In the wine world we love our categories. We divide wines by varietal or region. We distinguish conventional wines from natural wines, alcoholic fruit bombs from spare, elegant crispy wines, and fruity, new world vs. earthy old world wines. Should we wish to get more fine grained we can categorize by texture, dominant aromas, emotional resonance, food pairing possibilities, etc.
The marketing potential of this brave new world of categories is substantial. Once we’ve assigned wines to neat conceptual boxes we can trot out recommendation algorithms that will direct consumers to the wines they are likely to enjoy—a Netflix of wine.
It is lovely to discover that what you think of as your considered subjective preference for one wine style over another is really just the output of a carefully constructed algorithm. We like to think that our preferences are our own, but our experience of culture is now thoroughly mediated by “you may also like….” advice, which is already showing up at some online wine retailers.
The problem is this almost never works—not for music, not for movies, and surely not for wine, at least not for those wine consumers who actually have considered, subjective preferences. Given any song on my main Pandora music playlist, Pandora’s recommendations for similar songs are almost always inferior. Netflix is no better. I have a great love for a good Amarone, despite its alcoholic, fruit-extravagant presence but I shudder to think what a wine recommendation algorithm will consider its equivalent.
This is because human subjectivity is not reducible to an algorithm, and genuine products of real cultures are not reducible to monetized data streams. Individuals with real subjective preferences, actual private thoughts and desires, cannot be understood as a bundle of averages. And objects of cultural production are singular individuals not standardized functions from a clearly delineated category.
Of course there is no guarantee that real cultures with genuine cultural products will survive. As liberal democracy fades the individual human subject that democracy makes possible will fade as well, replaced by techno-slaves that make Pavlov’s dog seem thoughtful.
Individuality will become a rare achievement. “Drink what you like” has now become complicated.
After reading please declare “I am not a Robot.”