All-Consuming Interests

You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice BY Tom Vanderbilt. Knopf. Hardcover, 320 pages. $26.

The cover of You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice

Circa August 1993, in a museum in the Netherlands, I had what Adam, the narrator of Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, skeptically calls “a profound experience of art,” something riveting and unselfconscious. (Adam has only experienced the absence of a profound experience of art, and he doesn’t believe that anyone else he knows has really been “changed” by a poem or song, either.) I was eight years old, intensely serious, receiving steady doses of cold medication and family Holocaust lore during my first trip out of the US. In a museum gift shop, I spied a print of a woman sitting in a chair against a colorful backdrop of dandelions. I couldn’t describe my feelings, except that I formed a sudden, deep attachment to the picture, bleeding into something like identification. I needed to have the print, which was inked on a cheap wood composite board and which my parents duly paid for, maybe amused that their son had declared himself obsessed with one of Van Gogh’s paintings. As I recollect that pint-size epiphany now, from the vantage of my own hard-earned adult cynicism, it seems silly. I was very young and earnest, and I had been primed to react strongly in that environment. That I wanted to own the cheap print so badly—and never saw the original—seems like a crude Warholism.

Still, my encounter with the Van Gogh reproductions was different. (I had previously been marched through a few art museums on class or family trips and never experienced much more than a flush of joy except on approaching the exit.) It’s not that the painting became my Rosebud—it hung for a year or two on my wall and then disappeared, along with my interest in fine art, into the piles of video games and other bric-a-brac in my room. But I don’t doubt that I felt a potent kind of meaning there, which was all the more powerful because I hadn’t acquired the critical vocabulary to describe it. The very lack of an interpretive framework, the absence of any perceptual distance between me and the thing that was happening to me, made it feel authentic (a word we have largely learned to distrust, with ample cause). Now, no matter how much I enjoy a novel or find myself moved by a film, it often feels like some meager simulacrum of or callback to a past aesthetic experience, be it my strange fixation on that painting or my total immersion in the comic books and songs of my childhood. This is not simple nostalgia; it’s more like the bittersweet memory of being so captured by something that it became my whole world. I feel the same kind of recall, and a shade of envy, when I see a child pull a book off a store shelf and purchase it with so much excitement that it seems like it’s his own private V-E Day.

In an interview in 2007 with The Believer, the writer Pankaj Mishra talked about how his reading had changed, become more utilitarian: “I’m unable to summon up that same imaginative richness. That seems to me a huge loss. Now I’m thinking more about the craftsmanship of it—why did this paragraph end here—narrowly technical things.” For Mishra, becoming a knowledgeable critic had in some ways lessened the pleasure of reading. He missed being a “disinterested reader.”

I understand Mishra’s sense of loss, and I think it extends to the larger shared culture, especially as we see it reflected back to us online. We are so surrounded by points of reference, deluged with streams, fully versed in, that culture seems to arrive prechewed. It is all excessively hyperlinked, and revealed to us immediately. The enterprising cultural consumer is versed in the metanarrative of the latest Iñárritu flick or Franzen novel before he ever sees it, if he does at all.

“Taste is social comparison,” Tom Vanderbilt says in his new book, You May Also Like. He goes on to add—via the great French sociologist of the subject, Pierre Bourdieu—that “taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier.” We reveal ourselves in what we like. We use cultural consumption to signal our own identities and social position to one another.

But do we really know what we like, or are we merely acting out the influences of others, moving in well-worn patterns of social homophily? “Taste is a space on a graph,” a data scientist at the recommendation start-up Hunch tells Vanderbilt. “Someone can inhabit it without necessarily knowing the specifics of what they believe and their experiences.”

The graph notion seems misplaced; Vanderbilt sits down for coffee with a number of data scientists in You May Also Like, and the book at times takes a positivist turn, finding too much truth in simple statistics. But the second point rings true: A person might have a sense of what he likes but not be able to fully account for why. As Vanderbilt notes in a later chapter, “We can be strangers to our taste,” entranced by a shirt in a shopwindow only to hate it after unwrapping it at home.

Of course, what might have made the shirt so desirable in the store was careful staging. It looked good on the mannequin, or on me in a certain light, and the sales clerk complimented my taste, all of which added up to a pleasing enough experience that I decided to buy the shirt for myself. But when I tried it on again at home, I realized the fit was poor, that I should exercise more, and that clothes shopping is an exercise in conspicuous consumption that mostly makes me feel bad about myself.

Vanderbilt is attuned to the fickleness of taste and how easily it might be altered. His book is filled with clever asides about the bands he once adored and choice quotations from his favorite philosophers. There doesn’t seem to be a peer-reviewed paper on taste or aesthetics that he hasn’t read and picked over for insights. A stylish writer, he’s particularly good at navigating the shoals of digital opinion and the various techniques of information management employed by savvy consumers. Here, for example, is how he characterizes the way that an extended session on the customer-review site Yelp can dilute one’s gustatory fervor: “Having sifted through a morass of reviews, you may begin to feel a kind of hangover. Either you quit the place altogether, or by the time you arrive, you already feel weighted by a certain exhaustion of expectation, as if you had already consumed the experience and were now simply going through the motions.”

Vanderbilt doesn’t lean too hard into his critique of the digital-reviewing culture, but he sees little to recommend it. As he somewhat archly remarks, “The idea of the masses liberating the objects of criticism from the tyranny of critics is clouded by the number of reviewers who seem to turn toward petty despotism.” Too many online reviews, “particularly of the one-star variety,” Vanderbilt explains, degenerate into condescending complaints about service workers’ attitudes or behaviors—their failure, in other words, to provide appropriate affective labor, to make customers feel sufficiently appreciated. “They are labor disputes: between patrons’ capital and the endlessly subjective expectation of what they should receive.”

