As an algorithm alternative, I can offer that if you liked Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows and Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing, you’ll probably be interested in Filterworld as well. Chayka distinguishes himself with his focus on the old-fashioned idea of taste, revisiting among many other works Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction, the coppery-covered classic of sociology that many a college semiotician toted around ostentatiously in the ’80s and ’90s ... Unlike the cascade of content from strangers on the internet, Filterworld, as a proper book will, evokes less transient impulses than genuine, lingering feelings: depression about our big-box corporate dystopia; admiration for Chayka’s curiosity and clear writing style; dismay about the electrical engineering graduate—electrical engineering!—who can’t get astrology out of her timeline and regrets being influenced to buy a pair of leg warmers ... But it also made me feel old. Or — let’s put that another way — acutely conscious of generational divides...Boomers and Gen X, with more years logged algorithm-free, might find Filterworld unduly bleak; Zoomers, hopelessly naïve. Or, as they say on the internet, YMMV.
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 ... 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 ... 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 ... 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.
Does the near impossible: It makes algorithms, those dull formulas of inputs and outputs, fascinating. But it also does something that is ever more valuable as new technologies make the world seem bigger, more complicated, and more difficult to understand. It makes algorithms, those uncanniest of influencers, legible.