The algorithm rules and ‘the computer says no’

Knowledge is power

Algorithms are now everywhere, in the form of applications and computer programs that – at first glance – help us with ‘tailored information’. For us as users, but much more, tailored information for the operators of certain apps or websites. Sometimes it’s accidentally more visible than other times, and so the algorithm is adjusted a bit further. Not because it works better for us, but to work better for the paying customer: business or the public sector.

The first times you are confronted with the results of algorithms, it still seems cool: ‘hey, I don’t have to fill in everything myself anymore, because the system already knows that I’m looking for a hotel in Barcelona and also need plane tickets…’

And then comes the annoyance because the system turns out to be very stupid in a number of ways, trying to appease me with hotels in Barcelona for weeks while I’ve been back for a long time. Or the annoyance that occurs when the system knows I’m looking for a cheap plane ticket and raises the price itself every time I search again. Or let me know it’s ‘the last available rooms on this page’ or ‘the last two seats at this price’.

The idea that prices fluctuate based on supply and demand is the longstanding foundation of the capitalist model. And in a normal market, with a handshake and physical presence of parties, it didn’t work too badly. But as soon as supply and demand can be manipulated behind the scenes by computers, completely different mechanisms come into play. Prices of raw materials are a sad example of this. With the help of computer-controlled programs, small fluctuations in supply and demand (or even the expectation thereof) can be enormously magnified. The profits almost always fall into the hands of the parties who have the fastest and most powerful computers, with the most tuned algorithms. There is nothing fair about that anymore.

The individual’s impotence is increasingly palpable and visible. ‘Wappies’, yellow vests and Occupy Wall Street protesters may have been the first to throw in the towel. Too much is happening that they, as individuals, can no longer control, and the feeling of constantly being on the losing side grows. The result in anger.

The ticket master of the universe

Another fine example of collective madness, powerlessness and anger can be seen in the market for pop concert tickets. Big bands and big concerts have always been there, but it’s like there’s suddenly a lot more demand for tickets to such events. After corona, FOMO (fear of missing out) is apparently greater than ever. Big concerts effortlessly go on sale a year in advance, at prices that are at least twice as high as before corona, and then sell out in no time.

System down?

And on the day of the sale of such a big concert, the system goes down completely. And then Ticketmaster gets the blame. Or Mojo or Ziggo, or the management of Bruce Springsteen or Coldplay.

I also made frantic attempts to get hold of Bruce Springsteen tickets in early June, first through an ‘exclusive pre-sale’ link and later on general sale.

With all the accompanying frustration. It is now more than ever a lottery. You may have been on hold for so long; it is completely unclear what you have to do to get a ticket.

Is it completely random and therefore fair? Hell no! The system determines behind the scenes how many tickets are available at what time and at what price. We are seeing an explosion of different types of tickets, one more exclusive (and more expensive) than the other. Tickets go to sponsors and – reportedly – tickets go straight to the secondary market where the price also doubles.

And the selling parties passionately experiment with systems and algorithms. Sometimes tickets are named, sometimes you can only buy two or four, but sometimes only eight or even ten. And then it goes very quickly.

Because when it’s finally your turn to buy tickets, and you’ve already put in the necessary time and energy, you’d be a thief out of your own wallet if you didn’t buy a few extra. Then sell on at double the price, so you can go for nothing yourself. After all, ‘you deserved it’ and ‘it’s our right, right? “Everyone does.”

Computer says no.

And this is how we maintain it ourselves, we teach the algorithms to become even smarter, and the operators even richer. The economy is bad and poverty in the Netherlands is increasing, but for concert tickets of more than 100 euros, for a concert that doesn’t take place until next year, you can still stand in a queue with more than 600,000 people waiting in front of you. You can’t beat the algorithm.

Oh, and for the enthusiast: I still have two grandstand tickets for Bruce in Dusseldorf on offer. Just for the price of the ticket.

Damage to reputation?

And what else does it have to do with reputation and damage to reputation? Well, a lot.

In looking into the mechanisms and systems behind concert tickets, as well as any negative effects on the reputation of artists like Bruce Springsteen, I came across some very good articles that are definitely worth reading. In particular, the article by David Meerman Scott and the Lefsetz letter are very enlightening.

On applying airline ticketing algorithms to concert tickets and why it would go wrong. No happy stories, but reassuring in that you now know for sure that missing a ticket wasn’t your fault.

And most of the reputational damage seems to be to Ticketmaster. He earns the wrath of frustrated ticket buyers every time. But I don’t think that’s the case. Ticketmaster is almost a monopoly, and decides in consultation with the management of the various bands how they want to handle sales. So the gangs and their leadership are equally responsible. But Ticketmaster deliberately takes the damage. As much as the company is fine with the systems (apparently?) going down. If it was really a problem, they would expand the capacity. It’s a disrupted market where Ticketmaster is also our Puppetmaster. And once you get tickets again, you’ll soon forgive them.

And finally the central question: Is there a fairer system imaginable? Or should Coldplay just do ten concerts in Amsterdam? And also: If you already bought tickets to a Coldplay concert five years ago, do you have priority now? Or not? Computer says no.

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