Sunday, June 19, 2016

What It Is Like to Like

Art and taste in the age of the Internet.

The subject of Tom Vanderbilt’s “You May Also Like” (Knopf) is taste, the term he uses for whatever it is that guides our preference for chocolate over vanilla, taupe over beige, “The Bourne Supremacy ” over “The Bourne Ultimatum,” and Artur Schnabel and Joseph Szigeti’s recording of Beethoven’s tenth violin sonata over Vladimir Ashkenazy and Itzhak Perlman’s rendering of the same work. Vanderbilt’s widely admired previous book, “Traffic,” examined a dangerous and complex activity that people pay about as much attention to while they’re doing it as they do to washing the dishes: driving a car. Making sense of driving was tough. Not nearly as tough, however, as taste.

Vanderbilt’s premise is: “We are strangers to our tastes.” He doesn’t mean that we don’t really like what we say we like. He means that we don’t know why. Our intuition that tastes are intuitive, that they are just “our tastes,” and spring from our own personal genome, has been disproved repeatedly by psychologists and market researchers. But where tastes do come from is extremely difficult to pin down. Taste is not congenital: we don’t inherit it. And it’s not consistent. We come to like things we thought we hated (or actually did hate), and we are very poor predictors of what we are likely to like in the future.

We have trouble articulating the reasons that we prefer the Schnabel to the Ashkenazy, or decide on the locally foraged fresh spring porcini mushrooms with roasted Sebastopol peaches, almonds, and crispy tempura—no, wait!, I’ll have the g√Ęteau of Hudson Valley Moulard duck foie gras with roasted Chioggia beets, Brooks cherries, and Sicilian pistachios served with toasted brioche (thirty-dollar supplement). Just don’t ask me why.

Maybe “toasted” trumped “foraged.” Likes and dislikes can be triggered by random associations and can form in a split second. We make choices before we’ve had time to weigh the options. Vanderbilt tells us that the median amount of time spent looking at a work of art at the Met is seventeen seconds. Shopping for clothes, we say, “Oh, I love that!” before we have the first coherent idea about what it is that makes us love it.

And we are ridiculously, pathetically, embarrassingly suggestible. Cues that are barely liminal affect our preferences (which is why advertisers pay for product placement in films and TV shows). So do the choices we observe others making, the “I’ll have what she’s having” syndrome. We are also self-suggestible. “We seem to have a preference that we prefer our preference,” as Vanderbilt puts it. “There is a greater chance we will like something when we expect we are going to like it.” He calls this “a virtual law of liking.”

Vanderbilt is an intelligent writer, and there is a lot of interesting material in “You May Also Like,” but he has dived into a fathomless sea. He opens with an epigraph from Nietzsche, “All of life is a dispute over taste,” which pretty much sums up the problem. What does not, on some level, involve taste? Most of a day’s idle conversation is a sequence of thumbs-up, thumbs-down assertions expressed with varying degrees of sincerity and conviction. “Nice weather we’re having.” “I love your new haircut.” “This coffee is suboptimal.” “These are the best Sebastopol peaches I have ever eaten outside Sebastopol.” We don’t put a lot of thought into these judgments. They’re virtually automatic. Everything we experience gets an emoji.

And any action that entails a choice also entails a preference—what to read, what to wear, which brand of superglue to buy. Vanderbilt cites a researcher who estimates that people typically make two hundred food decisions a day. We try to find work we like, entertainment we like, people we like, shoes we like, political candidates we like. We want to sit at the best table, take the most scenic route, watch the funniest late-night talk show. Finally, there are what we think of as higher-order preferences, the astute critical appraisals we come up with when discussing the latest Don DeLillo novel or the new production of “Elektra.”

Understanding how traffic works is made exponentially more complicated by the fact that it’s not just one person who is barely paying attention; all the drivers on the road are barely paying attention, and they’re also reacting to each other. The same is true of taste. The reason stuff you don’t like is out there is that other people do like it. The continuously shifting array of “like” arrows emanating from you is reproduced billions of times across the planet and configured differently each time. Vanderbilt points out that someone who says, “I don’t want Thai food. I had some yesterday,” is forgetting that in Thailand people eat Thai food every day.

You can aggregate tastes, but only so far. Once you start lumping—once you declare that all x prefer y—you create the condition for splitting, since there will always be at least one x who is determined to stand apart from the herd. “Tastes can change when people aspire to be different from other people,” Vanderbilt says. “They can change when we are trying to be like other people.” Somewhere in America, there is a college professor who will never buy a Prius. The outlier is not extraneous to the type; the outlier is essential to the type. The outlier marks a boundary. Tastes are, by definition, things not universally shared.

by Louis Menand, New Yorker |  Read more:
Image: Javier Jaen