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In the early 1990s, Mediascape entered beta testing. Usha, then the CEO, thought it would be a good idea to try out the algorithm on authors, musicians, directors, and artists with established careers who wanted to advance. This intervention would allow them to gain popularity and financial rewards but not raise red flags. That was a mistake.

If you ever wondered why so many creative types commit suicide after reaching success, the answer originates at Mediascape more than you would expect. Take Nirvana, the popular grunge band from the 1990s. Most fans thought the bands’ first album was 1991’s Nevermind. Back when record albums and compact discs were still around, this one featured a naked baby on its cover swimming in a pool and chasing a dollar bill with a hook in it. The concept was clever. It matched its audience’s apathy, disenchantment, intellectualizing, and inertia. The children of the baby boomers eventually embraced the title “Generation X,” a term Mediascape’s own Douglas Coupland popularized in 1991. Nirvana’s hit single “Smells Like Teen Spirit” became their anthem.

Nevermind, however, was their second album. Their first, 1989’s Bleach, was not so great. It was coarse, scattered, and hardly captured the dominant affectations of listeners. But Usha and Mediascape’s executives knew they could work with the group. More than anyone else, the band members of Nirvana had what they were looking for: credibility, passion, the right look, the right attitude.

A year after approaching the group, one of the most popular albums ever recorded appeared in music stores and video streaming services (which was called MTV at the time).

It was perfect.

Never before had such a flawless representation of the zeitgeist appeared seemingly overnight. And no one batted and eye, no one realized that the anthem of a generation was a beta test for an algorithm that interpreted thousands of pieces of media content per second and spat out a Nash equilibrium of phrases, tropes, semiotics, and themes. Not everyone in the 1990s loved it. But everyone who was supposed to embrace it did so with zeal. Many untargeted listeners also jumped on board and pretended to love it when they saw how infatuated others became with the trio. The album succeeded more than anyone at Mediascape had dreamed. The executives and early neurocartographers knew they were on the right path. It was like discovering a blueprint for an atomic reactor.

The mistake, however, was approaching creative artists. Usha realized this soon after collaborating with the first dozen or so people, including Nirvana lead singer Kurt Cobain, Soundgarden lead singer Chris Cornell, and Stone Temple Pilots lead singer Scott Weiland. Soon, the angsty blue-eyed Cobain began having second thoughts. He was not comfortable deceiving people, pretending that he was the genius behind everything, and attracting more fans than he ever anticipated. The same jocks and cheerleaders who had beat him up in school and mocked him for his poverty and perceived femininity now swayed to his distorted guitar each night, they outbid low-income listeners for merchandise and VIP seating, they blasted Teen Spirit at their fraternity parties, they pumped Nevermind from their cars as they spat homophobic epitaphs at pedestrians. Cobain acted out.

At first, it was just heavy drinking and drugs, which blended into the scene. By the second Mediascape-produced album, In Utero, however, Usha’s team realized it was serious. She had made a mistake. The issue was not the algorithm, which worked perfectly by lifting the right elements of various subcultures, universal archetypes, and visual rhetoric out of the cultural ether and recombining them in ways that consumers could not resist. The problem was human.

Choosing a performer passionate about his music and talented enough to build the foundations of the most iconic band of the decade turned out to be ill-conceived. Of course Cobain would not be comfortable as the pawn of a major corporation, even if the arrangement was clandestine and brought him more fame and success than he ever could have achieved on his own. Usha’s mistake was approaching established, creative types. Mediascape executives soon realized this and focused future strategies on identifying talent that could act, sing, perform—but definitely not create. They sought people whose hunger for fame far outweighed any desire for authenticity. But it was too late for the Seattle scene.

In a hidden track at the end of a charity album, Cobain and his bandmates released a song that was obviously a plea for help. The first lines were, “And if you save yourself, you will make him happy / He’ll keep you in a jar, and you’ll think you’re happy / He’ll give you breathing holes, and you’ll think you’re happy…You’re in a laundry room! The clues that came to you, oh!” Listeners never suspected the lyrics referred to Mediascape. Nevertheless, executives considered it a warning sign.

Shortly afterward, “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter,” a staticky, distorted song that Cobain knew would never make it onto the radio appeared with the lyrics, “Starved without your skeleton key / I love you for what I am not / I did not want what I have got…” It was another glaring signal—as were songs like “Rape Me,” “Lounge Act,” and “Verse Chorus Verse.” But no one knew to look.

Executives anticipated that trials of the first algorithm might not go smoothly. Nevertheless, when Cobain wrote a suicide note that mentioned Mediascape by name they acted. Mediascape closely monitored all of its talent. It was watching when Cobain overdosed with pills and slipped into a coma in Rome. He left a letter that told of his situation, his “deal with the devil” as he called it. Luckily, Mediascape’s people in the hotel knew enough to take the note before police and reporters stormed the scene.

That was as far as they could allow it to go. An electrician found Cobain’s body on April 8, 1994 with a shotgun, a head wound, and enough heroin in his veins to take down someone twice his size.

The list of casualties from Mediascape’s beta tests grew over time. Artists could not live with the deception. The nondisclosure agreements, the threats of lawsuits, bankruptcies, and even jail had little effect. More and more people abandoned the project. In the end, almost a quarter of Mediascape’s talent took their own lives or had them taken. 2Pac, Notorious BIG, Jeremy Blake, Kurt Cobain, Chris Cornell, Whitney Houston, Michael Hutchence, Dash Snow, David Foster Wallace, Scott Weiland, and many, many more.

Mediascape never approached established acts again.

In the next round of testing, it went straight to teens who had no ability to write their own material and no desire to create their own art. They craved success so much they were willing to go along with anything. If they could perform and look good doing it, Mediascape adopted them. This time, executives barraged possible collaborators with psychological tests and mental assessments. The vetting process did not work perfectly. There was still the occasional hiccup—a bald and bug-eyed Britney Spears attacking a paparazzo with an umbrella for instance. But this was a small price to pay for an updated algorithm that could make billions of dollars each year by spitting out lines like “Hit me baby one more time,” “I’m a genie in a bottle,” and “Baby bye bye bye.” Two years later, the company bought its own island.

By the third generation, a new breed of celebrity rose to prominence, built on more than a decade of Mediascape experiments. They achieved higher levels of success than anyone before. Beyoncé, Jay Z, Taylor Swift, Pharrell Williams. The list went on. Mediascape also diversified by propping up conservative pundits such as Glen Beck and Sean Hannity, writers such as James Patterson and Lee Daniels, and producers like Simon Cauldwell and Michael Bay. Every year, its influence grew. Slowly at first. Then exponentially. By the 2010s, nine out of ten Billboard singles came from Mediascape as well as eighty-nine of the top hundred bestselling books and every single box office hit.

Then came the first President.

Note: the author previously contributed to this site thirteen years ago.

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