In January 1980 Isaac Asimov, writer of ‘hard science fiction’, professor of bio-chemistry and vice-president of Mensa International, penned a column for Newsweek magazine in which he addressed a prevailing ‘cult of ignorance’ in America. ‘The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life,’ he wrote, ‘nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge”.’ Thirty-six years later, what Asimov attacked as a false notion was accepted as a fact of life by Michael Gove when he declared during the referendum campaign, ‘I think people in this country have had enough of experts,’ a phrase which may yet come to define the British public’s historic decision to exit the EU.
The redundancy of expertise — or the democratisation of personal opinion, if you prefer — is one of the subjects discussed by the journalist Tom Vanderbilt in You May Also Like. Vanderbilt’s first book, Traffic, was a smart, fast-moving tour of the psychology of driving, praised by fellow travellers such as Malcolm Gladwell and Mary Roach. Here, he addresses questions of ‘why we like the things we like, why we hate the things we hate, and what our preferences reveal about us’. This is of pressing concern, he argues, because of the way, in an era of social media, ‘thumbs up’ and ‘likes’, our taste in everything from books to restaurants to medical treatments increasingly defines who we are, how we present ourselves to the world and what we can be sold by others. (The very funny ‘MeowMeowBeenz’ app episode of Dan Harmon’s cult TV series Community deals with this same topic, incidentally, scoring a maximum five MeowMeowBeenz from this user.)
Vanderbilt is a cultural omnivore. He refers to Susan Sontag, Ortega y Gasset and LCD Soundsystem with ease; he is candid about his likes and dislikes. Successive chapters of You May Also Like are inspired by the colour blue, his favoured Italian restaurant and the way Netflix algorithms work — or don’t. ‘For a time, I rigorously trained my Netflix algorithm,’ he writes. ‘I wanted it to know that just because I loved The Evil Dead did not necessarily mean I liked most other horror films… I wanted more than it could give.’ He presents himself as someone who may know a lot about art but does not necessarily know what he likes or why. And as the book proceeds and he consults scientists, tech gurus and, yes, experts, he admits he knows less and less:
That contested terrain between you and what you like, on the one hand, and what you (or others) should like, on the other, so vexatious to [David] Hume, now resembles a hopelessly booby-trapped minefield in a DMZ of taste.
I liked You May Also Like. Vanderbilt’s curiosity is infectious and he is consistently thought-provoking even as definitive answers elude him. His extended analysis of how and why Amazon customers award star ratings to everything from books and DVDs to windscreen wipers is perceptive and his conclusion pithy: ‘Haters gonna hate, as it were. But haters also gonna rate.’ On one level this is a timely study of consumer culture in the early 21st century and the way consumerism is shaping patterns of our behaviour. But it is also an insightful look at an inherent part of human nature and the human animal’s capacity to dissemble, not least to itself. ‘How hollow is the heart of man and how full of shit!’ wrote Pascal 350 years ago in Pensées, a key work in the history of philosophical thought which is currently rated 3.96 on Goodreads, though that score is likely to decrease over time [see above].
In You May Also Like, Vanderbilt curates the image he wishes to present to the reader via a catholic selection of cultural reference points, just as I have in this review, QED. According to Michael Bhaskar in his new book Curation, ‘we’re all curators now, whether “curating” our look, our mini-break, our TV on a night in…’ The context for both Bhaskar and Vanderbilt is the overload of data we now have to process via social media and the internet; You May Also Like and Curation refer to this in their subtitles, ‘Taste in an Age of Endless Choice’ and ‘The Power of Selection in a World of Excess’ respectively. Bhaskar’s book is both a fascinating account of how ‘a little-used word from the world of museums’ has become a 21st-century buzzword — much to the exasperation of many actual museum professionals — and also a useful guide to coping with this onslaught of undifferentiated opinion and recommendation.
Bhaskar is upbeat, and perhaps we should be too. ‘We all have more freedom and opportunity to make up who we are going to be,’ he writes, ‘to put together different contrasting elements.’ Which is the opinion of an expert, of course, one to whom I am happy to defer. A little informed optimism would go a long way at the moment.