Bots have taken over TicketMaster. What does that mean for concert goers?
In our visions of how robotic intelligence will change human life, we gravitate toward extremes, seeing either social ruin or cybernetic utopias. A more likely possibility is that surrounding ourselves with robots will create a swamp of inconvenience that turns simple transactions into overcomplicated struggles.
Concert ticket sales is one area where computers seem to have become both solution and problem, creating an escalating competition between vendors and scalper-bots that spam their websites trying to buy up all the tickets before anyone else.
With bots, scalpers now have an equivalent technology that allows them to attempt a monopoly on tickets in the same way that TicketMaster and Live Nation exploited their technological advantages.
Writing for The New York Times, Ben Sisario reports Ticketmaster's claim that more than 60 percent of the company's most sought-after shows are purchased by bots and one of its most insistent non-human clients sends more than 200,000 requests for ticket purchases daily. This culminates in shows that are technically sold-out but still wind up with huge amounts of no-shows because the scalpers weren't able to sell the tickets they'd bought in advance.
This has led to what LiveNation's Michael Rapino refers to as an "arms race," where ticket sellers continually try and upgrade their stores to be able to better distinguish between human and bot behavior, while scalpers find new ways to make their bot A.I.s seem more human-like.
In 2011, TicketMaster hired former Yahoo executive Joe Carnahan, who helped build a speedbumping system by which users exhibiting bot-like behavior are slowed down or their purchase requests are sent to the back of the queue to help make sure real people have as many chances to buy as possible.
Concert ticket sales have long been trapped in an unnatural monopoly, where a small number of companies control ticket prices and charge disproportionately large surcharges. With bots, scalpers now have an equivalent technology that allows them to attempt a monopoly on tickets in the same way that TicketMaster and Live Nation exploited their technological advantages in earlier decades to control an entire market. Customers won't benefit in either case, it is only just a war between would-be monopolists.
It's easy to blame this narrowness of use on bots themselves, expecting that new technologies should be able to free us from the petty dysfunctions of our own social structures. Bots always seem to appear in places where social exchange is exploited in some form or another.
Checking a given Twitter account can reveal as many as 30 percent of followers are bots, and anyone who operates a blog will be familiar with the mushrooming of lucid-seeming comments that end in a link to some other website of dubious reputation.
Robots have proliferated on the promise of delivering us from the tediousness of our present so we can lead lives of contemplative pleasure. Ironically, the rise of bots has only added layers of complication and interruption, requiring a constant monitoring of our digital intermediaries for signs of life while trying to predict what opaque computer language will be necessary to get you to a live customer representative.
In the case of TicketMaster, bots only seem to perpetuate the worst parts of the old order, creating a virtual army of salary-less employees to stand on line to buy all the tickets to a show they know some moon-eyed 14-year-old will be willing to pay any price to see.
There is some poetic symmetry to this structure: In the moments when our need is most irrational and intense, someone will create a bot to address it. But in so doing, the absurdity of our wants becomes even more apparent through the accompanying haze of artificiality these bots bring with them, breaking TicketMaster's monopoly on Bieber tickets only to push fans into an even stranger and more expensive market of scalpers.
It becomes a kind of litmus test in a way. Do you want something badly enough to face a leviathan of obnoxious computers to get it? The more in need a person is, the more obnoxious the bot-wall they'll have to scale to satisfy it.
Michael Thomsen is Complex.com's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, n+1, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.