Book Review: ‘Filterworld,’ by Kyle Chayka

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.

He wants to restore value to the act of curation, another word, with etymological origins in “caretaking,” that has become increasingly cheapened. And so he walks through MoMA “like a medieval peasant traveling to a cathedral,” but now with a professional curator; and meets with a beloved radio D.J. whose voice reminds him of “the green felt on a pool table”: small acts of resistance, like me and my laptop migrating from Dig to the underfunded public library, against the online slide shows and playlists that dominate our days.

America has let the algorithm run amok — as with sunscreen and child care, it seems, Europe is doing a better job regulating this — so, Chayka suggests, we have to choose more conscionable platforms.

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. (“I just want to know if what I like is what I actually like,” she tells him, plaintively.)

But it also made me feel old. Or — let’s put that another way — acutely conscious of generational divides. Chayka, a millennial, is nostalgic for the binder of CDs he had as a teenager; the images he once shared on Tumblr; an earlier, jankier World Wide Web of illegal file-sharing, blogs and massive multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) forums. He first heard “My Favorite Things” not in “The Sound of Music” but the John Coltrane version, listening to an indie station as he wended his way back from a friend’s house in the suburbs in the early ’00s.

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.

FILTERWORLD: How Algorithms Flattened Culture | By Kyle Chayka | Doubleday | 304 pp. | $28

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