August 10 th 2005 'Brain Waves'
The cultural magazine Fourth Door Review reached its seventh issue a week or so ago, a mere nine years after its debut. The new issue carries the second part of a lengthy interview-with-cum-essay- about Andy Goldsworthy (the first part was in issue six, some 22 months ago, cruel tenterhooks on which to leave readers), a series on the architecture of cancer care homes, and pieces on the design of Aleutian Island skinboats and the music of Jan Garbarek.
It is hard to define precisely why someone interested in hospital architecture should also want to read seven pages on Norwegian jazz or hermetic articles about consciousness. One link is what Glenn Gould called “The Idea OF North”: where stylish magazines are obsessed with New York, California and Tokyo, Fourth Door Review covers sound installations at Oslo airport or timber-framed buildings in Sussex. It is defiantly non-metropolitan.
The linking thread, of course, is that the magazine’s editor, Oliver Lowenstein, is interested in all these things and has the courage to assert that his readers will find themselves similarly fascinated. Magazines fall into three categories. Mass market general interest magazines are focus-grouped and market tested to within an inch of their lives: Easy Living is hard work. Specialist interest magazines, whether on railways or patchwork or folk music, also know their audiences and their subjects intimately.
Fourth Door Review falls into a more nebulous category, one where the subject matter varies but the governing sensibility remains consistent. Resurgence under Satish Kumar pulls off the same trick. So does the Minnesota-based Utne Magazine – named, revealingly for its founder – when it succeeds in balancing the thought provoking and the trivial. The late, lamented Whole Earth Review, the archetype of many of many of these publications, carried its founder Stewart Brand’s planet-sized curiosity through several strong-minded successors as editor, from Art Kleiner to Kevin Kelly to Howard Rheingold. The Idler, when it is not veering between sloth and belligerence, combines the same mixture of culture and how best to live one’s life.
The internet plays artificial versions of the same trick. Shop at Amazon or any of its tributaries, and you will receive recommendations for other products. In the site’s early days, I used to find American books otherwise unavailable in the UK, including a wedge of children’s titles, which skewed my profile. But its recommendations for other books I might enjoy (discounting the endless variations on Goodnight Moon) werea lways spot on. Then it began to offer music as well. Before I had bought a single CD from it, the site started to offer recommendations based on books I liked: Billy Bragg’s covers, it proposed confidently. Maybe some Richard Thompson. Perhaps some Baaba Maal.
Again, spot on. But at this point, I felt less flattered than annoyed. Collaborative filtering, the term of art for identifying recommendations based on statistical clusters of shared interest, felt less like a personal service, more a reduction to a sociological stereotype. Culture is so personal that we want to feel unique. “Customers who bought music by Various Artists also bought music by Coldplay.” Surprise me.
The more information we give our content packagers and content providers, the more of this we will see. In the US, owners of TiVos have complained that their machines jump to conclusions about the television they want to watch, based on scant data. Look at Sex and the City too often, and they’ll record Desperate Housewives for you willy-nilly. Some viewers have been forced to record Monday Night Football for months to remasculinise their profiles.
Reading a small magazine is the opposite of collaborative filterin. I
don’t want to be told I’m like other people; I want to be told
by someone whon isn’t. This is the power that the erudite DJ exerts
(John Peel for many people; Charlie Gillett for me): They make recommendations
feel personal, a matter of discrimination rather than demographics.