AC­CI­DENT WAIT­ING G TO HAP­PEN N

Bloomberg Businessweek (North America) - - Etc. -

Why do we like the things we like? For cen­turies, the ques­tion has in­trigued ev­ery­one in­clud­ing Im­manuel Kant, Vir­ginia Woolf, and Sig­mund Freud. Yet de­spite much scru­tiny, hu­man taste has long re­mained an elu­sive beast. En­ter the In­ter­net. Not only have mu­sic stream­ing apps and video-on-de­mand ser­vices given us a vast ar­ray of in­ven­tory to choose from, but they’ve also cre­ated an un­prece­dented amount of data on hu­man choice. Might the fun­da­men­tal dy­nam­ics of de­sire be re­vealed therein?

In You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of End­less Choice (Knopf; $26.95), Tom Van­der­bilt sets out to de­mys­tify hu­man ap­petites, ex­plor­ing the forces un­der­ly­ing our tastes in art, mu­sic, food, baby names, even cat breed­ing. Along the way, he in­ter­views sources at Net­flix and Pan­dora. He scours aca­demic lit­er­a­ture on Yelp re­views. He vis­its the head­quar­ters of fla­vor­ing gi­ant Mccormick. He trav­els to a com­pany, Neu­ro­fo­cus, that mon­i­tors sub­jects’ pref­er­ences us­ing brain sen­sors. He drinks pil­sners with judges at the Great Amer­i­can Beer Fes­ti­val.

It’s tricky to ob­serve in iso­la­tion, but par­tial­ity tends to re­veal it­self more re­li­ably when pinned down in re­la­tion­ship to the fa­vorites of oth­ers. Van­der­bilt also vis­its the of­fices of Hunch.com, a “rec­om­men­da­tion startup.” There, he watches soft­ware ac­cu­rately pre­dict his an­swers to a long se­ries of ques­tions about what he likes based on whom he fol­lows on Twit­ter. When a Hunch data sci­en­tist tells him that “taste is a space on a graph,” he’s mildly hor­ri­fied. We all want to be­lieve our taste is a re­flec­tion of our in­di­vid­u­al­ity, not the re­sult of sub­con­scious group­think, but usu­ally that’s not the case.

The book bounces the in­sights of mod­ern data sci­en­tists off the work of gen­er­a­tions of crit­ics, econ­o­mists, neu­ro­sci­en­tists, philoso­phers, psy­chol­o­gists, and so­ci­ol­o­gists. Taste, we learn, is an ex­tremely rel­a­tive phe­nom­e­non cur­rently swerv­ing through an age of ex­treme rel­a­tiv­ity. Of­ten what the In­ter­net re­veals is what French so­ci­ol­o­gist Pierre Bour­dieu noted decades ago: Our predilec­tions are strongly in­flu­enced by so­cial af­fil­i­a­tion. The ubiq­uity of so­cial me­dia only makes us sway in the wind even more.

In the end, Van­der­bilt churns out plenty of trivia (“Pink Floyd is one of the bands most liked pri­mar­ily by Repub­li­cans”) but lit­tle in the way of new mod­els. His key take­away is that taste re­mains a com­plex and er­ratic phe­nom­e­non that’s end­lessly shift­ing ac­cord­ing to en­vi­ron­men­tal, phys­i­cal, and—echo­ing Bour­dieu—so­cial pres­sures. “The pic­ture of taste I have pre­sented is hardly re­as­sur­ing,” Van­der­bilt writes. “We of­ten do not seem to know what we like or why we like what we do. Our pref­er­ences are riddled with un­con­scious bi­ases, eas­ily swayed by con­tex­tual and so­cial in­flu­ences.”

Van­der­bilt is a skill­ful syn­the­sizer, and You May Also Like is full of un­ex­pected con­nec­tions among seem­ingly dis­parate ideas. Be­fore writ­ing about taste, Van­der­bilt wrote a book about traf­fic. He sees an anal­ogy be­tween the two. wo. “Taste,” he writes, “is like traf­fic, ac­tu­tu­ally, a large, com­plex sys­tem with ba­si­ca­sic pa­ram­e­ters and rules, a noisy feed­back­ack cham­ber where one does what oth­ers ers do and vice versa, in a way that is al­most ost im­pos­si­ble to pre­dict beyond that at the end of the day a cer­tain num­ber of cars ars will travel down a stretch of road, just st as a cer­tain num­ber of songs will be in n the Top 100.” <BW>

Snapchat’s highly y ques­tion­able fil­ter r show­ing how fast t you’re go­ing when n you take a selfie is s get­ting the com­pany y sued by an Uber r driver who was hit by an­other driver us­ing the fil­ter while go­ing 107 mph. Class­pass, which pro­vides ac­cess to dif­fer­ent gyms, now costs $200 a month in New York, up from $99 a few years ago. But New York­ers al­ready have some­thing that ran­domly costs more all the time. It’s called rent. Google says we should think of new, un­skip­pable mo­bile ads at­tached to video on Youtube as “quick and fun” and “lit­tle haikus.” Be­cause who doesn’t find it en­joy­able and po­etic to wait on con­tent? C’mon, world. How hard is it to eat more choco­late? Her­shey’s re­ported a third straight quar­ter of sales de­clines, which is forc­ing it to fo­cus more on sell­ing snacks like beef jerky.

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