Book review: Kyle Chayka’s “Filterworld” investigates algorithms


We might be inadvertently outsourcing our cultural tastes and abilities to curate our consumption to all-powerful algorithms. They’re literally everywhere, Kyle Chayka says in his new book.

It’s a sort of a truism nowadays to claim to understand how impactful algorithms are. Who hasn’t ever doomscrolled? Who isn’t aware of filter bubbles – the reason why US liberals seemingly still think Donald Trump is not real and his popularity is just ridiculous?

Everyone has also surely noticed how our Facebook and Instagram feeds have changed. Only a few years back, the order of posts was chronologically clean, but now, the Big Tech overlords have activated the algorithms to decide exactly what type of content we see.

Supposedly, the algorithm only reacts to what we do ourselves – to what we click, watch, or read the longest. But who are we kidding – we need to be hooked and stay on the platforms as long as possible, smooth user experience be damned.

The motivation for the switch to algorithmic prioritization was profit – not usability. The more time you spend on an app, the more data you produce, the more easily you can be tracked, and the more efficiently your attention can be sold to advertisers.

But Chayka’s new book, called Filterworld: How Algorithms Flattened Culture, talks about something else, something even more pervasive. It talks – convincingly – about how algorithms have actually been changing our personalities, the concept of cultural taste, and even our physical surroundings.

A pervasive sense of sameness

Algorithms are homogenizing and turning us into docile consumers, shrouded in “a pervasive sense of sameness,” Chayka argues. We’re hostages now, either we create or consume content.

According to the book’s author, this has happened because we’ve been giving agency away by allowing decision-makers at the Big Tech firms to turn attention into the only metric by which stuff is judged and then recommend personalized content to users.

Take Spotify’s Made For You feature. The computer compiles personalized playlists for us based on our music preferences so that, presumably, we wouldn’t have to waste precious time doing it ourselves. Netflix’s home portal is the same – it’s there, it’s personal, so just click, sit back, and enjoy.

The interconnectedness of these networks of algorithms also tells us what to read, how to dress, and even where to eat and travel to (in the age of Instagram, it’s Iceland – but do go and ask Icelanders about how they see you).A g

iceland-insta-mania
A girl photographs a white lighthouse on the phone in Iceland. Image by Shutterstock.

Sure, one could genuinely ask what’s not to like – isn’t all this very convenient? The problem, Chayka says, is that the algorithmic culture can be extremely numbing. The noise and speed of the feeds are overwhelming.

“In place of the human gatekeepers and curators of culture, the editors and DJs, we now have a set of algorithmic gatekeepers,”

Kyle Chayka.

“Our natural reaction is to seek out culture that embraces nothingness, that blankets and soothes rather than challenges or surprises, as powerful artwork is meant to do. Our capacity to be moved, or even to be interested and curious, is depleted,” says Chayka.

Indeed, wouldn’t you wish to compile a playlist of your favorite songs yourself or, better yet, discover new talent by actively seeking it? Visit an old-school record store or turn on a radio station run by enthusiastic music lovers.

Wouldn’t you want to discover a great film all by yourself with a professional introducing the backstory? For this, trade Netflix or whichever modern streamer for the Criterion Channel, simply perfect for cinephiles.

Wouldn’t you like to swap the Insta-perfect coffee shop – they’re everywhere, and they’re all the same, Chayka sadly admits – for an old, rusty, and rude cafe for a more authentic vibe?

Algorithmic gatekeepers

Of course, it’s not so easy. For now, our lives – whether we like it or not, we’re spending a growing chunk of them online – are dependent on the few massive tech companies, and the way they make business is “ruthlessly capitalist and expansionary.”

Book sales, for instance, now rely on a book’s reach on BookTok. Films now depend on memes and the ability of the short clips to go viral. The Spotify algorithm will only catch a song if the hook is placed within the first 30 seconds of it.

It’s a kind of tyranny of real-time data. If you don’t follow the rules, if you don’t hit the algorithmic jackpot, you’ll be buried forever. Regrettably, cultural items as such are not even important that much – they’re purchased or consumed as lifestyle accessories.

They’re now easy, they’re not challenging us in any way. It’s all a bit hollow, the creative juice has been sucked out. Maybe, as Chayka argues, the issue is that most of the media we used to consume was made – and selected – by professionals, and this is not the case anymore.

“In place of the human gatekeepers and curators of culture, the editors and DJs, we now have a set of algorithmic gatekeepers,” writes the author.

“The outcome of such algorithmic gatekeeping is the pervasive flattening that has been happening across culture. By flatness, I mean homogenization but also a reduction into simplicity: the least ambiguous, least disruptive, and perhaps least meaningful pieces of culture are promoted the most.”

It’s hard to disagree with Chayka’s basic premise that a machine-curated world has turned so many of us into consumer zombies. It’s also easy to support his claim that we shouldn’t just depressively complain that it’s the algorithm’s fault.

No, these algorithms have been created by humans on their electric blue couches in Google offices. Technology is not the issue, the author notes – would you blame a bridge for its engineering flaws?

However, it’s great that Chayka doesn’t lose hope. He himself writes that the aim of the book is to deconstruct Filterworld in order to determine ways to escape it – while possibly also having fun along the way.

“Knowledge itself is power,” wrote Francis Bacon in the sixteenth century. Today, sorting knowledge and information might be even more powerful – and if we do the sorting ourselves, we might retake the initiative from Big Tech visionaries.

Back to Geocities

But how should we get agency back? How do we regain the tools to curate our lives? It’s safe to say we’ve got to begin the change ourselves because the tech giants are perfectly content with the way things are now.

First, as both content consumers and creators, we should remember that reaching wide audiences is not a right – it's a privilege. What would you miss if you didn’t see a dozen photos of someone’s vacation or read another heated argument heading nowhere on X?

Regulation is not an answer, by the way. Governmental policy rarely succeeds when it comes to culture. Chayka is right: “We do not have a constitutional right to personal taste. Therefore, we also must change our own habits.”

Our choices must become conscious – the same way we choose to buy an electric vehicle or shop in a farmer’s market, we should seek out digital spaces that care about you and the content rather than algorithmic paths to success.

“To resist Filterworld, we must become our own curators once more and take responsibility for what we’re consuming. Regaining that control isn’t so hard,” says Chayka.

“You make a personal choice and begin to intentionally seek out your own cultural rabbit hole, which leads you in new directions to yet more independent decisions. They compound over time into a sense of taste, and ultimately into a sense of self.”

Of course, Chayka names possible strategies to tame algorithms – they range across enforcing algorithmic transparency, reforming Section 230, which provides immunity to online platforms with respect to user-generated content, and protecting data rights.

Yet, we need to learn ourselves to shape the digital world we live in. The process might have already started, in fact.

If the 2000s saw the emergence of the mainstream internet, and the 2010s saw the rise and domination of massive digital platforms, then the next decade seems likely to embrace decentralization once more, Chayka thinks – just like in the joyful 1990s when we explored and built the web ourselves.

So, let’s have hope for now. If the internet is to become more like Geocities but with multimedia innovations, tell me where to sign up.


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