The Tyranny of Choice

15 Jun

We’ve all been there.  Scrolling indecisively through Netflix.  Hoarding free and cheap e-books.  Amassing games from Steam and GOG.  Streaming any movie or television show, anywhere any time.  The saturation of music online.  Piracy.  Etc.

Today we have more media access and options than ever in history.  It’s glorious, to be sure.  But there is a side-effect – we end up with so much stuff, it becomes an overwhelming proposition to choose one title to enjoy at any given moment.  When I listen to my mp3 player, half the time I don’t even know the band that’s playing.  Picking a movie to watch ends up taking as long as the movie itself, and it gets exponentially worse the more people that are involved.  And books… people brag about the ability to carry a thousands books on their e-reader, but then what?  Does anyone actually read those thousand books, or are they just prizes, collected in a frenzy of digital opportunism?

Allow me to date myself a bit.  It used to be, you go to the store and come back with a stack of new books, or a stack of new records and CDs, or a stack of new movies and games, etc. – and you’d enjoy that selection for weeks or months, really experiencing each one, appreciating it on a relatively more intimate and multi-sensory level. Now, the ease of content availability is making us digital hoarders. We burn through our media, thinking about the next thing before we’re even done with the one we’re on. Or we become paralyzed by the overwhelming number and variety of our options, like browsing Netflix for an hour before settling on something to watch with dinner (now cold).For me, there is an added dimension to the problem with physical books.  I can’t help it if every story and every subject seems so interesting!  Or that I live in a place with so many sources for cheap literary sustenance!  The result is a personal library that far outpaces and outsizes any reasonable person’s reading habits.  And when it comes time to pick a new book to read, I don’t know where to begin.  Perhaps there is a bigger issue at work – the eternal question of how best to use our time and experiences during our extremely limited mortal existence.  But let’s side-step the human condition for the moment.  It’s too nice a day.

I have some tools for dealing with media saturation and the endless glut of options.  Step one is culling.  Get rid of stuff that is only mildly interesting, keep stuff you are actually excited about.  I try to be giving/selling books at least as fast as I’m taking them in.  And when my harddrive is full of downloaded content, I know it’s time to watch everything on it before I can download anything else.  Step two is segmentation.  Select a few titles that you want to start with and ignore everything else in your library.  Box them up if you have to.  Step three is perfecting habits. For movies, try sticking to one theme, genre, filmmaker, etc.  Really dive in and explore, dim the lights, make it an event for the evening.  If it’s a book, find a good reading spot and use it regularly – the repetition of the environment helps trigger a reading mood.  Turn off phones and screens, get a beverage, slow your life down.

I mean, that’s something I think everyone needs more of anyway.  A slow-down.

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