Home » ‘Filterworld’ is a confused critique of algorithms

‘Filterworld’ is a confused critique of algorithms

Kyle Chayka’s Filterworld: How Algorithms Flattened Culture is engaging, refined, and well-composed. My only objections pertain to its startlingly flimsy thesis, its parodically bleak tone, and nearly every argument it makes.

Chayka’s theory is that, on an internet now dominated by algorithmic recommendations, culture has become insipid, generic, and “marked by a pervasive sense of sameness.” He outlines this thesis with the style and erudition you would expect from a staff writer for The New Yorker (which he is). His extended lament is peppered with witty insights, leavened with arresting similes, and garnished with learned citations to such works as Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows and Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.

He is not always wrong. Who among us has never caught himself puzzling over how to phrase or time social media posts, deploying superstitious tricks—bobbing and weaving like one of B.F. Skinner’s pigeons—in an effort to spur engagement? Which of us has never felt a little guilty about too doggedly chasing likes and clicks? Chayka urges us to spot and resist these bad habits. He wisely recommends owning physical copies of one’s favorite films, books, or records rather than relying on streamers or the cloud. He is not alone in suspecting that a certain monotony—a cultural indistinguishability, decade upon decade—set in around the turn of the millennium.

That said, it’s a leap to assert that mere algorithmic sorting, as opposed to some deeper ideological malaise or spiritual funk, could be to blame for such an epochal shift. There this book’s problems begin.

Chayka habitually overstates his case. (“Filterworld” can be “feudal,” “dictatorial,” “fascistic”….”The bombardment of recommendations can induce a kind of hypnosis that makes listening to, watching, or buying a product all but inevitable.”…”The algorithm always wins” [emphasis Chayka’s].) His grievances tend to be farcically trivial. (“Sure, the shows are enjoyable—so enjoyable that I can’t stop watching them. But I can’t name many Netflix-produced shows that have stuck with me.”) His moaning and groaning tell us more about him and his etiolated constitution than about the state of technology and culture. (“Filterworld and its slick sameness can produce a breathtaking, near-debilitating sense of anxiety.”…”In Filterworld, making art without the goal of it being consumed is almost unimaginable.”…”The endless array of options presented by algorithmic feeds often instills a sense of meaningless.”)

Life’s purpose, Filterworld suggests, is to find and like just the right mix of novels, shows, songs, and paintings. Your unique artistic judgment is the uttermost reflection of your true and authentic self. Everyone must aspire to have seen the band play before they were cool. Chayka takes it for granted that you’re afraid of becoming “too concerned with popular taste”—of inadvertently “insulating yourself from having a more inspiring, personal encounter with culture.” He thinks it’s a disaster if the consumption of art is made too easy and too pleasing, and he thinks algorithmic recommendations have transformed us from vivid individuals “exercis[ing] our distinctly cultivated tastes” into “hapless victim[s]” being “fed culture like foie-gras ducks.”

Chayka has a lot to say about “buried assumptions,” “bias,” “inherent privilege,” and the will of “dominant groups,” which is curious, since his book is a manifesto of blind cultural imperialism. We must all view and appreciate art that’s “confrontational,” “alienating,” “mind altering,” and “boundary-breaking.” We must tirelessly “interrogate” our “preferences.” We must eschew the “convenience” of “unbounded feeds” and embrace “the deep, responsible curation of a library or museum.” And we should gather in bohemian cliques, where “there’s the friend who always knows the right wine to bring to dinner, the friend tuned in to the most relevant fashion brands, or the friend who recommends television shows worth watching.” Apparently, algorithmic tyranny must give way to hipster hegemony.

Even by the standards of the twitchy, self-abasing hipster class—the only people whose thoughts and desires he reliably channels when he says “we” or “our”—Chayka is a champion faultfinder. He is upset when taste is shaped from the top down, and he is upset when it emerges from the bottom up. He objects when artists cater to the stuffy norms of aesthetic gatekeepers, and he objects when they conform to the base whims of algorithmic rankings. He gripes about how algorithms promote conformity, and he gripes about how they surface extremes. He deplores both the demise of a shared “monoculture” and the rise of a new “cultural homogeneity.”

