Andrew Hankinson

Have we all become slaves to algorithms?

Kyle Chayka sees their constant feeds as flattening our lives, but the spread of Americanisation, which began long before the internet, is the real steamroller

Cultural homogenisation: Kyle Chayka describes being directed by his phone to independent coffee shops across the world which all look the same, despite no head office controlling them. [Getty Images]

Here I am, a human, recommending Kyle Chayka’s book about the negative impact of algorithms on our culture. Hopefully that will calm him down a bit, because he worries a lot, possibly far too much, at least as it seems to someone who is less online.

Chayka is a staff writer at the New Yorker and he is concerned about the effect of the Filterworld, his word for the ‘network of algorithms that influence our lives today, which has had a particularly dramatic impact on culture and the ways it is distributed and consumed’. He is referring to the songs Spotify cues up, the films Netflix suggests, the stories Facebook feeds its users, the broken flush of TikTok videos. They all use algorithms which calculate what grabs our attention and give us more of it, neglecting the ‘veggies’ of more nourishing content. We are Homer Simpson in hell, hooked up to the endless doughnuts machine – and, like Homer, we lap it up.

From an audience perspective, the fear is that we will end up in a place of shallow, short-term satisfaction, culturally fulfilled. Chayka also worries about the impact on creators, who might be encouraged to converge on what pleases the algorithms. The combined result, he says, is the ‘pervasive flattening’ of culture: ‘By flatness I mean homogenisation, but also a reduction into simplicity: the least ambiguous, least disruptive and perhaps least meaningful pieces of culture are promoted the most.’

He uses ‘the generic coffee shop’ as an example, describing his visits to Kyoto, Berlin, Beijing and Reykjavík, where his phone directed him to independent coffee shops that were all the same, despite no head office controlling them: white tiles, industrial-looking furniture, ‘hanging pendant lamps fitted with Edison bulbs’. He says the ‘strict sameness surpassed the usual indicators of globalisation’, blaming the algorithms for harmonising people’s tastes.

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