In ‘Filterworld,’ only you can save yourself from bad taste

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Cover of Filterworld

New Yorker writer Kyle Chayka came of age alongside the internet. As a teen, he published his own blog and joined forums for fans of anime and the Dave Matthews Band. He discovered one of his favorite jazz songs — John Coltrane’s full version of “My Favorite Things,” a song originally written for The Sound of Music — driving around at night as a high school student, listening to the local radio station.

Chayka is nostalgic for this time — and the ways, then, that personal discoveries like these were made. In his new book, Filterworld, Chayka says he never would have fallen in love with Coltrane’s song if he’d heard it on Spotify. He says he doubts Spotify’s algorithm would even suggest it, because the song is so long. And that, even if it did, he wouldn’t have learned anything about Coltrane as an artist, because the Spotify interface doesn’t provide the same context that an indie radio DJ does, sharing details between songs. The person behind the song choice, he argues, made his budding interest in Coltrane possible in a way modern recommendation systems cannot.

This is one of many “back in my day” anecdotes Chayka uses to craft his argument that algorithms have “flattened culture” — extending, as he notes, Thomas Friedman’s thoughts on globalization in his 2005 book The World is Flat. Thanks to recommendation generators like Netflix’s top picks, TikTok’s “for you” page, and Spotify’s autoplay suggestions, “the least ambiguous, least disruptive, and perhaps least meaningful pieces of culture are promoted,” Chayka argues. He not only mourns the early internet he knew as a teen in the 2000s, he laments coffee shops designed to be showcased online, viral travel destinations, and brick-and-mortar Amazon Books storefronts that demonstrate the power of algorithms to shape behavior and consumption.

He admits that quality is subjective when judging these things, and instead argues that recommendation systems erode personal taste, which is now molded in the image of algorithms. The book is guided by the argument that the “central dilemma of culture” today is in the choice between algorithms and human tastemakers — bookstore employees, museum curators, and the indie radio DJs he references who share their thoughts and preferences more authentically than automated systems. Though he hedges throughout the book, admitting that “there is no pure form of culture that happens outside of technological influence,” Chayka pines for an imaginary past where a “traditional model of human tastemakers” prevailed, and real people determined how successful books, movies, and music were. He’s right that technology has always shaped culture — but he doesn’t meaningfully engage with the idea that in this “traditional model,” what became popular was also shaped by race, gender, class, and power, just as they are in an algorithmic world.

Taste, he writes, was once a combination of personal choices and popular influence — but now algorithms put more stock into choices of the masses, leading to “lowest common denominator” recommendations based on “vibes and feelings” with mass appeal. Developing taste requires effort and active engagement, but what we see now are algorithms turning taste into consumerism.

Chayka compares, for example, Netflix’s Emily in Paris, which “epitomized the flattening of culture,” and Carrie Bradshaw’s character in Sex and the City: “Bradshaw’s role as a writer made her a productive part of culture: She was constructing a particular personal philosophy of life and love. Emily, by contrast, is simply a professional consumer.” For Chayka, being a writer, like Carrie, is inherently more noble than being an influencer, like Emily. But this sort of oversimplified, easy analysis undermines his reporting in the book about influencers, who share with him nuanced reflections about their careers and their relationships to social media.

Chayka’s arguments about Emily in Paris shallow celebration of consumption, the “blatant clarity” of Instagram poets, and even the algorithmic organization of Amazon Books stores may once have seemed new, but they are now the low-hanging fruit of cultural criticism in the Internet Age. Near the end of the book, when Chayka narrates his temporary break from social media and Spotify, his reflections feel trite, not revelatory: Yet another extremely online Twitter user has discovered the value (and limits) of logging off.

“Curation,” the “imposition of individual human taste,” is Chayka’s antidote to living in a world shaped by algorithmic recommendations. But Chayka’s distinction between algorithms and human tastemakers feels like a false dichotomy. A central point of the book, in fact, is that people today are not only well aware of the power of algorithms, they can’t escape them. He interviews a young woman who wonders if “what I like is what I actually like,” worried that her taste is so shaped by algorithms on sites like Pinterest and Instagram that she can’t trust herself. For Chayka, this feeling exemplifies the “psychic world of algorithms” that “filterworld” has created. The book may be most useful in these sections, where Chayka and his interviewees attempt to make sense of how internet algorithms have shaped their own lives and work.

Chayka is so successful in documenting this frustrating aspect of modern life that his overarching argument — that readers should depend more on word-of-mouth recommendations and cultivate their sense of personal taste through time and effort — feels unhelpful, like a band-aid on a larger problem. He even describes that problem at various points in the book, explaining that algorithms are designed by large tech monopolies with their own aims for profit and growth in a capitalist society. But he seems to forget that even “human tastemakers” work within this system.

This is a shame, because many large tech companies and their algorithms do wield power in insidious, often discriminatory ways. There are fruitful discourses about the future of online infrastructure and the regulatory tools available to curb harmful online data collection and break up monopoly power. But by grounding his argument in “taste” Chayka’s contribution feels more based in “vibes and feelings” than a critical analysis.


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