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Heart of Desire

Mapping taste: Between individual and aggregate choice

There's no accounting for tastes, it's true, but mapping them apparently is another story. The experimental "self-adapting" search engine Gnod.net has been doing it for years, collecting and cross-referencing lists of users' favorite authors, bands, and movies to create simple, animated star charts of contemporary aesthetic preference. Click on class-act crime writer Elmore Leonard, for instance, and a galaxy of authors' names swirls slowly into place around him, the distance between any two reflecting with Cartesian precision the likelihood of someone's liking both. As the names drift into position, it's no surprise to see the likes of Carl Hiaasen and James Ellroy clustering around Leonard's central spot, but who'd have guessed Charles Baudelaire even shares the same universe, let alone orbits midway between Leonard and Raymond Chandler?

In one form or another, of course, taste maps have become an almost overbearingly familiar part of the online consumer landscape these days. It's impossible to buy so much as a toaster on Amazon, after all, without learning what other sorts of kitchen appliances are popular with people who share your taste in bread-crisping technology. But Gnod highlights the distance between what these maps have generally become and what they once seemed so uncannily to promise. With their fine-grained "awareness" of both individual and aggregate market desires, they pointed toward a radical break with 20th-century mass consumerism. How were we to know they were only destined to refine the notion of the mass, breaking it up into ever tighter subclusters of the like-minded? In Amazon's universe, there's no way to get from Elmore Leonard to Baudelaire, but Gnod's percolating, quirk-riddled snapshots remind us how chaotic even the collective taste of the masses looks when you look close enough. Perhaps no map can ever really show the way to the heart of desire, but Gnod's at least show how enduringly unaccountable it remains.

 
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