In the New Yorker, Louis Menand examines the vexed subject of taste in the internet era, by way of two books touching on the subject: You May Also Like: Taste in the Age of Endless Choice by Tom Vanderbilt, and Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art by Virginia Heffernan. What Menand determines it that it's almost impossible to determine exactly what taste is and how it's shaped, especially when the internet has exacerbated our suggestibility and impulsiveness. An excerpt:
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 gâteau 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.”
Image via the New Yorker.