Anyone who’s spent much time on Twitter will have observed a similar phenomenon when an aggrieved consumer decides to blast Delta for a delayed flight or Seamless for a botched order. Reviews are often inspired by polarized reactions (rapture or severe disappointment), but the public airing of buyer’s remorse on social media and in online reviews has become a ritual in itself, a way for otherwise anonymous consumers to stand up and believe they are being heard. This might well be the case—and the aggrieved consumers in question might receive a credit or an apology for their efforts—but corporations have become fairly adept at managing consumer dissent online, with social media now just another well-greased arm of the public-relations and customer-support apparatus.

Vanderbilt’s interviews with tech figures are something of a disappointment. He gets them to dilate on Netflix’s rating systems and why Pandora caps its library at one million songs, but his attitude is mostly one of cheerful fascination rather than critical inquiry. At one point, he considers why Netflix often recommends two- and three-star movies to users. The answer turns out to be that people often think they want to watch higher-grade offerings than they actually end up choosing, and Netflix also knows that a viewer sitting down after a day at work might be overwhelmed with choice and glad, relieved even, to settle for a middling comedy. (Vanderbilt, too, sometimes buries more difficult material—as when he consigns what seems to me an instructive parable of the tech world’s top-heavy ownership structure to a footnote: After he plumbed the algorithmic mysteries of Hunch, eBay purchased the start-up and shut it down—a reminder that, for all the empirical rigor with which we try to quantify the formation of individual tastes online, it’s the tastes of the well-capitalized Silicon Valley oligopoly that matter most.)

The finer (and marketing-driven) critical distinctions that propel products to the top of a Pandora playlist or Netflix queue may raise questions about the ethics of design and the consequences of large tech and media companies’ (and their automated systems) being able to dictate consumption, if not taste, on such a massive scale. Vanderbilt almost tackles this issue head-on when he observes that Netflix “is not in business to turn you into a cineaste. It wants to keep you signed up with Netflix. It is like a casino using clever math to keep you on the machines.”

That Netflix might be so baldly compared to a casino, with all the attendant overtones of hucksterism and manipulation, calls out for more explication—as does the notion that it’s not so much seeking to cater to your preexisting tastes as shape them in accord with its own marketing directives. Unfortunately, Vanderbilt stops short of these qualitative judgments—an ironic silence in a book about opinionated choice. You May Also Like is mostly apolitical and doesn’t account much for economic difference, the deleterious role of advertising, or the increased concentration of corporate power in an age that was supposed to be defined by the democratization of access to media and tools of artistic production. Vanderbilt will sometimes note a striking shift in the logic of cultural availability—pointing out, for example, that as fewer hit songs garner more and more plays, the music industry grows less diverse, creating a long tail that looks, in the words of pop critic Chris Molanphy, “more like a right angle”—without really telling us what it means or whether we should be troubled by it.

The book does manage to offer an illuminating tour through the state of the art in relevant research without becoming too bogged down in close-reading MRI results or the latest pronouncements out of Harvard Business School. You May Also Like also resists Gladwellian grand theories and Lehrerian oversimplification. At the same time, many of the scientific experts Vanderbilt consults bring insights that provoke little more than some appreciative chin-scratching. It’s good to know, I suppose, that museumgoers are more likely to read texts that are broken up into small chunks and posted close to a work of art. Or that Crystal Pepsi failed because its color didn’t match its flavor identification. Or that we make two hundred food decisions per day. But much of this reads like learned trivia, pitched to an audience who care above all that their reading be useful.

Vanderbilt has a welcome sense of humor and a catholic sense of high and low, explaining, for instance, the Insane Clown Posse by invoking Bourdieu: Their fans draw power from being marginalized, by embracing “the refusal of what is refused.” He considers the curious vogue for “normcore”—the canny appropriation by hipsters of their own parents’ bland suburban garb—by way of a hundred-year-old quote from the German sociologist Georg Simmel (“If obedience to fashion consists in imitation of an example, conscious neglect of fashion represents similar imitation, but under an inverse sign”). Indeed, with his quoting of Nietzsche and Ortega y Gasset and Francis Bacon (“All beauty hath some strangeness in its proportion”), Vanderbilt occasionally comes across as a closet humanist. And some of his finest writing appears when he’s playing the role of aesthete, sitting down for a sumptuous meal with a noted chef or reminiscing about a song by a Dominican singer that captured his attention when he was listening to the radio while traveling through Mexico.

Whether surveying the qualities of a good beer or reviewing the shifting standards for what makes a prizewinning breed of cat, Vanderbilt displays a consistent interpretive outlook of humble curiosity. He ends with a picture of taste that he finds “hardly reassuring. We often do not seem to know what we like or why we like what we do.” We’re easily influenced and prone to “unconscious biases,” as are the experts whose judgments we may trust. Like Kant and Hume in the eighteenth century, he writes, we live “in an age of anxious social mobility and new forms of cultural authority,” in which judgments feel “more personal and subjective—more indicative of one’s own character and thus ever more anxiously freighted with meaning.” A million commodities call out for our approval, our time, our money and concern. Can we control our tastes, or do we merely act them out as instruments of forces we may never understand?

Jacob Silverman is the author of Terms of Service: Social Media and the Price of Constant Connection, recently published in paperback by Harper Perennial.