Transcribed from HeadStuff Lectures #7 in Workman’s Club, Dublin in February 2017. You can watch Una Mullally’s Lecture, “Does The Blue Sweater Scene From The Devil Wears Prada Actually Mean Anything And If So, What?” at the bottom of the page.
The Devil Wears Prada, based on Lauren Weisberger’s book about working at a fashion magazine, is really a film about things being taken seriously. Should Anne Hathaway’s character ‘Andy’ take her boss, the Anna Wintour-esquw Miranda Priestly seriously?
Can Andy be taken seriously in the job considering she’s so unsuited to it?
When she starts to get into it and realises that fashion itself is serious, will her boyfriend and friends take her seriously?
Can fashion itself be taken seriously?
“That sweater is not just blue, it’s not turquoise, this is actually cerulean.” Can this colour, blue, and the processes by which it chose Andy, be taken seriously when she fished it out of some clearance bin?
But what grabs me about that scene is twofold. The first bit can be loosely framed around the concepts of emergence – how something rises from the bottom up to deliver a greater meaning – and also the concept of contagion. And the other bit is about the concept of predestination. Who chose the sweater? Or did the sweater choose her?
I’m going to bring your minds back to the Junior Certificate history syllabus and something that always stuck with me. That word: predestination, or as I learned it in school in Irish “réamhchinniúint” a translation meaning pre-fate.
Predestination is a doctrine about the will of god, and the free will of the individual. If God knows and influences everything, then how can a person make choices if their fate is predetermined?
During the Reformation, initiated by Martin Luther and continued by John Calvin, that concept of predestination was challenged.
That paradox of free will, that whether we have free will or god does, is something that rattled that period of rethinking theology.
Do we choose the blue jumper, or does the blue jumper choose us? Does this make us lurch from those 16th century philosophies to an 18th century concept, that of the invisible hand Adam Smith wrote about?
But the real question is, what happened in between Oscar De La Renta choosing cerulean himself and Andy wearing a jumper of that colour?
It is almost as if fashion itself at its highest end, can predict what people will wear eventually at its lowest end, and this, in a way, is as much about predestination as it is about prediction. Pre-fate.
If fashion knows about us – if there is a sort of predestination or predetermined element to the items we pick – then what else is being chosen for us? What else learns from where it comes from to become almost through adaptive learning things that we desire or do?
So where does predestination fit in with predictions? What happens in that in-between bit.
We are obsessed with predictions. It’s funny that predictions take as much from the past as they do from the future – we only legitimise them in hindsight. But when it comes to the future, elements of predictions and oracles scatter so much of how we envisage the future, which for the most part in popular culture is envisaged through the medium of science fiction.
So back to the in between. In the in between, it is as if these things that are chosen and then we choose, go about learning about us, about our needs. We think we learn consciously, but actually, a lot of our learning is not conscious at all. We do not know its happening within us, around us, or to us.
For example, our immune systems learn. If they didn’t, we would repeatedly get the same diseases over and over again instead of developing immunity towards them.
An antibody activates itself to neutralise the antigen of a virus, and remembers to do that again and again should it occur, like a plain clothes officer scanning the faces heading towards a football stadiums looking out for a hooligan. The body learns without consciousness. It remembers, and it predicts.
Cities too learn without consciousness. They keep their shape, they gather and organise from the bottom up, as Steven Johnson so eloquently examined in his book Emergence, using the example of how silk weavers in Florence have congregated over hundreds of years yet stay in the same place despite monumental change around them.
When it comes to contemporary predictions in that great field of science fiction, there is perhaps no more astute recent illustration of this phenomenon in popular culture, than the film Minority Report.
Minority Report, a reworking of Philip K Dick’s short story, is about free will and determinism.
But something else about prediction happened in the making of this film. Steven Spielberg was so adamant to get a prediction of the future correct, that he assembled a crack team of predictors before filming began. The architect Peter Calthorpe, Douglas Coupland, Jaron Lanier (the computer scientist who wrote You Are Not A Gadget) and others were convened in a Think Tank in California to create the 2054 bible: their task was to come up with realistic technologies for the future, not just science fiction ones.
