'a living creature that consumes data and spits out homogeneity'
October 30, 2022 8:50 AM   Subscribe

What Moneyball-for-Everything Has Done to American Culture (Derek Thompson for The Atlantic)
posted by box (40 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
 


I'm not looking forward to a literary future wherein all the authors rely on Grammarly.
posted by klanawa at 9:19 AM on October 30 [7 favorites]


He keeps writing “culture” but he means mainstream, white-controlled, capitalist culture.
posted by oddman at 9:30 AM on October 30 [11 favorites]


I thought the music industry bit was a really bad and weird example. I absolutely get wanting a greater diversity of music represented in the charts — which is why it feels skeevy to me to be nostalgic for a time where genres like hip-hop and country were being artificially suppressed.
posted by en forme de poire at 9:33 AM on October 30 [9 favorites]


"Data Dulling".
posted by pthomas745 at 9:37 AM on October 30 [3 favorites]


Do you ever read the title of an article or book and you're like, 'YES' and you feel like, 'GREAT CONCEPT, TOTALLY AGREE, I NOW DON'T NEED TO READ THIS.'?
posted by latkes at 10:01 AM on October 30 [12 favorites]


After the steroid scandals of the 2000s, the stars of my childhood got dragged onto C-SPAN, ceremonially berated for cheating by grumpy old dudes, and blacklisted from the Hall of Fame. Kind of a bummer, to be honest.

That's when he lost me. The Onion headline for this would be something like, "Area Man nostalgic for steroidball decides that everything sucks now." And boy howdy am I giving the stink-eye to his assertion that music has been negatively affected because the managers of predominantly white acts can't juice the charts by lying.
posted by Halloween Jack at 10:09 AM on October 30 [11 favorites]


I thought the music industry bit was a really bad and weird example.

It’s also weird that he’s talking about something that happened in 1991 like the ensuing era wasn’t pretty damn good for rock, too. I actually kind of agree that it feels like we’re at the musical end of history, sometimes - when rock was as old as hip hop is now, we had hip hop coming up to take over and I don’t really see what’s coming up to take over now - but his explanation wouldn’t be in my top five hypotheses as to why that is.
posted by atoxyl at 10:10 AM on October 30 [7 favorites]


His NBA example is a bit weird - back in the day, nobody shot a lot of threes, now they all do, which means this era is very samey. But for some reason the nobody shooting threes isn't just as much everyone on the same page as everybody doing it is?
posted by Dysk at 10:33 AM on October 30 [3 favorites]


We're not at the end of musical history, but we did finish restoring music, after the rise of the middle class destroyed music. At this point nobody wants stodgy "pretend you're rich" music anymore, which kinda killed "classical" music and necessitated jazz, rock, punk, prog, etc., like now even the rich want "pretend you're poor" music. We should emulate music's success in other domains of consumption maybe..
posted by jeffburdges at 10:34 AM on October 30 [4 favorites]


The thesis seems to be that the optimization of play strategy has removed from the game some ineffable quality like charm or spontaneity, and this translates broadly to critique of other American institutions, music included.

If we're attempting to "rescue" "baseball" from overdetermination, we could destabilize the game with continual rule changes (the facist strategy), amateurize the sport by shifting incentives (although it's not clear that the knowledge curse wouldn't persist), go absurdist and play a metagame (I'll follow your rules, but my goal is other than to win by points), or follow some enlightened modernist approach (let's attempt to reinvigorate the spirit of the game by first understanding what that spirit is. Perhaps Baseball lost it's way, way back when it transitioned from participatory to spectator sport).

This last solution is revolutionary in that it rejects the current ideal. Maybe the true nostalgic ideal looks more like a picnic at the field of dreams than the high drama of a internationally televized world series under a megadome. Maybe players could step in and out of the game, and perhaps switch teams in the middle as life demand some players' exits. Maybe the point of pitching isn't to be impossible to hit, but rather just challenging enough to make it fun. Maybe competition should come from self mastery and the ideals serve as markers of possibility rather than objectives to reinstantiate.

If we want to fix an institution, let's look at it's purpose, and the purpose of baseball is to pass the time, together, having fun.
posted by grokus at 10:40 AM on October 30 [9 favorites]


Baseball's a weird example to use as a basis for the rest of things he talks about, because baseball has actual, settled, hard-and-fast rules. Moviemaking, music-making, "culture", these do not. You can optimize to win baseball games based on the physics, and the rules of the game, and your optimization will remain correct as long as the rules don't change and physics doesn't change (and if physics changes, we'll have other things to worry about than baseball). And I mean, he's right about baseball: math "solved" it and as a result, has come as close as possible to eliminating the situation of "runners on base", which as it turns out is also the most interesting situation in baseball for an audience. So the same thing that makes a baseball team win more games also makes those games less fun to watch, and it will continue to suck to watch baseball until the rules are changed.

