A couple of years ago I found myself trapped in a cycle of grim psychological torture at the gym. Every day I would begin my workout, oblivious to the typical horrors of the world outside. And then every day, without fail, I would find myself thinking at some point, against my will, about the issue of raping children. The depravity of it. The horror. The satellite radio channel wouldn’t stop reminding me.
Every day, you see, due to whatever whims of algorithmic input this particular channel used, they would play the song “Last Train Home” by the Welsh rock band Lostprophets. And for good reason. It’s a total jam, uplifting and stirring and with the sense of momentum well-suited for exercising. Despite that, I do not ever want to hear it again. Sadly, no one at the channel seemed to have registered the fact that the band’s singer, Ian Watkins, had a few years earlier been sentenced to almost 30 years in prison for a number of horrific charges, including conspiring to rape a baby. Jesus Christ.
The song and all of the band’s music, if not outright erased, should have certainly been taken out of rotation on a commercial station. But while very few people around the world were likely choosing to listen to the band anymore by that point, nobody seemed to have got around to telling the computer DJ. A computer can only learn from what we teach it. It has no morality, it simply behaves based on previous input and gives us back what it is it thinks we want to hear.
Eventually, mercifully, they stopped playing the song. Whether or not someone was merely asleep at the switch, or if it just fell out of fashion, I never learned. But it was something I was reminded of over the past couple of weeks as the fallout from the Harvey Weinstein scandal has expanded to encompass men from across the entertainment world. Even if I wanted to, the computer still will not let me look away from the carnage. It hasn’t learned to yet.
There it was on my cable’s on-demand screen. Because I had watched Curb Your Enthusiasm, I might want to try Lucky Louie it offered. On Netflix, in the second row of suggested options was Kevin Spacey starring in House of Cards. On Spotify, a playlist generated because I had listened to Brand New. With the accusations and admissions of wrongdoing of varying degrees from each man over the past month, there followed a large-scale disavowal from fans. How can we listen to the music of a singer who’d been accused of soliciting nude pictures from underage girls? How can we enjoy the comedy of a man who’d made women watch him masturbate against their wishes? And yet, even if we told ourselves we were done with them going forward, that we could not consume their art in good conscience, we’re still living through a lag in the algorithm.
In these cases it was different than the satellite radio programming at the gym, because for each one, the computer was giving me what I ostensibly wanted based on years of accumulated and personalized media consumption. So no matter how loudly I had declared that my allegiance to Brand New was over, every time I went to listen to music—often specifically to turn away from the news—there was the paper trail of receipts reminding me of my suddenly problematic preferences, the tell-tale heart in the computer.
Well, shit. Now what?
I reached out to each of the companies in question, Netflix, Spotify and Comcast, to see if there was any mechanism in place to ride the lever of public opinion when an artist was in the news for terrible behavior, but as tech companies often do, they did not deign to respond. One wonders if we would, or should, want corporations making those decisions for us. I’m honestly not sure. As much as I condemn the behavior of all the men mentioned here, there are undeniable gradients of offense. Morrissey, another favorite of mine, and currently all over my Spotify and YouTube suggestions, has lost a lot of fans last week after making an idiotic reactionary defense of Spacey and Weinstein in the press. Awful and disappointing on its own to be sure, but a far cry from the actual crimes of Watkins and other rapists. But at the very least, a long pause from consuming the work of most of these men is in order. Whether or not it’s memory-holed forever will be up to each of us, but taking it out of the top recommended spots when the news is so fresh seems like a reasonable place to start.
As fast as a computer can be, it needs to be nudged in the right direction. Cultural norms, too, can be slow to change. Over time both can be improved, we just have to input the right data to get it where it needs to be. Maybe if we start telling the computer that we don’t want to hear from these men for a while, it will stop reminding us that we ever wanted to.