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Spring Books

The Age of Cultural Stagnation

Has tech plunged culture into an era devoid of originality and surprise?

It is the age of signing open letters, then issuing apologies for signing them a few days later; of fretting about the effect of AI on human creativity, then boring anyone who will listen with “hilarious” responses generated from ChatGPT prompts; of whining about binge TV, then blasting through a whole season of The White Lotus in one night; of quitting Twitter with a melodramatic flourish, then slithering back a few months later to promote a new job or book or cause or spouse; of decrying IP’s corrosion of cinema while maintaining that Rogue One was “probably the best Star Wars film ever”; of ironizing about the pretentiousness of café culture while obsessing over the barista’s imperfect manipulation of the steam wand; of ritual complaints about the commodification of everything that reach their natural conclusion in the purchase of a new Eames chair for the living room. Contradictions abound; those of us who consume and participate in culture today—with our wallets, our words, our eyeballs, and our sneers—are all, at some level, hypocrites, complicit in the fortification of our own aesthetic prison.

Grousing about the state of culture in this poutily attentive mode has become something of a specialty in recent years for the nation’s critics. The professional critic takes the signature posture of the age—that curious mixture of derision and addiction, indifference and engagement, nausea and engorgement before the buffet of contemporary culture—and turns it into a career. “The present state of culture feels directionless,” wrote The New York Times’s critic at large Jason Farago in a recent piece. “When I was younger, I looked at cultural works as if they were posts on a timeline, moving forward from Manet year by year. Now I find myself adrift in an eddy of cultural signs, where everything just floats, and I can only tell time on my phone.” Stagnation is said to have spread to every corner of culture: music, film, literature, even clothing. New York magazine fashion critic Cathy Horyn recently wrote of a “sharp slowdown in both risk and innovators” throughout the world of haute couture: “All this accounts for a feeling of sameness, that things are stuck in place.”

Filterworld: How Algorithms Flattened Culture
by Kyle Chayka
Doubleday, 304 pp., $28.00

Farago’s Times colleague, columnist Ross Douthat, has gone even further, publishing an entire book on the subject of cultural sclerosis. “From the academic heights to popular bestsellers, from Christian theology to secular fashion, from political theory to pop music, a range of cultural forms and intellectual pursuits have been stuck for decades in a pattern of recurrence,” he writes in The Decadent Society. From the streaky heights of media tenure, the culture has been assessed and found wanting.

Cast your eyes across this burgeoning literature of cultural stagnation—now so voluminous it counts as an authentic subgenre in its own right—and you won’t find much acknowledgment of the critic’s role in all this. Is the critic’s job simply to diagnose and decry, or to point toward a more invigorating alternative? Stagnation criticism has become every bit as repetitive—in its themes and obliviousness—as the very culture it’s critiquing, reproducing some version of the same complaint from piece to piece and book to book: that today’s movies, songs, haircuts, fonts, tables, and chairs are somehow a disappointment, that everyone now is living in some jumped-up version of an aesthetic 1993 or 1983 or 1973 or 1963, only with more trips to Portugal thrown in, a bunch of unbundled streaming subscriptions to maintain, and the need to develop an opinion on Harry Styles for some reason. We are stuck, progress has stopped, culture is bad, and it’s someone else’s fault. But whose?

The latest staff critic to lend his voice to this chorus of cultural doom is The New Yorker’s Kyle Chayka. With Filterworld: How Algorithms Flattened Culture, Chayka argues that globalization and Big Tech have stripped cultural production and consumption of their vitality and individuality. This aesthetic trampling is managed and extended, Chayka contends, through the tyrannical mechanism of the algorithm. For an artistic work to achieve commercial success, it must be engineered to maximize engagement on a digital platform, which leads to the creation of lots of things that look and sound very similar. The algorithm’s deflavorizing hold over contemporary culture caps the international flows of capital and information that followed the end of the Cold War, according to Filterworld: “The world is flat, per Thomas Friedman, but flatness has revealed itself to be stultifying.”

