Work: Surviving the Arts

Exploring issues of sustainability in the arts.

–by Scott Pinkmountain

A.I., Capitalism and Art


Given Stephen Hawking’s recent prediction of artificially intelligent computers ending the human race, I should have been less impressed (and perhaps more frightened) when my flight information for an upcoming trip appeared on my laptop’s Google map. I was baffled until I realized I was logged into my Gmail account on the same browser; Google had access to the information in my email, and had coordinated it across multiple Google services.

On my cell phone, however, I use Google’s map application without signing in. Not only does the flight information not appear on the map, but the app won’t even store my home address. Of course my phone knows where I live, where I do my marketing, my banking. But unless I sign in and give it full, cross-platform access, it’s not going to help me out as much as it could. If I choose to surrender my personal information, I may reap the full benefits of the rapidly growing field of artificial intelligence. As we’re discovering, the key to artificial intelligence is not brilliant code or ghost-in-the-machine voodoo, but data: the data we provide when we give companies permission to track our behaviors and preferences on a microscopic scale.

So the motivating factor behind developing artificial intelligence is not some altruistic goal of improving our lives or freeing us from the bonds of labor, it’s monetization. If a website or app can serve your needs, you will use it more frequently and stay on it longer, which increases its value as an ad delivery system. All the more so if it knows your specific consumer preferences.

Let’s say I’m driving around San Diego at 5 p.m. If I’m logged into Google on my phone it knows I’m away from home at my usual dinner time (it has tracked my presence at restaurants around this time). It knows what type of restaurants I frequent and how much I typically spend on meals. It could make dining suggestions, maybe offer me a coupon. But of course it would weight its recommendations based on advertising revenue and possibly get a cut of the bill if it successfully steers me to a sponsored restaurant.

It’s only a few short leaps to the cyber girlfriend, Samantha, of Spike Jonze’s Her, with one crucial detail missing from Jonze’s vision: corporate sponsorship. What makes Scarlett Johansson’s character unrealistic, and ultimately sets the movie off mark, is the idea that this cyber-partner software would exist primarily to serve the end user. A program with 100% unfettered access to all of your digital information PLUS your behavioral patterns AND your spoken thoughts like the cyber-girlfriend in Her, would be the ultimate metadata collection tool, turning the user into a full-time market tester and ideal consumer (as well as a super high-value target for data thieves).

This cyber-partner would probably be more like a personal shopper, stylist, driver, assistant, social organizer and ego-booster. “Hey Scott, you would look really sexy and cool in this Burberry coat, and it looks like you can afford it. Hey Scott, I noticed that both you and Diane (whom you chat with in the lobby while demonstrating elevated levels of anxiety and attraction through pitch fluctuations in your voice) both like Italian food (based on your market purchases and dining habits). Do you want me to ask her if she’ll join you for dinner? I can recommend a good place. I happen to know she’s single right now and that you two would make a good match according to proven coupling metrics.”

When some company finally does create this cyber-partner software, they’ll prefer to give it away for free because it will yield endless opportunities for product pushing and monetization. There might conceivably be a pay version without ads or sponsored content, but the company would still be tracking your data and behavior and be able to monetize that to advertisers as highly accurate target demographic info. Realistically, the value (to the producer) of a freeware version would be so much higher than the pay version that the pay version would be prohibitively expensive in order to drive consumers toward the ad-supported version. Only the wealthy would remain inoculated from the invasive and manipulative marketing, able to afford their right to privacy.

In the film, Her, Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore is vulnerable, needy and alienated. He has some nebulous, angsty void he’s seeking to fill, which is why he purchases Samantha. To a corporation, Theodore is the goose that lays the golden egg; he’s the dream consumer. Advertisers would pay through the nose to have direct access to him and to the Theodore in each of us.

In a recent New York Times Op-Ed, “Our Machine Masters,” David Brooks makes some good points about the data collection and recommendation service aspects of A.I.  He notes in particular how well Pandora predicts his musical taste, but expresses concern over machines shaping our preferences, nudging us all toward the most popular (and I would add, sponsored) content versus more accurate or “intelligent” options. I work as a Music Analyst for Pandora and while I share this concern regarding any recommendation service, I see it as inevitable behavior for a capitalist pursuit. In a commercial endeavor, the intelligence of a product must ultimately be secondary to, and thus limited by, the profit motive.

As one example of profit motive triumphing over common sense: advertisements for Pandora Radio appear daily on my Facebook page even though I identify as a Pandora employee in my profile and also use Pandora frequently in the same browser. As far as A.I. goes, that’s really stupid. I am the last person on the planet who ever needs to see a Pandora ad and Facebook knows this. But Facebook gets paid to push Pandora ads. As long as Pandora doesn’t stipulate that they won’t pay for ads pushed to their own employees or current heavy users, Facebook will continue to deliver those ads and charge Pandora for doing so. Profit over intelligence. Capitalism has and will keep us ignorant of things it cannot monetize.

Brooks ends his Op-Ed by identifying the types of intelligence humans are still better at than computers; “Social skills, emotional capacities and moral intuitions.” I would add narrative and spontaneity to this list, and bundle it all into the context of creativity and art. People remain better than profit-motivated machines at identifying and valuing outliers and championing unpopular (un-monetizable) ideas or causes. I call this stuff “Real Intelligence” in contrast to Artificial and Capitalist Intelligence.

Maybe this Real Intelligence will eventually become the single identifying distinction between art and everything else. Art won’t try to sell you something. It won’t guide you toward sponsored content. It won’t extract information from you to use for its own benefit, while pretty much everything else will. There will be personally tailored product placements in your emails, Twitter feeds, pop songs, e-books, video games and news.

Your Samantha-like cyber-partner will offer you coupons and incentives in exchange for announcing your purchases to your social network, while artists will continue to make things that intelligently serve the alienated, yearning Theodore in each of us without demanding something material in return. Though we may ultimately be fated for extinction at the hands of self-evolved computers, we need the Real Intelligence of art to help us survive the Capitalist Intelligence of the present.


Scott Pinkmountain is a writer and musician living in Pioneertown, CA. His writing has appeared on This American Life, in The Rumpus, A Public Space, HTMLGIANT, and other publications, and he hosts the Make/Work podcast for The Rumpus. He has also released dozens of albums of both instrumental music and songs. He works as a music analyst for Pandora Radio. He can be found at and @spinkmountain.