But "success" in moviemaking or music-making is creating the most enjoyable or interesting situation for the audience. Those "rules" can, and do, change based upon the whims of the audience. And there's plenty of reason to believe they are changing. Marvel Studios is in a slump. Star Wars enjoyed a long period of basically money-printing, but Andor (despite being the best new Star Wars show in my lifetime) can't pull in the same audiences. Audiences get tired of things, and that's all it takes for those rules to change.

Now, if you want to make the argument that late-stage capitalism is close to permanently "solving" consumers, that is, figuring out how to extract the most money from consumers with the least effort and the least change, that's a discussion we could have. It's certainly a bad scenario and nothing immediately renders it an impossible one except for the sheer vastness and everchanging diversity of human opinions. But this article isn't really making that argument, this is more a "get off my lawn" rant about how movies and music are all bad nowadays, just dressed up as something smarter.
posted by mstokes650 at 10:52 AM on October 30 [12 favorites]


Although today people signal something else besides wealth with their music choices.
posted by jeffburdges at 11:07 AM on October 30


Is that a Creedence Clearwater Revival Revival?
posted by I-Write-Essays at 11:28 AM on October 30 [1 favorite]


At this point nobody wants stodgy "pretend you're rich" music anymore, which kinda killed "classical" music and necessitated jazz, rock, punk, prog, etc., like now even the rich want "pretend you're poor" music.

That’s a nice tribute to the woefully inadequate category of “popular music” but it’s rather beside my point which is that all of the genres you describe exploded in a period of about 60 years, ending 40 years ago. I’m not saying nothing new is happening now - mostly it seems like the evolutionary force is hip hop absorbing all of those other genres - but it doesn’t feel like it has the same directional momentum as jazz giving way to rock giving way to hip hop as the dominant force in popular music, and I think that’s the feeling that the author was getting at on some level.
posted by atoxyl at 12:23 PM on October 30 [1 favorite]


Now, if you want to make the argument that late-stage capitalism is close to permanently "solving" consumers, that is, figuring out how to extract the most money from consumers with the least effort and the least change, that's a discussion we could have.

See, based on the thread title, this is definitely where I thought this piece was going to go, and my mind jumped to the blanding of brands, the homogenization of ways to extract money from inconvenience, the way that the ads in the NYC subway have, in the past decade or so, gone from local flavor to identical-feeling VC-backed app-based regular thing (once helvetica, now brittanic, all corporate memphis) - it's all converging on the same exact thing. There's something going on with cities, too, where the downtowns all cater to the same set of tastes (?) of international travelers, the same international brands - they're all starting to feel like duty free malls - featuring harley davidson (for t-shirts, not vehicles), levis, rolex, apple, and so on.
posted by entropone at 12:24 PM on October 30 [13 favorites]


"Cultural Thermalization"
posted by I-Write-Essays at 12:27 PM on October 30


I think one could say the same about a number of artistic domains - that it feels like we’re recycling and recombining smaller bits of the past faster rather than having Big Cultural Movements but I wouldn’t pin that on a culture of optimization so much as the broader effects of digital network media.
posted by atoxyl at 12:27 PM on October 30 [3 favorites]


There's something going on with cities, too, where the downtowns all cater to the same set of tastes.

To tie this into my bit, and another conversation that happened here recently, back when Wired was writing encomia to “the long tail” for some reason they never seemed to be interested in the rest of the picture, which is a power law distribution. I think that picture explains a lot about how culture “feels” now, the way things are both monoculture and impossibly fragmented. There are more things to choose from, but the most popular things are more popular than ever.
posted by atoxyl at 12:33 PM on October 30 [4 favorites]


I feel like the lesson here is that the rules of baseball are… bad? Like, it turns out that, when played optimally, baseball isn’t very fun to watch. No shame in that, the same is true of plenty of games, just box it up and put it in storage.
posted by rishabguha at 1:41 PM on October 30 [4 favorites]


In order for Baseball to change one of physics, the rules, or biology. We already tried the biology part with drugs, and it turns out that has bad effects on the players, so it stopped (or at least got less blatant).
Lots of leagues tweak the rules over time to get the results they want as far as I know, I don't see why baseball can't do it too.
posted by PennD at 1:50 PM on October 30


US America's jurisprudence obsession with baseball has presidence in the "Three-strikes laws".

