You May Also Like by Tom Vanderbilt, review by Bruce Jacobs
In an Internet world of seemingly infinite options, everyone is a critic. We are bombarded with opportunities to pick our likes, our favorites, our stars, our thumbs-up, our tomatoes or our smiley emojis. But what does it mean to "like" something? Where do our tastes come from? Can we trust anyone's judgment at all? Tom Vanderbilt attempts to address these questions and, in the process, raises and answers dozens more. In 2008's Traffic, Vanderbilt entertainingly dissected the idiosyncrasies of how people drive highways and how highways drive us. With curiosity, folklore and equally rich research, You May Also Like tackles the science and serendipity behind the many choices we make every day.
Vanderbilt kicks off by analyzing food preferences, because "we decide what to eat more than we decide what to wear or what to read or where to go on vacation--and what is a holiday but a whole new set of eating choices?" He even spends time at the army's Warfighter Café, where MREs are evaluated for taste and texture. From our myriad restaurant menu and grocery aisle options, he moves on to consider how we choose our music playlists, what art we like and how long we look at it (at the Met "the median viewing time for a painting was seventeen seconds"), and even how judges decide the winner at the Paris Cat Show ("and cat shows, it must be said, are, like their owners, more low-key than dog shows") or at the annual intercollegiate soil competition ("Virginia Tech and Kansas State University are the perennial powerhouses. A touch regretfully, to my mind, the contest is not known as the Dirt Bowl").
With a solid collection of end notes, many data points and frequent interviews, You May Also Like risks getting bogged down in algorithms and acronyms, but Vanderbilt always brings matters back to the real world--frequently his personal real world. In one instance, he sat for a "Twitter Predictor" analysis based on those he followed and those who followed him, and notes that it "had me figured out quite well. I felt as if I were on OkCupid and had found myself." In the end, likes and dislikes develop out of a pile of variables like memory, familiarity, conformity or repetition, and they are constantly changing. Vanderbilt recalls his likes as a 10-year-old and expectations for his mature future ("a Trans Am... a mammoth collection of pinball machines... Baileys Irish Cream... Robert Ludlum novels... Van Halen"), and realizes that once he reached adulthood, "they hold zero interest (well, the pinball machines in a weak moment)." Once finished with this intriguing study of taste, readers will never again consider clicking a "like" icon quite the same way.
Bruce Jacobs' review first appeared in Shelf Awareness.