Chayka has spent much of the past decade devising labels for various aspects of algorithmic culture. In 2016, he introduced “AirSpace” as a term for the stripped-down, generic interior design aesthetic advanced by lifestyle platforms like Airbnb and Instagram; more recently, he’s written about “ambient TV,” the intellectually untaxing, Muzak-like programming of the streaming platforms (symbolized most potently by the Netflix series Emily in Paris), and has claimed that the widespread use of moisturizer is proof that we live in a “culture of negation.” “Filterworld” is the latest addition to the lexical roster, and it’s not entirely clear why he chose it, since algorithmic recommendations, rather than filters, are the real object of the book’s ire.

“Filterworld,” Chayka explains, “is my word for the vast, interlocking, and yet diffuse network of algorithms that influence our lives today”—and it’s the reason for our cultural immobility, for “the perception that culture is stuck and plagued by sameness.” Since they’re designed to feed the user new cultural products similar to those already consumed, Chayka’s argument goes, algos are engines for the perpetuation of homogeneity. And since most of us are addicted to our phones and the big platforms that control the social internet (Google, Amazon, Facebook, TikTok, Spotify, Airbnb, Twitter; sorry, I refuse to call it X), the version of culture we encounter daily is one that’s accessible, replicable, unobtrusive, and unchallenging.

Culture today is uninteresting because that’s what the algos are optimized to produce. The brilliant and restless civilization that rampaged through the second half of the twentieth century, the culture whose genius spanned the wrestling guitars of “I Saw Her Standing There” to the shoulder pads of Yves Saint Laurent, has come to a standstill. At some point over the past 30 years, we passed from a world in which Ezra Pound’s old command to “make it new” held real currency to one that makes it moo: Culture today is an endless repackaging of tested tropes into the technological equivalent of chaff, mere filler to keep the grazing consumer content.

How did we get here? The story is well known: From the early 2000s onward, platforms like Facebook and YouTube opened the world of cultural production and distribution, previously a closed domain patrolled by the tastemakers of established media, to anyone with a working internet connection. As information was “democratized,” to use Silicon Valley’s smugly emancipatory lingo, it became cheap, indeed free—thereby destabilizing the economic relations that had traditionally underpinned cultural production.

If Chayka’s “filterworld” has anything like an original artifact, it is South Korean rapper Psy’s 2012 hit “Gangnam Style,” a song that riffed on a series of established musical trends (the MTV-style music video, the synth-driven beats of European dance music, the global popularity of Korean pop) and found unexpected cross-cultural success via the distributional power of the YouTube algorithm. “Suddenly, via digital platforms, much of the world was watching the same thing,” Chayka writes.

The point of these platforms has never been to create interesting art or nudge culture in an adventurous direction, but to attract users. Big Tech’s only concept of creative value is a quantifiable one: What’s good is what “does numbers,” generating likes, views, shares, reactions. “Engage, engage, engage” is the mantra of platform capitalism, where so much of what passes for culture is designed for the snap judgment, the jolt of dopamine, and the hyperemic rush rather than the contemplation, transcendence, or deep feeling that great art can unchain. The algorithm’s success is to reduce the assessment of cultural quality to a question of culture’s popularity: “The rule of culture in Filterworld is: Go viral or die.”

Filterworld devotes several pages to discussion of the generic industrial-chic template that Instagram has helped popularize across café interiors from Kyoto to Reykjavik. Other examples of the Live-Laugh-Love-ification of aesthetics that social media has engineered are not hard to come by. Over the past 12 months, I’ve seen neon signs used to create “feature walls” at a potato-focused restaurant in Sydney (IT’S POTATO TIME), a gelato bar in Istanbul (GELATO YES / YOU MAYBE), and a vegan ramen stall in Los Angeles’ Grand Central Market (#RICHASSBROTH: a strong candidate for the world’s most unappetizing hashtag, broth-themed or otherwise).

Observations of this nature can often seem like a series of small design gripes, the online era’s answer to “The food at this place is terrible—and such small portions!” But these daily infelicities contribute to a broader sense that we’re living in a monoculture. Scrambling to find a place to stay on a monthlong trip to Athens in 2021, I was so repulsed by the options available on Airbnb that I made a list of reigning visual clichés I would not buy into, a liturgy of the cultural rejectionist (I will not stay in a place with a sectional. I will not stay in a place with a stack of Taschen art books on the coffee table. I will not stay in a place with Edison bulbs, string lights, Tibetan prayer flags, or a Peloton. Etc.). Needless to say, this did not leave me with a lot of options. In the end, I gave up on Airbnb and spent four weeks staying at a 45 euro a night hotel whose manager offered every guest a free glass of whiskey at the start of each night. I did not regret my decision.

