly-dead screen great Audrey Hepburn. Except of course, it isn’t her. It’s the licensed likeness of Hepburn – the services of which were rather creepily rented by the Hepburn Estate to someone who wished her to shill chocolate bars.
In the boom years after World War Two, futurists and cultural commentators speculated that our technological advancements were increasing at such speeds that we would some day need to work out what we as humans would do with all the extra time we were freeing up. I remember as a child being told that one day the 40 hour work week would seem archaic, as we’d all have labour-saving devices doing all of our menial work. We’d be writing, painting, sculpting, or some such, because what else would there be for us to do?
Of course, that’s not what happened. Our time did not become free, because our society is so wedded to consumption that it would collapse if we were not there to exist as a market. Our economy relies on our attention and our ability and desire to be entertained. Our very attention is the resource that’s mined by the culture industry. Film, television, and the attendant industry of Celebrity can only exist because we wish to be entertained and we are prepared to pay to be entertained, or because other people are prepared to pay for our attention (if that means it will sell products or services).
This commercialised attention culture forms a new social and cultural contract. The cultural industry attempts to give us what we want, and in return we buy products (films, television, books, computer games, magazines, websites) or we give attention to things that attempt to market less ephemeral products and services to us. The economy, which relies on consumption, is fed by us. We are both the product and the market.
However, because it’s difficult to predict which films we will like, or to cast the actors most likely to get us to open our wallets in every single role, the cultural industry takes risks. They cast actors in surprise roles, they give unknown directors a break, they fund longshots. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But the desire to profit through risk is the fuel for our cultural furnace. It also produces much of the waste that keeps black-collar workers in busywork for 40 hours a week.
Earlier this year, Netflix released its Americanised remake of House of Cards. It looked like a bold gamble for Netflix, however it was nothing of the sort. You see, because of the huge trove of subscriber data Netflix has on its customers, its management knew that people liked Kevin Spacey, David Fincher, and the original BBC House of Cards.
All they had to do was convince Spacey and Fincher to get involved, and license the rights to House of Cards. The rest was nowhere near the risk it seemed.
Humans age. Charlize Theron will one day be replaced by a younger version of perfection onto whom we can project our desires. This truth is why it still makes sense for people to try to become actors, models, or other types of Celebrity. There’s always an opening at the bottom of the ladder.
Except now, perhaps Celebrities don’t age. Why would a movie studio take a chance on the next Charlize Theron when they can simply cast her licensed CGI likeness in a film that it knows (through access to our historical preference data) that we will like?
What happens to the culture when decisions as to which films and television shows will be produced rely almost solely on algorithms sifting our data? Business has a will to profit and abhors wasted capital. I can’t see a future where decisions about films and television are not increasingly made by algorithms, nor one where a caste of mega-Celebrities do not extend their careers significantly through licensing their 3-D likeness.