Stripped of its impressive compositional finish, Filterworld is an ordinary screed against capitalism, consumerism, and (above all) mass culture. This book is Super Size Me for intellectuals. It’s No Logo for millennials. It’s a “Kill Your Television” bumper sticker but with nods to Polish sociologists, Korean poets, and Indian literary theorists for clout. In 1990, David Foster Wallace noted The New York Times‘s “bitter critical derision for TV,” its “weary contempt for television as a creative product and cultural force,” its stream of articles “about how TV’s become this despicable instrument of cultural decay.” All Chayka has done is update the bête noire. In his rush to indict formulaic culture, he has composed a formulaic polemic.

At his worst, Chayka sounds like ChatGPT’s take on a brunch conversation in Berkeley. He could star in a Portlandia sketch: “I was used to performing a specific set of clicks to access the music I like—in this instance, a 1961 jazz album by Yusef Lateef called Eastern Sounds.” (Credit where it’s due: I pulled this album up on YouTube, and it’s awesome. Thanks for the recommendation, Kyle.)

The whole schtick is awfully silly, given that so much of the book involves Chayka enjoying the bounties of free trade, free markets, and Western pop culture. He travels to Lisbon, Portugal; Seville, Spain; Paris; Reykjavík, Iceland; and Tokyo—and cavils at the insufficient distinctness of his experiences. He criticizes Airbnb for “creat[ing] the expectation” of “immediate, frictionless movement.” He trashes Game of Thrones‘ ending without pausing to consider why prestige television exists in the first place or why he has the time to watch it. He rifles through songs on Spotify, grumbling all the while that the abundance of options “discourages” him from sitting with an album long enough to appreciate it. (The platform can generate sudden success for an obscure track by an obscure band—but the lucky song, Chayka protests, might not “represent” what the group “was trying to achieve creatively.”)

If algorithmic recommendations really “flatten” culture, this book isn’t about to make the case. Chayka makes lazy, sweeping claims about algorithms and addiction, algorithms and polarization, algorithms and filter bubbles. He proceeds by anecdote: A teen’s suicide proves that algorithms harm children; the author’s happy childhood memories show the value of slow internet speeds. Chayka muses and meanders. He weaves just-so stories, jamming disparate facts into clever, pretty narratives. Through it all, vanishingly little evidence is set forth.

For any attentive reader, the question “compared to what?” arises constantly. Are we taking in more art? Is resonant creativity, as judged by any given person, more readily available? Are more artists able to do fulfilling work and make a decent living? And what’s the proper yardstick? A dazzling tomorrow? (If so, the book’s wailing about the best-thing-yet present looks all the more overblown.) The early days of the internet? (Chayka leans in this direction, apparently out of pure nostalgia.) The era of a few radio stations, three television networks, and one local newspaper? (Didn’t scolds once pour as much bile on channel surfing as they now dump on the infinite scroll?) Chayka may resent cold capitalist logic, but his book could have used some cost-benefit analysis.

“I’d argue that today’s audience is the most sophisticated that’s ever existed,” the novelist Chuck Palahniuk once wrote. “We’ve been exposed to more stories and more forms of storytelling than any people in history.” Amen. If we’re to live on vibes alone, as Chayka does, let me propose that his book’s best and most valuable statements are its sporadic qualifications. “Algorithmic feeds” can “help people find each other and build communities.” Social media enables “niche content production”—”creators have a much easier time reaching audiences.” Today “we have more cultural options available to us than ever,” and, what’s more, “they are accessible on demand.”

Filterworld does not deliver on its premise. They should have called it Brooklynworld. But it’s an elegant and diverting read. By the end, I hardly cared that Chayka’s view of everything worth debating is upside down. I was almost grateful, in fact, that he lets us come along as he grapples with the horrifying prospect of being like other people.


January 2024