Taste Used to Be Cultivated; Now It Is Led

AI illustration by Bash Ahmed



For years, humor felt irrelevant to me. Now I do not want to read a book or watch a show that is not laced with at least a little wit, banter, irreverence.

Tastes change. You move away from habit and discover some new affinity, surprised to feel such delight. These revelations are a reliable joy, and stitched together over a lifetime, the discoveries paint a self-portrait. Except—now our tastes are being changed for us, homogenized by algorithms that force clicks of approval into spirals of popularity.

What happens to what Samuel Johnson called “the wild vicissitudes of taste”? They flatten into sameness. We live in “the culture of presets, established patterns that get repeated again and again,” Kyle Chayka points out in Filterworld. I already loathe my car radio because it lets me hit a button and reach my destination instantly, instead of sliding through static and weirdness and happening upon a song I have not thought of in years. Now more and more of my digital life is steered the same way, with the songs, shows, clothes, and opinions I am supposed to like served up to me one after another like balls from a pitching machine.

My mom watched the movies of her day and sewed herself versions of their elegant wardrobes. By the time I knew her, she had sure opinions, and after years of shopping together, my taste, though it did not match hers, was informed by it. In time, I had the same sureness about my own opinions. Today I could skip all that shopping and talking and trying-on and simply ask an app what someone who looked like me should wear. But what would I know? I would follow the recommendations as blindly as I obey my GPS. Nothing the app told me could be generalized, used to evaluate the fashions of other times and places. None of the acquired wardrobe would feel like my sense of style.

Forming your taste is exhausting on purpose. You have to read and think and listen and take sips and watch and nibble and learn and compare and discern and revisit. This is not work that can be outsourced. Imitating someone else’s taste is for teenagers too anxious to fly solo. But in adulthood, there is joy in the hunt, the discovery, the surprises, the newfound trust in one’s own instincts.

People I treasure for their exquisite taste have a sensitivity to beauty, an appreciation of creativity, an experienced knowledge of the world. The art on their walls was bought deliberately; the books on their shelves have been read; the objects in their homes have stories behind their acquisition. By figuring out what they like, they have figured out where they touch the world.

Montesquieu defined taste as “only another word for the gift of subtly and rapidly discovering the degree of pleasure [people] can derive from any object.” How do we do this? Mysteriously, by applying “rules which we do not know.”

Algorithms are all about rules. But theirs are crowd-sourced and reductive. “Building your own sense of taste, that set of subconscious principles by which you identify what you like, is an uphill battle,” Chayka writes, “compared to passively consuming whatever content feeds deliver to you.”

There is nothing passive about taste, nothing predictable or boring, like all the franchise sequels we get for movie entertainment these days, all the formulaic novels plotted to conform to what sells, all the Spotify selections and YouTube videos personalized “just for us”—but driven by an entirely different agenda. Taste takes risks, challenges you a bit, forces you to explore and discern. But “over the twentieth century,” Chayka continues, “taste became less a philosophical concept concerning the quality of art than a parallel to industrial-era consumerism, a way to judge what to buy and judge others for what they buy in turn.” Even if you are just buying what the bots five-starred.

Chayka joined Ezra Klein on his podcast to talk about Filterworld. In setting up the conversation, Klein said he has decided that taste is far from frivolous or elitist. “Taste is a superpower, an act of resistance.” It requires being attuned to yourself and attentive to the world around you, able to discern which things are yours, not just everybody else’s.

The technology we chose to design asks people to be machines—knowable and predictable, the ideal consumers. Steer them this way and that, use bots to influence their buying and apps to help them choose what part of culture to consume. We were fine with this at first. Wary of snobbish critics handing down their own taste from on high, we wanted to know what everybody thought, sitting at home in their PJs clicking on stars. Which were then counted and used to steer more and more people to the same movies, turning them into classics regardless of merit. Only what is popular can grow more popular. The quirky sleepers I tend to prefer? They get buried and must be excavated—and even the maps are hard to find.

Perverse, I increasingly prize whatever requires a determined hunt, a little background research, and patience. Not always—when I am tired or sad, I still turn to British mysteries, and any AI could easily figure out which ones. When my head is clear, though, I shake off the “helpful” algorithms and look for ways to browse.

They are scarcer and scarcer. Our systems refuse to leave anything to chance. Deluged by information, they cubbyhole content and serve up only what they think we want—or what they want us to want. Stuff that is complicated, odd, or mysterious gets no traction. Instead of a fat newspaper you can spread out on the kitchen table and pore over, you receive short, curated newsletters. Instead of bookstores where you can spend a rainy Saturday afternoon, you go to your screen for recommendations. Film directors leave fewer questions open because they have to stop us from reaching for our phone. They know we have lost patience with not knowing.

Yet patiently working your way through something tells you whether it matters to you, whether it resonates. Making your own way through that sea of possibilities might be daunting, but it is the only way to surprise yourself.

I was thinking about this when I read a letter in Lillian Fishman’s grown up, philosophical advice column for The Point. Disconnected with dating apps, someone wrote, “Based on who I swipe on and flirt with, I have a distinct type, but those connections have never actually gone anywhere. By contrast, what I remember about the first girl I really fell in love with was how very not my ‘type’ she was, and how I loved her if anything more because of that, because there was something mysterious about my initial attraction to her.”

The heart wants what it wants. We ought to be mysteries to ourselves. It tickled me when my mom started listening to rap music because she liked its strong, high-energy beat. I did a happy doubletake when I looked up and saw my historian husband reading poetry translated from the Arabic. And I still marvel at how I loved New Mexico, not because it was scenic, but because I had never been drawn to the desert southwest’s scenery and had no desire to make the trip. Yet I fell hard in love with the translucent sunlight and ghost towns and rich burnt reds and the Sangre del Cristo mountains edging a land that still managed to feel infinite.

We love to talk about our tastes in music or food or film; it is a risk-free expression of self. Those like me, who crave novelty, like to pronounce our tastes “eclectic.” Those who value refinement and expertise wince; they have cultivated a narrower band. But whatever our affinities, they place us firmly in the larger world, carve us a niche, connect us.

“Taste is the only morality,” art critic John Ruskin dared say. “Tell me what you like, and I’ll tell you what you are.”

And if we are no longer sure what we like? Who are we then?


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.