Algorithms don’t simply shape the way culture is created; they’ve also established sad rituals of consumption, propelling the extremely online into undiscovered provinces of personal humiliation. Many of us are familiar with the pathetic, gnawing social need to “have a show” to discuss with friends, with the daylong festival of cowardice and shame that is the annual release of Spotify Wrapped, with the ritual of falling asleep, then much later waking, laptop open but fallen from its former perch atop the gut, to the most embarrassing words in the English language: “Are you still watching?” 

Chayka’s basic thesis is hard to dispute. Anyone who’s spent time on the internet over the past decade will recognize the effects that vampiric tech platforms, with their power to structure reality both online and off, have had on culture. But culture also still exists beyond social media, a point it’s easy to forget when reading Filterworld. Since Chayka, as a cultural critic, is professionally invested in the digital realm’s numbers-to-value proposition—and reliant on it to some extent to attract readers—he’s naturally inclined to regard the online realm as culture’s principal arena of combat. Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok all count more than one billion active monthly users, but other platforms are much smaller: Netflix and Spotify, for instance, have only 247 million and 226 million subscribers, respectively. Most of the world is not on the platforms that Filterworld places at the center of culture, and not every user of those platforms is addicted to them. People can and do consume traditional, nondigital culture in conventional ways all the time, a fact that Filterworld’s framing ignores.

In the supposedly troubled waters of traditional culture, there are identifiable buoys, reasons for hope. The lunar dramas of Joanna Hogg and Claire Denis, Cyprien Gaillard’s Nightlife and anything by Pierre Huyghe, Vladimir Sorokin’s mongrel follies and the demonic prose lashings of Patricia Lockwood, the snorkeling soundscapes of Traumprinz: Are these not, in their own fields, advancing the frontiers of form? The mobile, immersive mode in which culture can be consumed today supplies its own element of novelty to these works, opening avenues for the collision of consciousness and material reality: Anyone who’s spent three hours crossing a big city by foot while feeding gauzy sheets of sound directly into their ears will know that there is something about the experience that feels utterly unique to our own time.

Some of the culture that the filterworld system has produced is also, in fact, new. We may be far from the peaks of the moon landing or Mean Streets, but now we have easy access to a gif of Gordon Ramsay screaming, “WHERE’S THE LAMB SAUCE!” Ours is an age of the “low” image and the degraded tape: Culture today is circular, relational, and collaborative, not teleological and hostage to the belligerent dreams of great men. The podcast, the meme, the horny chain text, and the supercut: These are among the most popular cultural forms of the era, and they’re genuinely different from what’s come before.

Beyond the ugliness of algorithmic culture, Chayka’s problems with the digital platforms fall into roughly three categories: They make it difficult for people to develop original or unique interests, leaving them “surrounded by superabundant content, but inspired by none of it”; they reproduce gender and racial biases that are already endemic throughout society (a critique that’s articulated only half-heartedly); and they induce unhealthy emotions among their users, ranging from obsession to alienation and ennui, the seemingly hypnotized lassitude that greets the next song or show or post coughed up by the feed for mindless consumption.

Chayka seems particularly exercised by the lack of transparency around the components of individual tech companies’ algorithms, and there are many earnestly detailed pages setting out the injuries wrought by “algorithmic anxiety” on the platforms’ users, all those algo-bruised influencers and creators of digital value unfairly bumped down the story and search rankings. We hear from café owners in Bucharest and Berlin who tailored their businesses’ aesthetics to meet the demands of Instagram but have seen engagement drop following sudden and unexplained changes to the platform’s algorithm. We hear from Chayka himself, bewildered and virtually aphasic one morning, after an overnight change to Spotify’s user interface leaves him unable to locate a favorite album from his own music library. (“A new ‘Your Library’ tab in Spotify’s moody black-and-green interface hinted at everything I was trying to find, but instead it opened a window of automatically generated playlists that I didn’t recognize,” he writes. “Nothing made sense.”) We hear of the “superstitious tricks” that hosts on Airbnb have resorted to in order to stay ahead of platform updates and maintain their prominence at the top of the search feed. Won’t someone think of the landlords?