And that turned out shit.
posted by NoThisIsPatrick at 1:54 PM on October 30 [2 favorites]


there are all sorts of adjustments that can be made to baseball - deader balls, lower pitcher mounds, smaller pitching staffs, smaller strike zones

things like this have been done before - in fact, we could even bring back the spitball and the scuffball, which would certainly make the math of pitch and bat much more interesting

it might be time to bring the dead ball era back a bit
posted by pyramid termite at 2:03 PM on October 30 [1 favorite]


I agree with the wider point attempting to be made, but the arguments used are poor, especially for music. There have been many other complaints with much better reasoning on analytics ruining sport and formulization spoiling movies. To sum up, the observation above of a simultaneous general homogenization and fragmentation rings really true for me.
posted by blue shadows at 2:15 PM on October 30


This article feels close, but lacking in self-awareness. Or perspective, or something. I’m sure it feels true to anyone like the author and less so the more unlike them you are.

I feel (and that’s the best I can do) that, as businesses understood the Long Tail that, instead of finding a way to take advantage of the less popular wants (and needs), that they all used it to focus exclusively on the smallest sliver of the most popular end. Is this “Business Moneyball”? Is that what late stage capitalism is?

My anecdote (sorry) is that my (M) feet are outliers. The shape is way off the curve. Not big or small, but wide. They’d be wider if school shoes hadn’t permanently bent my big toes in. And my ankle bones are obviously strange because one badly-placed something in the top (?) of the shoe is absolute agony. I almost can’t find shoes anymore. I can walk into a shoe store and literally not find anything that fits. The first half of my adult life was fine, but now I’m running out of shoes. Even shoes that seemed promising when I bought them will start cramping my little toes at the four hour mark.

I need shoes. Sports need to entertain. (People need homes.) At some point I feel that moneyball in all its forms has to ignore that people are people and now it’s forgotten. Once it’s not profitable to provide for your needs and wants, late stage capitalism wishes you were dead. The author is blindsided by a machine that’s made up of familiar parts turning on them, but I guess that for lots of people where this was never true this is less of a surprise.
posted by krisjohn at 2:23 PM on October 30 [6 favorites]


What about the idea that we're in the golden age of television - that writing for scripted series on streaming and premium channels is better than it's ever been?

And little local bands are more technically accomplished than they've been in a while too. Jazz fusion and classically trained cabaret pianists and prog rock everywhere.

Mainstream media is safer and dumber than it's ever been as the firms that make these products get bigger and more corporate and more driven by the accounting department yeah. But the long tail thing is also true...
posted by subdee at 2:27 PM on October 30


I think you can also blame the internet for this because things for niche audiences can be taken out of theaters, physical retail stores, etc and moved online for people to search for. Similarly to how there are no longer any maternity stores in my area bc pregnant people aren't a big enough audience and they can buy things online.
posted by subdee at 2:28 PM on October 30 [2 favorites]


What about the idea that we're in the golden age of television - that writing for scripted series on streaming and premium channels is better than it's ever been?

I would have placed Peak TV closer to 10 years ago, or somewhere in the span between 20 years ago and 5 years ago.
posted by atoxyl at 4:19 PM on October 30 [2 favorites]


I think at least part of the complaint with baseball and the 3 point shots is that he finds watching lots of strike outs and missed 3 pointers boring, even if mathematically what the athletes are doing comes out ahead.
posted by Candleman at 5:16 PM on October 30


I suspect you may be right, in that that would track with the overall thesis if the piece, but not once did he mention disliking threes - he frames it entirely as the 'product getting more homogeneous' with no mention of it being better or worse.
posted by Dysk at 10:32 PM on October 30


"Cultural Thermalization"

It’s the Everything Thermalization Hypothesis (ETH).
posted by nat at 12:08 AM on October 31


The graphic novel Transmetropolitan has a page out of one of the comics the block text is titled "We live in a monoculture". (Third panel down the page). Written mostly before 'Big Data' was a thing, I'm sure if it would have been included if it had existed in a more meaningful way.

Nothing is good anymore, everything is bad. Not because we chose it with our money as much as with our data. Who we let have it, who stole it, who is using it to shape not only 'Popular Culture', but even our most mundane consumer goods, as krisjohn's comment can attest to.
posted by sharp pointy objects at 8:28 AM on October 31


the way that the ads in the NYC subway have, in the past decade or so, gone from local flavor to identical-feeling VC-backed app-based regular thing

Where have you gone, Dr. Zizmor?
Our city turns its lonely eyes to you
Woo, woo, woo
What's that you say, Mr. Finance Bro?
Dr. Z has left and gone away
Hey, hey, hey
Hey, hey, hey
posted by star gentle uterus at 9:07 AM on October 31


I think at least part of the complaint with baseball and the 3 point shots is that he finds watching lots of strike outs and missed 3 pointers boring, even if mathematically what the athletes are doing comes out ahead.


I don't know- I think strikeouts and missed baskets (what's the difference between a missed 3 pointer and a missed jump shot from just inside?) is part of the game, and if you find parts of the game boring, that's fine, but neither has anything to do with moneyball.
posted by The_Vegetables at 9:10 AM on October 31 [1 favorite]


Continuous changes probably aren't required so much as some randomness. Like randomized chess there are all sorts of rules that could reduce the effectiveness of money ball by introducing randomness.

