[Asymconf] What are the jobs that the entertainment industry is hired to do?

@mastermmik: love how @asymco thinks of everything and everyone as being “hired” to do something. lol

via Twitter.

Hiring products to do jobs for us is not a difficult cognitive leap to make. But can we extend the metaphor to “everything and everyone?” Aren’t there parts of the human experience that are outside the realm of the implied trade that hiring suggests?

Of course there are.

There is an implied rationality to the practice of hiring. Commerce itself is implicitly, at least partially if not totally, rational. Buying and selling depends on a mix of instinct and calculation. And yet much of what drives human activity is not motivated through the calculus of rational thought. It could even be argued that, as we are all gifted with emotions, instinct and passion, we are anything but rational beings.

The epitome of the triumph of the emotional over the rational is the practice of making art. Art is created to stimulate or cause appreciation. The appreciation is the reward. There is no calculation.

However, during the last century the arts have become industrialized. That is to say that works of art are produced for profit on a grand scale. The technologies of communication and media have meant that the appreciation of art has turned into the entertainment of the masses. And since these creations are made for commercial gain then it is not only fair but fitting that entertainment should be analyzed as product.

The industry resists analysis not just because it’s difficult to define the product but because it’s difficult to define why it’s consumed. The ‘job-to-be-done” framework that leads to insight about which products to build and how to design them seems to fail when we look at a product that seems to exist only to be appreciated.

To suggest that appreciation can be categorized sounds presumptuous. Human perception is infinitely nuanced and every person can perceive differently from another.

And yet, for resources to be allocated (aka. financing) or for development decisions (production) or promotion (marketing) a theory has to exist about who buys and why they do it.

The theory that seems to be in common use in the industry is that a few experts have the knack for knowing how to allocate the resources for what is created. These persons are entrusted with an increasingly large influence. There are only a few major studios for deciding what most of the world consumes in the form of either visual (cinematic) or audio (music) productions. The concentration of power is a result of the distribution model of physical media or broadcast networks. These are artifacts of a technological infrastructure that was built in the last century. An infrastructure whose replacement is unavoidable.

Its replacement will enable creation and distribuion of art to be democratized[1].

It’s important to understand the jobs entertainment is hired to do. Not because the creative process can be synthesized. It’s important because those creators need to learn how to allocate their own resources. A framework is needed to help dis-intermediate the resources allocators–the central planners, if you will.

In other words, learning how to create commercially valuable appreciable products should be a skill all creative people possess.

These are not complicated ideas. They don’t require powers of deduction beyond the reach of the average person. What they require is perspective.

The dialogue on this topic will begin in Amsterdam on April 13th 2012, at Asymconf. I look forward to seeing you there.


  1. The proof of this is left to the reader.
  2. This is the material accompanying the first case discussion at Asymconf. Participants are encouraged to read it before the show.
  • Ritshirt

    On this topic, some people might be interested in the work by Eric von Hippel at MIT on “democratizing innovation”. He also has a recent paper with Carliss Baldwin from HBS, who predict that user and collaborative forms of open innovation will increasingly displace producer-based innovations.
    See and

  • Predictably Irrational.

  • Dan Abrams

    Horace, I agree 100% with what you’re saying. With any product, if the people are paying in time, effort, or money, then they must perceive that the product is going to fill some need, and if they leave happy, surely the product succeeded.

    I spend a lot of my time thinking about just this issue and as far as I can tell, much of the entertainment industry offers products that fulfill several of our most primal needs:

    1) The most obvious is entertainment, but what exactly makes something entertaining? My main source for this is A THEORY OF FUN FOR GAME DESIGN by Raph Koster. Basically, much of the entertainment value stems from pattern recognition. The gaming industry is heavy on this element.

    2) We clearly also seek entertainment products to move us emotionally. We go to sad movies, or scary ones, or angry ones. Some of these offer positive emotional experiences–Steven Spielberg made a career out of movies that fill us with wonder. But why would anyone pay to be angry for two hours. Well, think of a movie about an underdog lawyer, like Erin Brokavich. We spend 2 hours angry at the injustice so that at the end we can have the relief of something having been done. Music often contains a great deal of emotional content.

