The Algorithm of Influence

Influence isn’t what you have, it’s what you can convince others they need. Every time a product is launched we are persuaded not only of its desirability but that it has rendered everything that came before redundant. To cling onto the old is to live in the past.

This was played out last week when Twitter announced that it was closing down its short-form video service Vine. Despite having 200m active users the social media giant had decided that it was to be consigned to the past. Cue news of Twitter and Apple further investing in augmented reality. Videos are the past, AR is the future. The fact that Twitter doesn’t exactly know how to use this tech –its AR experiment in May to boost engagement on the US show The Voice failed to excite- is beside the point. It needed to sacrifice Vine in order to lay the ground for “the future”.

This has been a marketing strategy ever since a Middle Eastern carpenter’s son rebranded the testament of a thousand year religion as Old. In modern times a prime example is the shift from silent movies to talkies. When sound films were introduced in the late 20s silent pictures had been around for barely two decades and were still immensely popular and innovative. Many critics of the day doubted whether the talkie fad would catch on.

Yet by the early 30s silent pictures seemed as distant as medieval mystery plays. The major studios that invested vast sums into synchronized sound in the late 20s and 30s had embarked on a campaign to actively denigrate silent pictures. As I explored in The Fame Formula: How Hollywood’s Fixers, Fakers and Star Makers Created the Celebrity Industry  the legend of obsolescence was storyboarded as much by cynical publicists as it was by filmmakers deserting their actors. The tragic story of the silent star that instantly faded when she opened her mouth –most famously captured by Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard- was a part of the propaganda. Even performers of the silent era bought into the myth. In The Parade’s Gone By historian Kevin Brownlow describes the shame felt by many of the silent stars when he asked them about their early pictures, as if he had unearthed dirty secrets.

Yet by buying into the myth of the new we suspend –and potentially endanger- our critical faculties. Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari sketches in his latest disruptive piece of future gazing Homo Deus an image of the human mind that has taken the toll of decades of computerisation. He goes beyond the commonplace that attention spans are shrinking to posit the idea that our very ideas of free choice and perception may be irrevocably altering as we bequeath more and more of our decision-making processes to algorithmic automation. In laymans, Harari is saying our brains are being moulded into the shape of a social media feed that is constantly refreshing. We are fooled into thinking every update is a positive improvement.

Harari’s vision is bleak. Artificial Intelligence will ultimately be infinitely better informed than humans. To follow the logic, we should face the facts and concede that mankind will become redundant. Put that in a Vine.