Eg: Anytime the bases are empty we let the batter decide which direction to run the bases. That direction is fixed until the bases are once again empty.
posted by Mitheral at 9:31 AM on October 31 [3 favorites]


In terms of recent changes in sports, it has been my observation watching NFL games the last few years. The traditional strategy regarding 4th downs and 2 point conversions has shifted. Playing on 4th downs instead of kicking and going for 2 point conversions relatively early in a game has become more common. They used to be signs of a losing team desperate to put points on the board late in the game. I don't know if these decision were a statistically driven of not, but the math has changed.
posted by Badgermann at 11:49 AM on October 31


That’s a nice tribute to the woefully inadequate category of “popular music” but it’s rather beside my point which is that all of the genres you describe exploded in a period of about 60 years, ending 40 years ago. I’m not saying nothing new is happening now - mostly it seems like the evolutionary force is hip hop absorbing all of those other genres - but it doesn’t feel like it has the same directional momentum as jazz giving way to rock giving way to hip hop as the dominant force in popular music, and I think that’s the feeling that the author was getting at on some level.

I mean, those all started outside the mainstream culture and by definition, most of us aren't gonna know about what's going on outside mainstream culture right now. There's only a feel of directionality to it because we can look back and chart it. Also, like everyone of those required a big change in technology, one that was only obvious once it happened.

I'm just gonna go out on a limb and say that if you're wondering why musical innovation isn't happening, it's a sure sign that you're not looking in the right places. Humans have been making music for as long as we've been human, I'm willing to bet there's never been a time where folks haven't been playing with and changing that music.
posted by Gygesringtone at 2:45 PM on October 31


I dislike using the term "moneyball" to refer to data-driven changes in things where it's not appropriate. Moneyball by the Oakland A's was specifically to use analytics to find cheap players to replace good players- in other words, have a stingy owner and *also* have a competitive baseball team. See also the Moneyball Mets and the Tampa Bay Rays. It's a specific response to a specific situation. That's not the same as any and every instance of using analytics to make better sports plays; and I really don't understand the reference to the music industry at all. A lot of things about the way people listen to music has changed since the 90s, and record sales and radio playlists hardly reflect that.

WRT how to make baseball less boring: as an Oakland A's fan it's pretty obvious that John Fisher simply does not give a shit about baseball, and I have my suspicions about the majority of MLB owners and commissioner as well. they certainly don't behave like people who like the sport and its players! Replace their dumb asses and you could probably begin to have a reasonable conversation about how to get people back into seats.

Also the NBA is lots of fun these days and is in no way a homogeneous product. Yes more people shoot threes. But they aren't shooting comparably fewer twos- they're just shooting more attempts overall. In the 2011-12 season NBA teams averaged 18.4 three point attempts and 63 two point attempts; this year it's 34.5 three point attempts to 54.9 two point attempts. That's an average of 8 more shot attempts per game, and they are completing more of them with an effective field goal percentage of .466 (now) to .448 (2012). Two point completion is even better: .530 to .477 (2012).
posted by oneirodynia at 3:20 PM on October 31 [1 favorite]


I am not very well versed in any of the cultural areas he discussed. But I used to listen to a lot of country music in the 90s and 00s. Now, all the music sounds equally the same and bad to me. But I am not sure if that is because it is so repetitively stupid, or if the variety is lost on me because it's all directed at people much different than me. So I don't catch the nuances of what they're saying. Or it is actually dumb as shit, who's to say.

The song that comes to mind is a 2001 song called "I don't know why you've gotta be angry" by Tim McGraw. When I do turn on modern country I always think that none of the bros on the radio today would make an interesting song like that. The women they are in love with are all generic white woman wearing "that dress" and the women who break their hearts have little personality at all. What I gather from it is that instead of telling a story, they are trying to get the listener to place themselves in the song, and rather than truly being evocative they just describe humanity in as broad of strokes as possible so that anyone in their demographic could be slotted in.
posted by Emmy Rae at 5:00 PM on October 31


I don't know- I think strikeouts and missed baskets (what's the difference between a missed 3 pointer and a missed jump shot from just inside?) is part of the game

I'd argue that they are precisely what make the games interesting and good. Without misses there's no excitement or peril - the old stereotype of basketball where I grew up was that it was basically just two teams taking turns to score almost unobstructed. That would be boring. Meanwhile (association) football has outrageously more misses (and saves) than goals, and yet remains widely popular and very exciting, precisely because each shot could be a goal, and each goal really matters.

I'm not saying I'd definitely prefer less scoring in the NBA, but actually I might.
posted by Dysk at 12:23 AM on November 3


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