In Filterworld: How Algorithms Flattened Culture, journalist and writer Kyle Chayka drops his reader into the uncanny valley of the internet in 2023. Chayka’s thesis — that the algorithmically driven, primarily digital nature of how we consume culture has rendered culture itself rather homogenous, not to mention insidious — is informed by his own position as a millennial participant-observer of the digital world. For Chayka, Filterworld is a place, but not a destination. Rather, it is the aesthetic home that most of us already inhabit, whether we recognize it or not — one we build anew for ourselves daily by constantly engaging with the ever-changing algorithms that power most of our digital experiences.
Those familiar with Chayka’s frequent essays on technology and culture for the New Yorker and, perhaps, in his previous book, The Longing for Less: Living with Minimalism, will recognize in Filterworld his talent for giving the amorphous social space of the internet — its platforms, moments, moods, and microtrends — a discernible dimensionality on the page. Making the internet come to life in words is no small feat. (The general tendency is to slip into hyper-specific anecdotes about online history and happenings, thus mooring the reader in a murky abyss of shapeless industry speak.) In Filterworld, Chayka more often draws broader, more legible, and more conversational connections between digital culture and culture writ large — the “outside” world, if you will. Much like his journalistic endeavors, Filterworld is a smooth and fascinating read.
Legibility is critical to Chayka’s project as the digital-social phenomenon he identifies in Filterworld manifests itself most clearly, and most alarmingly, in physical space. For example, he cites a familiar style of cafe — white subway tiles, reclaimed wooden furniture, and exposed light fixtures, with an endlessly Instagrammable list of flat white coffees hand drawn on a chalkboard — that can be found in metropolitan areas the world over. In reading Filterworld, one sees the impact of social media — the highly visual platforms of Instagram and TikTok, in particular, as well as streaming platforms like Spotify — not only on design and music trends, but on our consumer habits as well. In Filterworld-as-place, many of us may recognize ourselves and our apparent choices everywhere, in everything.
Skimming the surface of thinkers from Benjamin to Bourdieu and well beyond (the book is absolutely chockablock with names) Chayka begins to perform the very form of frictionless aesthetic neutrality that Filterworld, as a concept and even an adjective, describes. In his evident desire to stay out of the weeds — something he’s adept at doing as a seasoned journalist whose sensibilities were weaned in digital publications such as this one — he often glosses over material that, if mined more deeply, could bolster his arguments. He cites briefly the predominantly White, cisgendered, male-driven technology industry as the perpetrator of the biases that color Filterworld, for example, yet he neglects to fully deconstruct that claim in a historical moment in which technical biases are increasingly acknowledged, even by the mainstream press. Chayka’s abilities shine the most toward the end of the book, where he parses the more complicated histories and policies that have governed the development of the internet as a mechanism for algorithmic recommendation.
How shall we coexist in Filterworld? Chayka’s brief proposal at the book’s end — a thesis for his next one? — is steeped in nostalgia for a bygone internet. More human curation, he asserts, will help break the stronghold algorithms have on our aesthetic and cultural lives. In reading Filterworld, I found myself feeling thankful to be just old enough (I barely belong to Generation X) to have had my earliest exposure to art, music, and books primarily by family and friends. People forged the cultural state of affairs we currently find ourselves in, but maybe people can free us from it, too.
Filterworld: How Algorithms Flattened Culture (2024) by Kyle Chayka is published by Doubleday Books on January 16 and is available online and through independent booksellers.