What have the algorithms done to our restaurants?
A Q&A with Kyle Chayka, author of Filterworld: How algorithms flattened culture
Alexandra Jacobs, a critic at the New York Times Book Review, sits inside a New York City salad restaurant. It doesn’t matter which one — though Jacobs does name it — because we already know the vibe: white-walled, brightly lit, full of shiny marble surfaces and cardboard bowls awaiting organic vegetables.
Jacobs recounts the visit in a review of a new book by New Yorker staff writer Kyle Chayka, Filterworld: How algorithms flattened culture. It’s a critical look at how the internet is shaping everything we consume, including a question we’ve asked for years: In an era of near limitless opportunity for expression and connection, why does everything look the same?
In a previous book, Chayka coins the design term “airspace” to describe this sameness. It’s the salad chain/coffee house aesthetic that’s gone global: white, minimalist, somehow soothing spaces, frequently lit by Edison bulbs, or maybe their slightly more modern equivalent, neon signage.
When I started this newsletter 10 years ago, I wrote a lot about how our experience at restaurants was changing because of the internet. Chefs on Twitter! Plates on Instagram! Emojis on menus! It’s fair to say that we’ve arrived. The effects of the social web are on display at nearly every restaurant that opened in the last decade — in the salad chains and coffee shops and burger joints and independent neighborhood favorites around the world where we keep discovering, photographing, posting, and returning.
Filterworld debuted earlier this month. Last week, I watched Chayka discuss it at a reading in San Francisco. I walked away from the event — and up to the bar at Perbacco, a classic and decidedly not airspace-y restaurant, bless — with a lot of unanswered questions. What does it mean?
What are the real-world business implications of these algorithms?Restaurants have spent the last decade bending their operations to fit the internet, is this forever? Is it even good? I asked these and more, mining for any shred of good news, in a phone conversation with Chayka earlier this week.
The tl;dr: It’s not all doom-and-gloom, but we are all probably a little responsible for how we got here.
Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.