    3.) We are a social animal programmed to enjoy watching the behavior and relationships unfolding between people, so much so that many of our movies anthropomorphize animals or even inanimate objects to have human-like relationships. Movies, television, and theater are heavy on this stuff. Shakespeare was the master, which is why we still read his plays.

    4.) We also love to see something aesthetically distinct that we haven’t seen before. Avatar, the Matrix, and Star Wars all succeeded in part because of this, as did painters like Mondrian, Picasso, Rothko, etc.

    5.) Insight. The best entertainment products offer either moral conflicts or choices between values and an opinion, in the end, about which is better, or point out something to us about the world that maybe we hadn’t thought about before. Anyone who had read Descartes knew about mind-body dualism before seeing the Matrix, but I was in high school, hadn’t yet read it, and was wowed by the idea that everything could be artificial and I didn’t even know it. This is often the purview of great literature.

    6.) Reaffirming narratives. As I said above, we love to be given insight. The best stories organically lead us to think about the world in a way we never did before. But we also like to be shown evidence that confirms something we already believe, especially if we believe that narrative is controversial. This is the world of propaganda: Fox News, Michael Moore, Sergei Eisenstein, etc.

    7.) Irony – this fits into many of the categories above, but we’re fascinated by times when our expectations are incorrect…it signals to our brain that we need to learn something new. And when what actually happens is the absolute opposite of what we expected, it fills us with glee.

    8.) Social experience. Again, we’re a social animal, and in addition to examining others behaving, we like to hang out with others. Sitcoms do this really well, often inviting us into the living rooms of some of the coolest people we could know. Come on, we all feel like we know Ross and Rachel and Joey and Chandler, having hung out with them so much.

    We as human beings are programmed to enjoy and even crave these things, the same way my dog goes nuts when I throw a yellow ball for him to fetch. We pay the entertainment industry to give us these things.

    In the past we got many of these things from religious institutions (most art forms can trace their roots back to religion), and we’ve always gotten many of these things from sports as well. I’m sure back in the days of the gladiators there were people in the stands chatting about a favorite gladiator’s backstory.

    • fiftysixty

      I’d be interested to know how you’d categorize the French movie The Adversary ( ). I can remember quite well the one time I saw the movie, in a theater. It wasn’t a pleasant experience. I was there with my friends, and when we left we didn’t really talk about the movie. In many ways, it is emotionally the most influencing/effective movie I have seen, just that none of that was positive emotions. I can’t say I was entertained, but I was moved.

      • Dan Abrams

        I haven’t seen it, but I’ll try to get back to you soon after seeing it.

    • fring

      ‘…most art forms can trace their roots back to religion’
      No. Religious representational art or pictures of sociological phenomenon do not in any way cover the gamut of artistic endeavour. Also, early man created cave art several thousand years before organised religion or churches became a major preoccupation for representational media art. Then of course, dance, song, poetry, sculpture, story telling and language came before religion. Substituting faith say, or philosophy, for religion, could well be argued as stimuli for many art forms.

  • janeshepard

    Your theorem 1 requires an “infrastructure whose replacement is unavoidable” but also an unstated assumption that the infrastructure will be democratized—and I can’t quite see that. Isn’t it possible that just a different set of moguls emerges from this process of replacement, and that Apple (through iTunes, etc.) becomes one of them? As an analogy to monarchy in the last 400 years, the infrastructure replacement would be more like the evolution of the British parliamentary model compared to the disruption of the French revolution, I think.

    • JohnDoey


      Building a website or an electronic book or music album is always going to be more democratic than factories and trucks.

      It’s much easier to publish now than ever before.

      The cost of making a copy of a music album used to have to come from financing, which you would get by selling some or all of your copyright. The cost of making a copy of an iTunes Music album comes right out of the retail price, on a per copy basis. The per copy is democratization. It has nothing to do with moguls. There will always be business criminals.

  • A rather cynical viewpoint is that the “job-to-be-done” of entertainment is to fill surplus man-hours that cannot be productively used. This isn’t to disagree with Dan Abrams — I think he’s got very good points. But the time that entertainment fills is time we don’t *need* to do productive labor, because most of our critical needs are filled by progressively fewer and fewer labor hours. Essentially entertainment consumption hours are like idle time in a computer CPU — the resource exists and has to be “burned off” if there is more than can be productively used.

