Subscriber OnlyOpinion

I like Harry Styles, One Day and dogs. I hate the algorithm that spoon-feeds them to me

Algorithms ensure we are lightly entertained but no longer challenged, leading to an increasingly bland culture

In 2020 the editorial board of the New York Times was faced with a simple task: endorse one Democrat candidate for president. In a rather catastrophic failure of purpose – or, what the board euphemistically called “a break with convention” – it endorsed two candidates (Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren). This equivocation spoke not just to a general anxiety at the New York Times in a moment of political flux; but to a wider loss of confidence among the curators and tastemakers of the world. Only months before, in late 2019 the Booker Prize was – in a fit of mealy-mouthed cowardice – split between Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo. The commanding heights of culture seemed no longer assured of its own tastes and judgment.

I am reminded of this not just because the American election is on the horizon, but because 2024′s award season is drawing to a close with the Oscars airing on Sunday night. The Grand Jury Prize at Sundance Film Festival, Best New Artist at the Grammy’s, or Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars are all reliant on one thing: a confident judging panel making firm assertions about artistic merit. Like it or not, the curators and tastemakers of the world shape the art we consume. They influence the films that get made; box-office performance; the songs that end up on the radio; in a looser sense, perhaps, electoral outcomes. At the very least, then, we should hope they have developed more courage in their convictions than they had in 2020.

And it seems the need for human-driven artistic curation is more pressing in 2024 than ever. New Yorker writer Kyle Chayka’s recent book Filterworld: How Algorithms Flattened Culture offers us a stark reminder of this fact. Since the advent of social media and streaming platforms, he contends, the quality of our consumption and the diversity of our taste has suffered. In Filterworld the loss of human touch and the arrival of the algorithm is to blame.

We are better off if people, not machines, are the driving force behind our consumption habits

Today, for example, Spotify is offering me a playlist rather generically called Songs to Sing in the Car, replete with Taylor Swift, Harry Styles and Fleetwood Mac (all artists I like and already listen to); on Netflix I am being pushed the period drama Bridgerton and the new series One Day, grouped under the heading “because you watched Gossip Girl”; TikTok has presented me with – in order – a video of a woman making biscuits, a video of a Yorkshire terrier at Crufts, a clip from The Crown. It is, in essence, very easy to be spoon-fed hundreds of things I will reliably enjoy by the algorithms that populate my iPhone.


But this is precisely the problem, at least according to Chayka. These platforms have offered me the path of least resistance: I am lightly entertained but certainly not challenged by any of it; the algorithm exists to reinforce, not expand, my tastes. Perhaps it does not matter, so long as we are happy for the world to flatten into a homogenous blob of repetitive and mimetic boredom: Harry Styles, The Crown and Yorkshire terriers for all; strange experimental jazz and the less cute Belgian Malinois for none. But this seems a rather sad capitulation to a problem we can resolve by bringing humans right back into the picture, by championing the slowly forgotten art of human-led curation.

This is not just a problem for the arts but for the health of the media ecosystem writ large. The advent of social media has perhaps been the most impactful development for traditional media since its inception – for good and bad. All of a sudden anyone could become a citizen journalist but without any of the professional checks and balances, training, regulation and motivations. And so Twitter has emerged as a wild west of disinformation precisely thanks to an algorithmic feed that prioritises popularity and engagement over professionalism and old-fashioned media strictures. This is no frivolous problem consigned entirely to the world of whoever wins Best Actress on Sunday night. Rather, it has had rather profound effects on the general health of the political realm.

Filterworld emerges, then, not just as a description of how algorithms came to damage culture but as an argument: we are better off if people, not machines, are the driving force behind our consumption habits. Failures of judgment happen all the time – as with the Booker Prize in 2019 – but at least this is a failure owned by a human and not a conservative calculation made by a computer. Without curation the news landscape on Twitter and TikTok becomes terribly hard to navigate, perhaps this is true of artistic taste too.

It is concerning, then, when the so-called tastemakers lose confidence in their judgment. In The Second Coming, WB Yeats says “the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity”. I am no longer convinced this is true. But in any case, I would rather the passionate intensity of a film critic over the lack of conviction of a machine every time.