Watching Your Movies for You

With so much content available now, you’re going to need the help of technology, of what theorists have called “intelligent agents,” to get through it all. And I’m not just talking about spam filters. Spam filters, which attempt to pick out scattershot e-mail messages not written specifically to you, barely hint at what’s coming.

Part of the appeal of social media is the ability of technology to remember and acknowledge your friends’ birthdays. Technology is also available to collect your friends’ birthday wishes and organize them so you don’t have to spend much time reading them. In essence, machines are sending and receiving birthday messages on our behalf. Now, who’s going to watch our movies for us?

It sounds almost like a joke, but that’s the promise of the ClearPlay DVD player, which lets you pick the kinds of movie scenes you want to view — and which you want to skip over. It’s as if the machine is watching the other scenes on your behalf, only to tell you, “no, you don’t want to see this part.” The advertising for the product promises “the return of family movie night” as families can watch movies together without seeing scenes of violent behavior and sexual content that might make some family members uncomfortable. It’s easy to imagine the technology advancing beyond this crude application, though. With minor software changes, the same technology could let you rush through the boring scenes, skip ahead to the action scenes you’re waiting for, or even watch the scenes out of sequence to turn the movie into a different story. Movie-makers will be appalled, of course, but imagine how much time you’ll save.

The way ClearPlay works now, a team of professional movie-watchers rate hot new DVD releases scene by scene on a checklist of 12 content categories. It is just a matter of a decade or two before the machines will be able to do the same kind of rating with workable accuracy on their own — and not just on 12 categories, but on any priorities you can imagine, or even by watching your reactions to movies and learning your preferences.

As we gain more control over media, we need to be careful that we don’t lose patience with media that doesn’t submit to this kind of control. The purpose of media, after all, isn’t for you to control the world around you, but for you to connect to it. People who get in the habit of trying to control their media all the time will be living in a frustrating version of a fantasy world. At the same time, if media and advertising businesses discover the way you filter media, they will use that information to manipulate you. The way things are now, though, viewers are too often at the mercy of the media, and that’s something that can be corrected with increasing viewer control, including the control that comes with the assistance of machines.

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