Produced by ‘The Ezra Klein Show’
Being on the internet just doesn’t feel as fun anymore. As more of our digital life is driven by algorithms, it’s become a lot easier to find movies or TV shows or music that fits our preferences pretty well. But it feels harder to find things that are strange and surprising — the kinds of culture that help you, as an individual, develop your own sense of taste.
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This can be a fuzzy thing to talk about. But Kyle Chayka, a staff writer at The New Yorker, has written a whole book on it, the forthcoming “Filterworld: How Algorithms Flattened Culture.” We talk about how today’s internet encourages everything to look more the same and is even dulling our ability to know what we like. And we discuss what we can do to strengthen our sense of personal taste in order to live a richer, more beautiful life.
Below is an excerpt from our conversation, which has been edited for concision and clarity. You can listen to the full interview above or by following “The Ezra Klein Show” on the NYT Audio App, Apple, Spotify, Amazon Music, Google or wherever you get your podcasts. View a list of book recommendations from our guests here.
Ezra Klein: Tell me about the coffee shops.
Kyle Chayka: The generic coffee shop has become my Moby Dick. It was just this strange, uncanny experience I was having that as I traveled around the world doing these freelance magazine assignments, I would land in a particular city, whether that was Tokyo or L.A. or Berlin or Beijing, and I always managed to find a particular style of coffee shop. It was this minimalist box of a cafe with white subway tiles on the walls and midcentury Scandinavian furniture and handmade ceramic mugs with nice cappuccinos in them. And this was not the work of a parent company. It wasn’t a Starbucks. It wasn’t a global chain. Instead, it was all of these completely independent coffee shops, baristas, entrepreneurs, who had decided to mold themselves into the same aesthetic. So I started wondering what connected them all together.
And my conclusion was that digital platforms, whether Instagram or Yelp or Google Maps, were feeding this series of cafes to me as a recommendation. Like, my taste was being evaluated, and then I was getting recommended the same minimalist cafe over and over again, and I was being driven to these places by the platforms themselves.
Klein: I’ve been to these coffee shops. And I love them. I seek them out. And often they sell themselves as very local. And I think they are self-understood by their creators as very local. And there’s one way of thinking about that as a sham. They’re not local, these are generic international coffee shops. But you write that they are, quote, “authentically connected to the new network of digital geography,” which I thought was a really interesting way to put that.
Chayka: They were authentically connected to something, but it wasn’t to the geography of the place. It wasn’t to the realities of Mexico City or the aesthetics of Chinese culture in Beijing. What they were really connected to was our culture that we’ve developed on the internet. So we feel this authentic connection. We feel they’re connected to our identities and our preferences. But I think the preferences that they connect to are the ones that we have developed online that come through platforms like Instagram or Yelp or Google Maps.
Klein: That ability to have much more familiarity as a traveler going around the world — it can be kind of wonderful, but it makes it much more difficult to find that confrontation with new experience that helps you discover new things that you like.
Chayka: I think the problem with being surrounded by algorithmic recommendations is that it prevents us from being challenged and surprised a lot of the time, like everything is molded to our preferences that we’ve already expressed. The Spotify recommendations follow all the bands and genres that they know you like, that you engage with. We’re herded and shepherded toward experiences that we’re going to find comfortable enough. And I don’t want to argue that this is a completely new experience. Like, sameness has existed for millennia.
Klein: This is why chains are popular.
Chayka: Yes, comfort is a product that people like to consume. It’s scalable. Consumers enjoy it. Even in the book, I referenced this 19th-century commentator in France who was complaining about how train travel suddenly meant that all cities were becoming more similar than different. So I think it’s a common complaint. But we live in such an accelerated version of that. We can see our tastes reflected in so many more places and at such a granular level. I mean, billions of people circulate through the same ecosystems online. And I think there’s this vast generic agglomeration of stuff that we’re just cherry-picking from each place and molding it into a great blob of generic culture.
