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Curation and the death of happenstance

Curation is everywhere, especially online. But like the magazine shop technique, there are ways around it.

Vaughn Davis aims to explore the unknown at South by South West.

Vaughn Davis

I was recently privileged to attend, on behalf of this fine magazine, an event called South by
South West
. SXSW is a strange and bloated beast; over nine noisy drunken days it sees Austin, Texas host three intertwined but separate festivals: interactive, music and film.

It’s impossible to see everything. At any one time there are 30 sessions, keynotes, discussions, gigs, films or director’s talks to choose from. So my first instinct was to attempt what I’d promised myself after attending last year: plan my experience in advance. South-by caters to this, with a scheduling app (of course), along with a phonebook-sized guide to each of the festivals and pocket versions to schlep between venues.

But it’s futile, and probably wrong. Futile, because the only sure way to pick the best sessions is by listening to people discussing them in the bar after they happened. Wrong, because there’s enough curation in the world, especially the digital part, and by surrendering to it we risk becoming nothing but pale reflections of our preferences.

I think a lot about this, and I think SXSW helped confirm my views. When I occasionally talk to people about the business of creativity, one of the theories I mention is James Webb Young’s. He manages to fill a book with it, but the elevator version is that a new idea is nothing more or less than a combination of two existing ones. You won’t find a simpler recipe this side of the Edmond’s Cookbook, but for it to work, you need to start with a pantry full of interesting ingredients.

So if you’re in the business of having ideas about, say, boat design, filling your cupboard with nothing but boat design is unlikely to advance the craft. Add a pinch of medieval stonemasonry, an acquaintance with Freudian psychiatry and a detailed knowledge of the weaponry of Doctor Who and you suddenly stand a chance of pulling something interesting out of the oven. The thing is, the diverse influences you need to have great ideas don’t always come naturally. We like what we like.

We listen to the same radio stations, eat at the same restaurants, read the same magazines. Breaking the habit isn’t hard, though. Wake up to a different radio station for a week (I recommend Kiwi FM on Thursdays at 8.40am, but I would). Go French instead of Thai. Or take five paces into a magazine shop, stick out your right arm and buy the first title you touch.

You’ll be surprised at how quickly new influences lead to new ideas. (Unless the magazine you pluck is actually New Idea, in which case all bets are off.) Online, it’s a little harder, and becoming harder by the day. Novel and interesting, it would seem, is for mugs. Instead, the digital world seems intent upon making sure the stuff you see is the stuff you already like. Amazon was an early leader here, recommending books based on the purchases made by ‘people like you’. Facebook bases its news feed not just on when things happen, but what it calculates you’ll find interesting. Google personalises its results too, blending your search terms with your previous behaviour and an increasingly pungent dash of what your friends are into. And Flipboard ensures you see nothing that’s not from sources you’ve chosen to source.

Ugh, ugh and ugh.

Curation is everywhere, especially online. But like the magazine shop technique, there are ways around it. The Accidental News Explorer is an iPhone app that’s caught my eye lately. Unlike the tailored search results of Google and Bing, ANE enticed me with the promise: ‘Look for something; find something else’. In truth, the stories it delivers are disappointingly close to the search terms I’ve entered, but its heart appears to be in the right place. My favourite link in Wikipedia (I’ll wait while you go and try it) is called Random Article. I clicked it just now, and now know more about the local elections in the London borough of Haringey than I did 30 seconds ago. And if I simply dig past the first page of results Google delivers me, I’ll see what 99 percent of internet users never bother to.

It’s what I ended up doing in a real-world sense at SXSW, and it worked. Rather than chasing across town to a must-see film that filled up five minutes before I arrived, I went for the closest one that sounded interesting. And if I missed the movie, or gig, or panel discussion everyone was talking about in the bar afterwards, sometimes I found something unforgettable I’d never have picked from the programme, and came home with a mental pantry filled with ingredients I’d never have picked had I turned up with a neatly written shopping list.

Vaughn Davis is owner and creative director at The Goat Farm and Idealog contributor.