In conceptualising those technologies, they ended up predicting so many things while furnishing a film about prediction. Although some of the things they devised were already in train, they envisaged them in a way that felt very real, manifesting technologies that we now see as common, over 15 years ago. They came up with, amongst other things; gesture-based interfaces, self-driving cars, retina scanners, insect robots or weaponised police/military robots, targeted personal advertising, malleable electronic paper, and of course, the basis of the story, pre-crime, crime prediction.
But in predicting how we act, what are the ethics of interventions in those predictions? In Minority Report, this was the crux of the issue. Arresting people for crimes they were about to commit.
On a day to day basis, we know that the internet services we use, predict by tracking the past. They predict our choices through our choices. They are both Oscar De La Renta, and the bargain bin where the blue sweater is. And this is not just by showing us ads for cheap flights to New York after we’ve talking about going to New York in Gchat with a friend.
This brings me to the contemporary predictors. The ceruleans, the pre-cogs in the murder predicting soup in Minority Report; personal data.
This data is important for advertising. In knowing what car you drive or clothing brands you like, the assumption is that people who buy similar things act in similar ways and make similar decisions. We act based on who we are, right? Our personality drives our behaviour and our choices. Getting into the tracking of this is kind of weird and creepy, but we collude, mostly in ignorance. Our internet use becomes the antibody, getting up to all sorts of things that we aren’t necessarily conscious of.
This data is changing. It is moving from metrics to psychometrics.
Assessment of personality can boil down to an acronym OCEAN, which stands for; Openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, neuroticism. If we know those personality traits, we can have a good grasp of a person, but not just of their personality, but how they react, what they’re scared of, and crucially what they are going to do.
How do you harvest that information? It would take forever, right? Unless… unless you take into account that people hand away this data all the time on personality tests online, or highlighted by the work of Michal Kosinski who through assessing likes on Facebook, found it became possible to predict someone’s sexuality, their religion, their political affiliations, whether they smoked. Soon, the psychometrics on Facebook likes become a better judge of a person than that person’s acquaintances. Eventually, this data would accrue enough knowledge about a person that it surpassed what that person knew about themselves.
This learning that we are handing over, is not being done consciously, and those accruing it are not necessarily doing it consciously either. Like the antibodies, like Andy picking the sweater. Our phone knows when we move. Alexa knows when we’re home. Twitter knows when people are hungry. Spotify knows when people are sad.
Who is interested in this data? Not just those forecasting the success of a particular shade of blue gaining popularity across high street fashion, but anyone interested in influencing behaviour. And what is the one important choice that people make every few years to change things that others want to influence?
Which brings me to a company you’ve probably heard a lot about recently Cambridge Analytica.
This is a British company that has vast amounts of data on various populations, personality based data, emotional data. Much of this type of data can be gathered from personality tests across social media and email.
If you have a psychological profile of a voter, and by analysing people with similar profiles, you can predict they’ll make similar choices, so you can tailor a political message to that audience
What two campaigns has Cambridge Analytica been commissioned by? leave.EU in the Brexit referendum, and the presidential campaign of Donald Trump. Some say their involvement is overstated, or skewed, but I think it’s worth thinking about. Regardless of the impact they had, this is what can be done now, because by the summer of 2016, Trump’s canvassers already knew the political views of the person whose door they were knocking on. One of Cambridge Analytica’s board members has done well out of it. His name is Steve Bannon.
Bluntly, targeted ads used to come down to clunky demographics; people under 25, women, people who live in the commuter belt. That’s about who you are very basically, not how you think and certainly not what you will do. Cambridge Analytica claim to have built a model that predicts the personality of every single adult in the US. You can buy that kind of data from everything you can think of – loyalty cards, Facebook surveys – and create personality profiles based on it. Knowing the personalities and people’s behaviours, they can then be targeted more effectively, with tailored messages. And when someone knows us better than we know ourselves, they don’t need to tell us what to do, they just need to nudge a little to make sure we do it.
So, is the blue jumper picking Andy, or did she pick the blue jumper?
Or was, as Miranda Priestly said, is the whole scheme just thought up by a few people in a room?