More than once I have stood in my local public library and considered all of the knowledge contained on all of the pages of all of the books that reside there. Even in our modest municipal facility, I can feel the weight of the hundreds of volumes that I will never read, the stories I will never know, and the concepts I will never understand. It is a rather stark reminder of the constraining power of time as it forces us to choose which opportunities we will spend the minutes and hours of our mortality upon.
And now we have the internet, and with it an amplification of an entire industry dedicated to the idea that what we human consumers lack is enough choice. Every new personal device must now not only belong to us, but adapt to us, using algorithms to mimic an intelligence that can study and absorb our interests, needs and desires. I wouldn’t say I find it terrifying, but it is troubling. We have achieved a level of ease, affluence and convenience where each individual can be a petty tyrant of his own digital entertainment and informational domain.
Like all “progress” this is troubling in a paradoxical way: I do not like my options to be forcibly limited by anyone or anything, but at the same time, when are we going to recognize that we are doing to ourselves something not unlike training a bear to ride a bicycle or a chimp to talk in sign language. Sure, with enough effort something that passes for rudimentary success can be achieved in either of those examples, but could it be argued that we had even modestly improved the quality of life for either the bicycling bear or the signing chimp?
Those who work in the technological fields (it would seem safe to assume) understand, or at least appreciate, science. But science tells us that we are evolved mammals with quirky, limited brains. True, we are not limited like a dog or a cow, but just because we operate on a higher cognitive level does not in any way mean that we have found a way to transcend our evolved biology (though there are those hoping to achieve just that through technology).Unlike cable t.v., the ocean only has one channel.
Sometimes when I open my laptop I sense the presence of a vast collection of human creative and intellectual output (and a lot of cat videos) spread out before me, and I feel it’s seductive siren-song of limitless possibility as I choose the one item (at a time) to give my full attention to. (And make no mistake: we are not hard-wired to multi-task in anything like the way that we imagine we can. No. The best we can do is switch back and forth between competing stimuli, it’s just that some of us are a little bit better at rapid switching than others). And I have something like my experience of standing in the information ocean of my library described above, only on steroids.
I think we are rushing down a road of rapidly diminishing returns when it comes to choice. This doesn’t mean that we can do anything to stop it, really. But it does mean that our yearning for ever more choice is bringing with it challenges that evolution has not prepared us for. And this is the challenge of plenty.
Admittedly, there is a certain kind of pleasure in excess — in having way more than we can eat, or watch or listen to. But this is perhaps an artifact of the many episodes of want that we’ve experienced in our evolution (this could be a cognitive analogue to our “Ice Age” body’s propensity to store fat so easily). But despite our constant yearning for ease and plenty, ease and plenty in larger doses do not fit well with our lean, animal natures (physical or cognitive). For isn’t it true that we appreciate the company of others most when we’ve experienced loneliness; food when we’ve been hungry; safety when we’ve been in danger?
We humans are unique in being the animals that are both aware of their existential dilemma (mortality) and have a superior technical ability that allows us to build ways to satisfy almost any desire we can generate (money may not buy you love, but it can buy a lot of things that are pretty darn close). In essence, we create machines first for work, and then for pleasure. The first creates wealth and leisure time, the second is the way we spend our newly-acquired (in historic terms) time and money.
This is the point where I should wrap things up with an answer to our dilemma of choice, but I don’t think there is one. Each of us has to negotiate our own balance between the competing tensions of want and plenty — between our imagined ideal of ease and the biological reality of our physical minds and bodies. (I, for example, pay money to belong to a gym where I exercise my body as a separate activity to make up for the ease of my daily work that would otherwise allow my frame of bone and muscle to degrade into a fatty, unhealthy lump). And just to spice things up a bit, we have to work these things out in an environment where it is not just our money, but our time and attention and desires that are the most sought-after commodities.
We are drawn to attractive stimuli as much as any raven or laboratory mouse, but we are no longer dependent upon the whims of nature to provide the things that we crave the most (for their rarity, at least in nature — in our case, fats, sugars and produced entertainment). It is actually an odd state of affairs for a human such as I to be able to sit down, turn on a machine, and search out a thousand videos of only that one thing I really, really like watching, and then watch it over and over and over as much as I want to, until I don’t want to anymore, and have to find something else that tickles my fancy.
I’m not one of those wags who will decry such a state as inferior to some other, more noble way of living. Who am I to say? This is just how things are in our lives right now (in our society, anyway). In that way, we are no different from our ancestors who adapted to a life among domesticated plants and animals, where for the first time humans had the chance to get fat from eating too much.
Evolution has not stopped with us. We may have found ways to protect ourselves from the more basic ravages of natural selection, but in doing so we have only created other evolutionary pressures in the form of our own manufactured technology.
The grand experiment of life on Earth continues and, like each of our ancestors that came before, it remains for us to make our own choices of how we spend our time here. It’s just that the act of choosing itself has become much more complicated for more humans than it has ever been before.