Algorithmic Culture (April Newsletter)

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Hello! I had a bunch of work come out since the last newsletter, so I hope you’ll check below and read whatever interests you (something for everyone). These pieces don’t run together thematically much, but I do think they all concern larger cultural systems and our individual responses to or involvement in them. Except for the Paris Review piece, that’s more of a personal memoir. Writing about art is how I started out, and I find myself returning to it as often as I can.

Recent Work:

Diary: Algorithmic Culture

Last week, someone tweeted a photo from one of Amazon’s new physical bookstores. What struck me about the photo was less the usual hardwood shelves and cozy literary atmosphere that Amazon has gone so far out of its way to mimic, but how the books were sorted. The labels on the shelves of display books advertised that they were categorized not by fiction, non-fiction, or memoir, but “books Kindle readers finish in three days or less,” “highly rated fiction on Goodreads”, and “books with more than 10,000 reviews on Amazon.”

In other words, the books hadn’t been curated by a single human employee, but rather selected by crowdsourced data, millions of Internet users who may or may not have read the entire book. Amazon’s physical store promotes books that were read quickly, highly rated by reviews on Amazon’s own book-based social network, and given a large volume of reviews on its website.

The results are unsurprising: Light beach reads, crime thrillers, Agatha Christie, and self-help feature prominently. The English-language literary canon this is not; only under “fiction top sellers in Boston” (where the store is located) do names like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Michael Chabon appear. Amazon’s data preferences a certain homogenous genre of contemporary middlebrow that might be popular right this moment, but it would make for an extremely boring historical legacy.

Amazon’s shelf signs suggest that its judgement is unimpeachable: big data as a replacement for taste. Yet the company is depending entirely on proprietary factors that it controls to determine which books are worthy of promoting. Amazon controls the Kindle store, sets pricing for its books by algorithm, and regulates which reviews are used to advertise which books, all decisions that might influence how many reviews a book gets, how positive the reviews are, and how fast a reader might finish it.

The data might be real, but it is also biased to favor the norms set by Amazon as a platform. What’s more, the process is self-reinforcing: Amazon’s algorithms determine which books sell well online, which determines how well they sell in its new physical stores, which determines the fate of the author, which influences how books are written in the future. My hunch is that more books will be designed to suit Amazon’s platform, optimized for its robotic black box rather than the artistic impulses of the author.

This, to me, is the consequence of algorithmic culture. When we depend on digital platforms to show us what to consume, whether it’s Amazon, Facebook, Airbnb, or Instagram, our tastes are ultimately shaped by the structures of that platform. It’s not that Amazon is telling us what to read; rather, the company is molding how we encounter what it’s possible to read. As our collective reading habits are documented by Amazon, the average of those habits will be reflected back to us in the form of these display shelves, not to mention recommended purchases and banner advertising online, and thus our behaviors are reinforced and accelerated. In the end, everything becomes more homogenous: as average as possible.

Amazon’s data also shows us that radical literature, of the kind critics might prize, is just not what most people want to read. I won’t begrudge anyone their Agatha Christie. Perhaps what we’re seeing now is the reality that has always existed: the self-perceived cultural elite is a vocal minority that might influence history but has less impact on daily cultural consumption.

Outliers to the formula like, say, Moby Dick, a book that had next to no public reputation when its author died, would not survive the hazards of algorithmic culture. In order to seek out obscurity, the less-than-already-popular, we have to move off the massive platforms that make money by serving us ever more of what we tell them we like. This could happen in spaces like McNally Jackson, my favorite bookstore, or smaller digital platforms like MUBI, which streams independent movies, a more hip version of Netflix.

Where our cultural tastes might have once been cultivated by a particularly engaged friend or mentor, now they are increasingly influenced by what digital platforms and websites choose to show us, which is determined by algorithm. We can judge this new condition to be worse, less romantic, less human. But it nags at me that this also means there are fewer gatekeepers and more people have more access to everything. You can get Eat, Pray, Love on Amazon’s suggestion, but you can also use its store to order an obscure Japanese aesthetics text in one click, as long as you know to search for it.

The Internet has also been a good thing for obscurity — it makes obscurity viable. As long as a few people choose to keep sharing something, perhaps on a piracy platform like Bittorrent, an anonymous upload site, Russian e-book dump, or as a Vimeo clip, it’s still available. Sure, it’s hard to find. But it’s there.

In the Amazon bookstore in Boston, there’s a star-rating, aggregated from the Internet, under every book on display. As if we needed more help in knowing what to think.


Two titles passed on to me by book editor friends that break down expectations of linearity. The first is 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei by Eliot Weinberger, in which the essayist and translator relentlessly critiques various translations of the same poem by the Tang dynasty poet. The translations are never perfect, but their variety shows the infinite uses to which words can be put. And Anne Carson’s Float, “a collection of 22 chapbooks whose order is unfixed and whose topics are various.” The pamphlets range from classical scholarship to Picasso to mythology, translations from French poetry, and “Los Angeles.” There is no one correct approach.

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