“The aim of this book is not just to diagram Filterworld and discover its consequences but to deconstruct it,” Chayka declares at the outset. Yet he’s much more comfortable as a writer when describing the aesthetic sins of filterworld than prescribing a path out of the ’grammable morass. His ideas on this front are somewhat underdeveloped: In the book’s final chapters, he calls for tighter regulation of Big Tech and a return to the “slow” pleasures of human curation, exhorting the reader to embrace local radio DJs and subscribe to digital film library the Criterion Channel, which he confusingly describes as “a vision of how the internet could work if we decided it should.” (Doesn’t the internet already work like this?)

Even though Filterworld is careful to underscore the cultural now’s “general state of ennui and exhaustion, the sense that nothing new is forthcoming,” Chayka does not exactly lead the charge for a wholesale reboot of contemporary culture. Instead, he often simply appears nostalgic for a bygone era of superior taste. In the book’s most telling passage, Chayka describes the plot of Georges Perec’s 1965 novella, Things, a gentle satire of consumerist trend-chasing. The novella’s protagonists, a couple in their early twenties, work as marketing researchers and assemble their lives as if in response to a survey. “Perec’s sketch of their fictional aspirational apartment includes jade ashtrays, cane-seated chairs, Toile de Jouy wallpaper, Swedish lamps, and Paul Klee drawings,” Chayka writes. “I admit, it still sounds nice to me today.”

Is the real trouble with algorithmic culture that it’s unimaginative and risk-averse, or that it’s not sending us its best wallpaper? What could have been a structural critique of the material and political conditions that have dulled culture instead becomes, in Filterworld, a map of hurt feelings: The book’s real aim is to imagine friendlier conditions for the individual consumption of tech-mediated culture rather than a better culture tout court. Filterworld begins as cultural criticism and ends as self-help, with its author offering himself as lifestyle coach to the world’s millions of hapless culture-wanters unmoored by the savage plenty of Online, a guru of the bottomless feed.

I share Chayka’s love of the Criterion Channel, but dropping 11 bucks a month to go deep on Chantal Akerman and John Cassavetes won’t, of course, be enough to shake loose the bonds of cultural entrapment. Nor will “regulating Big Tech,” that fever dream of the antitrust center left. That’s not to say we shouldn’t do it, but calling for a better form of platform capitalism, without other measures, seems roughly akin to halting business on the scaffold, removing the hood, and requesting a kinder executioner.

The main defect with Filterworld is diagnostic: A focus on Big Tech’s colonization of culture obscures both the additional forces driving stagnation and the way those forces interact with technology to make the social media platforms such a formidable obstacle to cultural renewal. Is tech responsible for everything? Hollywood, the MFA industry, and America’s unequal education system, which makes the kind of deep instruction needed to engage meaningfully with the canon today available to only the very rich, surely bear just as much responsibility for our intellectually flattened times as the warped incentives of the BookTok reel do.

The big platforms have benefited from good timing, planting their flags in cultural terra firma at the exact moment when economic inequality and the distance between political elites and voters are at their widest since the Gilded Age, and the misalignments of rentier capitalism—handing a greater and greater share of wealth to asset owners—mean those gaps are only likely to grow. The collision of asset inflation with consumer technology’s incomparable distributional powers makes culture, as it’s exhibited online, both a powerful motor of social emulation (we want what they have) and a kind of consolation prize, a false democratizer for an unequal age. The playing field in actually existing capitalism may be scandalously uneven, but the online mediation of culture (in truth more an interruption) helps us all nourish a fantasy of equality at the level of creation. Il faut être absolument online.

Cultural stagnation does not spring solely from Silicon Valley’s manipulation of our habits of thought and action. It reflects much deeper issues at work in politics, the economy, social mores, and demographics, a point that Douthat makes convincingly in The Decadent Society. America today is a paranoid, senescent old monster. Life expectancy and birth rates are falling; our governing institutions are as leaky and unreliable as the New York City subway; cheap rent, the historic precondition of artistic adventure, has all but disappeared from the country’s major urban centers; productivity growth is stuck in first gear; and for all the blather about “de-risking” and the return of industrial policy, the state remains a passenger in the economic life of the nation, which remains overwhelmingly market-first and corporate-tender.

