Magazine article The Spectator

'You May Also Like: Taste in the Age of Endless Choice', by Tom Vanderbilt - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'You May Also Like: Taste in the Age of Endless Choice', by Tom Vanderbilt - Review

Article excerpt

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. …

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