    No, I don’t think that’s all there is to it, but I find it an interesting way of looking at the economic system overall, and especially the expansion of the entertainment industry. (I credit Frederik Pohl’s science fiction short story “The Midas Plague” for suggesting this view of production/consumption.)

    • JohnDoey

      No, that’s not right at all.

      You can be ready to quit working on something important after 6 hours and put on your iPod and listen to an inspirational song for 3 minutes and then over the next 2 hours you can do more and better work than during your first 6, because you are inspired.

      So even if viewed only in productivity terms, a $1 song can easily pay for itself.

      Art by definition has no functional purpose. If it functioned, it would be design. But lack of functionality does not imply lack of productivity.

  • JohnDoey

    > In other words, learning how to create commercially valuable appreciable products
    > should be a skill all creative people possess.

    That’s why I tell writers to get iBooks Author and make books. And I tell every creative person to learn SquareSpace at least so they can build a dot-com out of a stack of photos or a bunch of office documents. And I tell people in publishing to keep stealing methods from software developers, like code versioning. You need to not only ship a book, you have to be ready to ship 5 bug fixes and 5 improvements for new technologies like high-res screens and a revised edition off that same original workflow.

  • Very interesting thoughts Horace. I do have one observation, perhaps you might think it’s contingent.

    You seem to treat technology and art as two seperate entities. My thinking is that art and technology influence each other intimately so the technological environment won’t just affect distribution of art but will alternate the nature of art itself. 

    As Marshal McLuhan said, “The medium is the message”…

    • I agree that the two can’t be separated. I did not mean to suggest otherwise.

  • fring

    Horace. Very thought provoking but I’m having trouble with:-
    ‘Its replacement will enable creation and distribuion of art to be democratized[1].’
    I’m sure you don’t mean, how it reads. Perhaps inserting ‘entertainment art(s)’ by way of distinguishing between your theme and the hugely more complicated discussion of what constitutes art would concentrate the meaning.

  • sigaba

    “Its replacement will enable creation and distribuion of art to be democratized. (The proof of this is left to the reader.)”

    Yikes.  I’ve found a very subtle proof for this, but the margin here is too small.  An orthogonal point: “Insofar as a medium is democratic, it is banal.”

    “A framework is needed to help dis-intermediate the resources allocators–the central planners, if you will.”

    Characterizing the power centers of the entertainment industry as “central planners” is probably too clever by half, considering the disintermediating technology in this case was founded and constructed by the US federal government, is maintained by the fiat of several governmental and quasi-governmental authorities, and any route to shoring up its business model against paid content will entail far-reaching regulatory changes to copyright.

    • sigaba

      Why yes I DO live in Los Angeles and I as a Sony Pictures employee I AM desperate for the Expo line to open.

      LA is of course a city that bought completely into the promises of transit Disruption 60 years ago, and has been thoroughly shafted by the experience.

      • berult

        In LA, it’s always been ‘my way or the highway’, the literal hopping on the figurative. What more could you have asked of an ego-driven artistic paradigm than to have literally built in ways to join or escape it …figuratively one at a time…?

        A simple derivative can sometimes be turned through the sheer transcendence of an art form into an offshoot, nefarious paradigm …in a ‘my way ‘and’ the highway’ kind of a way…

  • D502409

     –In other words, learning how to create commercially valuable appreciable products should be a skill all creative people possess.

    I just don’t get it.
    I dont think that creativity and commerce mixed up well. And i don’t believe that creating commercially valuable appreciable products should be an major skill of a creator (not bad if exists).

    What does commercially valuable appreciable product means? (e.g. go with the flow?)
    In what time frame?

    Creation could be a disruptive prossess that can create commercially invaluable unappreciative products in the current time frame at least (impressionism).
    So what could be our advise to Claude Monet at that time frame (when rejected)? “Learn how to create commercially valuable appreciable products?”- “Change in order to create something that the world likes?”

    Is a commercial failure also a creation failure?
    And can you keep intact your own creativity/point of view if you think in terms of appreciation and valuable products and commerce….?