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The Long Review: Delving into the Murky Depths of Algorithms and Their Impact on Our Lives

In the ever-expanding realm of internet culture writing, two recent books, Kyle Chayka’s “Filterworld: How Algorithms Flattened Culture” and Taylor Lorenz’s “Extremely Online: The Untold Story of Fame, Influence, and Power on the Internet,” attempt to unravel the intricate web of connections between online platforms, their algorithms, and their profound impact on our desires, preferences, and self-conception. However, despite their ambitious goals, these works ultimately fall short in providing a comprehensive and nuanced understanding of this complex phenomenon.

The Illusion of the Algorithm: A False Dichotomy

At the heart of Chayka’s “Filterworld” lies the notion of the algorithm as a monolithic entity, an inscrutable force that dictates our online experiences and cultural landscape. He draws a parallel between the Mechanical Turk, an 18th-century chess-playing automaton that concealed a human operator, and the algorithms that govern our social media feeds and content recommendations. While this analogy serves to highlight the illusion of algorithmic autonomy, it oversimplifies the reality of these systems. Algorithms are not sentient entities; they are intricate networks of code, design choices, and business practices orchestrated by human actors.

This passive voice, which attributes agency to algorithms rather than the individuals who create and maintain them, perpetuates a sense of helplessness and doomerism among readers. It obscures the potential for regulation, better recommendation algorithms, and user empowerment in shaping the online landscape.

A Deeper Dive into Algorithms: Unveiling the Human Element

In contrast to Chayka’s approach, works such as James Bridle’s “New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future” and Safiya Umoja Noble’s “Algorithms of Oppression” offer more insightful examinations of algorithms. Bridle delves into the technical underpinnings and historical context of algorithms, revealing their intricate design and implementation. Noble explores how corporate and engineering cultures shape software development and implementation, highlighting the ideological biases embedded in code. These works provide a deeper understanding of the human factors that influence algorithmic recommendations, moving beyond the simplistic notion of the algorithm as an autonomous entity.

The Intertwined Roles of Users and Creators: Beyond Binary Categories

Lorenz’s “Extremely Online” presents a social history of social media, emphasizing the role of individual creators in shaping the platforms we know today. However, her analysis suffers from a binary view of consumers and producers, overlooking the collapse of these categories in the digital age. Lisa Nakamura’s “Digitizing Race: Visual Cultures of the Internet” offers a more nuanced understanding of this dynamic, recognizing the ways in which the internet enables individuals to seamlessly transition between user and producer roles. This fluidity challenges the traditional dichotomy between passive consumers and active creators, revealing the complex interplay of participation and consumption that characterizes the digital landscape.

The Need for a Comprehensive History: Embracing Interdisciplinary Perspectives

Both “Filterworld” and “Extremely Online” fall short in providing a comprehensive history of the internet, focusing primarily on individual creators and companies. A more interdisciplinary approach, drawing on fields such as media studies, technology studies, and cultural studies, would provide a richer understanding of the complex interplay between technology, culture, and society. Such an approach would situate the rise of algorithmic culture within broader historical, social, and economic contexts, offering a more holistic perspective on its impact.

The Future of Internet Culture Writing: Navigating the Messy and Intricate

Internet culture writing has the potential to offer insightful meditations on the ways life online and offline influence each other. It can provide a platform for examining the consequences of technological changes on language, values, and cultural hierarchies. The future of this genre lies in harnessing the abundance of the web to build on and iterate its own history, embracing the messy and intricate nature of the internet and its impact on our lives.

By moving beyond metonyms and obfuscating language, embracing a more interdisciplinary approach, and acknowledging the messy and intricate nature of the internet, internet culture writing can contribute to a deeper understanding of the digital age and its implications for our lives.

Call to Action: Join the Conversation

The exploration of the internet’s impact on our lives is an ongoing journey, and your voice matters. Share your thoughts and experiences with algorithms and online platforms in the comments section below. Together, we can contribute to a richer understanding of this complex and ever-evolving landscape.