Klein: The way I knew about movies when I was younger is The L.A. Times had a movie critic. And that person had their taste, right? They liked some things and didn’t like other things. But now I’m much more likely to just go and look at the summary judgment of Rotten Tomatoes, of Metacritic. We’ve moved away from attaching to a curator who has an individual taste and guides you through the world toward the averaging out of curators like it’s a poll, right? Like, we treat everything as a poll and not as criticism. And that felt very efficient to me for a while. And now it feels very weird.
Chayka: Over the 2010s, culture became more datafied, driven by this engagement information that was only possible through digital platforms. There have always been metrics like the Nielsen ratings or box office numbers, but there’s never before been that kind of tyranny of real-time data. So I think there was a shift from human tastemakers and human gatekeepers to this very data-driven system in which only what is popular gets more popular and what does not get that immediate attention is kind of pushed into the shadows and cannot reach more people.
Now we have so many possibilities, we can find whatever we’re looking for. But the overall ecosystem of streaming and of algorithmic recommendations does have a way of funneling us just toward particular areas of that body of culture if we’re not very actively fighting it.
Klein: What kinds of art does that end up promoting within culture? What’s something that really works in the Rotten Tomatoes world?
Chayka: My sense is a kind of Marvel’s “Avengers: Endgame,” where a piece of culture is ruthlessly optimized to appeal to the largest number of people, the committed hard-core fan to the totally ambient distracted viewer, who will just sit there and marvel at the explosions in the C.G.I. The algorithmic ecosystem ends up promoting the widest possible average. It’s the stuff that avoids alienating people, keeps you engaged as much as possible, even if that engagement is very shallow.
It’s fundamentally scalable, to use the horrible Silicon Valley word, whereas I think, historically, the culture that we prize the most is usually not that. It’s usually the stuff that is not popular but grows in popularity over time. It’s the stuff you have to be patient with, to let grow within you. I mean, it’s easy to think this didn’t happen now, but “Moby Dick” barely sold in Herman Melville’s lifetime and only became this iconic work of literature over a century. That work of art was not determined by popularity or engagement metrics. It was determined by slow word of mouth over decades and decades and generations.
Klein: I’m always surprised when I look back at the books that mean a lot to me, the books that I am thinking about a year later — they’re often not ones I really liked. They’re often not even ones I would really recommend. They’re ones I had to struggle with. And if you asked me to give it a 1 to 10, I wouldn’t even really know where to put it. Maybe it’s not a great book, but it has one really great idea. Or I actually think this book is wrong, but it forced a useful conflict in me. And it does seem to me like that is harder and harder to find, right? And the harder it is to find, the less of it will actually be made.
Chayka: I think these ecosystems and platforms prevent us from experiencing difficult content in a healthy way. We don’t have to fight through something. We don’t have to be patient. We don’t have to think so much about what something is doing to us or consider our own opinion as it develops, because we always have that possibility of clicking away, like flipping to the next video on TikTok.
It’s almost like boredom doesn’t exist, like difficulty doesn’t exist, scarcity doesn’t exist. And a feeling I’ve been having a lot lately is that scarcity is often what creates meaning. When you’re surrounded by infinite possibilities, when you know around the next corner is another video that might be funnier, you’re never going to sit with the thing that’s in front of you. You’re never going to be forced to have the patience or the fortitude or the willpower to fight through something and figure out if you truly like it or not.
I think fighting that generic quality and figuring out at least one thing that brings you joy and you’re passionate about and makes that change happen in your brain, makes you have this encounter that you never expected, that’s the only thing that’s worth doing in life or at least in the field of culture. Like, why would you want to have the generic experience? Why would you want the lowest-common-denominator results of recommendation?
This episode of “The Ezra Klein Show” is produced by Rollin Hu. Fact-checking by Michelle Harris. Our senior engineer is Jeff Geld. Our senior editor is Claire Gordon. The show’s production team also includes Annie Galvin, Rollin Hu and Kristin Lin. Original music by Isaac Jones. Audience strategy by Kristina Samulewski and Shannon Busta. The executive producer of New York Times Opinion Audio is Annie-Rose Strasser. And special thanks to Carole Sabouraud.
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