The Stagnation Generation (anyone under 30, let’s say) is simultaneously overpoliced and unbound from almost all the taboos that shackled its generational predecessors. This strangely unfree freedom deprives young people of the social friction that gave culture much of its edge and momentum through the closing decades of the last century, while saddling them with a pervasive insecurity that’s damaging to whatever instincts to artistic bravery might have survived the great migration online. You only have to look at the recent revival of smoking, postwar America’s most timid, normie lifestyle vice, as a form of youthful transgression to understand that we live in a culture that has no gods left to slay.

So: nowhere to go? I’m not so sure. Reading the stagnationist literature can often make us feel as if tech has won the future, that software really has, as Silicon Valley’s resident fluffer Marc Andreessen once predicted it would, eaten the world. But the success of companies like Facebook and Snapchat and Uber and Airbnb surely illustrates the opposite: that Big Tech is an industry with few genuinely innovative ideas, forced by falling rates of profit and the slowdown in research and development to hunt small game among the incumbents of the TV, media, taxi, and hotel industries.

Silicon Valley’s sequestration of cultural life is not preordained. Culture has felt stuck before; indeed, there’s a version of cultural history since the nineteenth century that could be told as the chronicle of various artists’ encounters with—and eventual defeats of—supposedly insuperable creative barriers. So intimidating and massive was the symphonic output of Beethoven that the generation of composers who came after him felt, as Richard Wagner declared in 1849, that “the last symphony has already been written.” But history tumbled on, nationalism and bourgeois liberalism took the stage, and the symphony did not wither away but reinvented itself, multiplying through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries into an exotic variety of guises that served ideologies as divergent as socialist realism and Finnish revivalism. Culture is always made, and never given.

At the core of cultural stagnation is “entanglement,” writes Douthat—“meaning the way that the economic, demographic, intellectual, and cultural elements of our predicament are all connected, so that you can’t just pick out a single cause or driver of stagnation or repetition, or solve the problem with a narrow focus on one area or issue.” Stagnation is an omnibus phenomenon requiring omnibus solutions—a flooding of the political, economic, and intellectual zone. This totalizing strategy feels appropriate to our interstitial times, caught in a wasting neoliberalism and rocked by exogenous shocks (the pandemic, the wars in Ukraine and Gaza, the death of George Floyd) that have accelerated new forms of action and thought (work from home, decarbonization, the cross-examination of the carceral state and liberal interventionism). The escape from cultural inertia will inevitably respond to policy, but more important than any bullet-point program will be a revival in culture’s own sense of self, its charisma—precisely the quality whose absence makes the work of stagnationist critics like Chayka feel so wan and underseasoned.

Culture, in the literature of stagnation, can often feel subordinate to higher forces, a mere appendage to whatever’s going on in government or the tech sector or the economy. But if the past two centuries teach us anything, it’s that politics, material reality, and culture are co-constitutive, that new forms of sociality and meaning owe as much, possibly more, to the freaks and haircuts of the artistic scene as they do to the suits and adults of the establishment. The utopian experiments of the twentieth century are inconceivable without the social awakening touched off by works like Louis-Sébastien Mercier’s 1771 novel, The Year 2440, or Edward Bellamy’s 1888 fantasy, Looking Backward. Italy’s postwar passage from laboratory of the left to neoliberal retirement home is a story told through the transition from Nanni Balestrini to Italo disco. Shinzo Abe springs, seemingly fully formed, from the work of Yukio Mishima; dad rock and reality TV invented Javier Milei. Culture is not the ward of technology; it is technology, a miracle of transformation that allows us to see and experience a different world.

How can culture escape the doldrums of algorithmic capitalism? Through social housing, an expanded role for the state, the energy transition, fresh imagination in political thought, a new spirit of conflict between society’s owners and nonowners: all of that, yes, and (why not?) through stiffer regulation of the tech platforms as well. But what’s needed more than anything else, I think, is for culture—in the way that critics discuss it, institutions present it, and artists produce it—to recover a sense of its own historical importance. That means complete immersion in culture, the culturization of everything, the rediscovery of culture’s vocation as the motor of history rather than the scenery we all pass on the way to whatever is next.