The Sterile World of Infinite Choice
There’s a story my friends and I like to tell about when we were in college. We didn’t have Facebook. We didn’t have digital cameras. We didn’t have cell phones. If you wanted to hang out with someone, you made plans and kept them. And if you wanted to find them…..you walked around.
Walked through the halls of your dorm to see if they’d left a note with their whereabouts on the whiteboard mounted to their door. Walked through the library and asked if anyone had seen them. Walked through the basements of the frat houses and did the same. Sometimes you figured it out quickly, other times it turned into a sort of college night picaresque, with distractions (shitty nachos) and diversions (someone with good gossip, a random dance party) on your way to finally finding that one, elusive friend.
The lack of precise data about where people were and what they were doing — and the lack of documentation of where they were and what they doing and whether or not it was “worth” it to go find them — meant that you might have a plan for what the night would be….and then there was what the night actually became. There was just so much less control, so much less ability to curate what your night would look like.
That lack of control and curation shaped how we hung out, but it also extended to how we consumed media. My college years overlapped with pretty seismic technological shifts, but their effects were slow-moving. We were the first class to have ethernet hardwired into the dorms, which meant we were also the first to be able to store massive catalogs of shareable music online. That was the beginning of what would become our all-access understanding of entertainment, but most of us, at least at that time, were pretty bad at downloading anything. You could burn a CD on a lot of our desktop computers, but few people really knew how to make it work. We all had Winamp playlists. But most of the time, there were actual CDs in actual boomboxes, controlled by the person in the room with the massive CD wallet.
We watched rented or passed-around DVDs on those same desktops or not at all. Entire seasons of television came and went without us. Sometimes your roommate would pick the music and you just dealt with it. I don’t have a single memory of wearing headphones the entire time I lived on campus. If I wanted to have a private phone conversation, I could go sit in the hallway on our portable phone…but the range was only about ten feet.
There was no Wi-Fi. There was no texting. We had AIM, but because so few of us had grown up with it, we used it sporadically and poorly. We took 24 photos on cheap point and shoot cameras (maybe there was a zoom) and dropped the film at the grocery store to get developed. The wait — two days, three — felt interminable. The payoff was tremendous.
I’ve spent a lot of time interrogating my nostalgia for this period in my life. Some of it is related to being young and hungry for the world, but a lot of it is a yearning for limited options. There were worlds that were unknowable and whole swaths of life that were uncapturable. You could grasp at a moment, capture it in a snapshot or by writing it down. But there were certain things that were so solidly out of your control and outside your sphere of knowing — like when the radio station would next play Sophie B. Hawkins’ “As I Lay Me Down” or what people actually did when they were hanging out without you.
There was freedom in the picked-over selection at the local video store, in a single photo as evidence that a night happened, in missing an episode of a tv show and maybe just missing it forever. Incompletism wasn’t a failure; it was a way of life.
There were pitfalls, of course. No time period lacks them. The currents of mainstream culture followed the status quo, and the status quo is limiting in ways that are often invisible when you’re included within it. I often think about how my high school experience would’ve been different if I’d had access to Sassy, let alone Tumblr. But I can also see the ways I forged a unique sense of self against and through the texts that surrounded me. I couldn’t try every sort of music, but I could find one and set up camp and live there for a week, a month, a year, and allow it to imprint in lasting ways on the way I saw the world. There’s a reason music never felt overwhelming to me the way it does now. It felt like a treasure hunt. It felt like a gift.
Then I think about how these limitations worked in college, too: and yes, sometimes your roommate would be like “I’m going to watch Supertroopers with this guy I have a crush on” and your own response was either “I guess I’m watching Supertroopers too” or “I’m going to be library, see you later.” If you found yourself in a sketchy situation, there was no furtively texting a friend to get them to come rescue you. You had to rely on yourself or others and yourself and others weren’t always reliable.
But cell phones haven’t stopped rape culture and the harassment, degradation, and misogyny that stream from it — if anything, they’ve expanded their possibilities. They create an aura of protection that makes it easier to not address the larger culture of harm. And always being able to watch what you want in your bed by yourself hasn’t made us more interested or creatively satisfied or happy. What have we traded — in privacy, in time, in freedom, in surveillance — in the name of theoretical safety and ultimate choice?
If you’re willing to tolerate a monthly subscription fee or recurrent ads, you can access nearly all recorded music and a significant amount of television (at least so long as the music rights have been cleared, but that’s another conversation). What you can’t find on streaming services, you can find bootlegged on YouTube or floating in the bittorrent universe. Headphones allow us to be cocooned in our own soundtrack at all times. My watch tells me how I’m feeling, my phone allows me to track my friends’ locations, my workout starts when I press play, my television only shows me exactly what I want to watch when I want to watch it.
My surroundings are always in my control — which also means that I am always doing the work of controlling them.
My friends lightly razz me for listening to the radio when I drive into town, usually jumping between Top 40 and a pretty decent Vancouver-area country station. “The commercials are so bad,” they’ll say, or “how can you deal with this much Ed Sheeran.” But so much of my life is trying to make sure I’m always up to date on podcasts and good television and the right books and articles on the internet and influencers to follow, a constant curation of entertainment for myself and then a secondary curation of myself for others’ entertainment, that having no control over the amount of Ed Sheeran feels amazing.
It’s all very paradoxical: that the ability to constantly communicate has made us bad communicators, that instant access to all forms of entertainment would leave us with so few touchstones, that surveilling kids doesn’t necessarily make them safer, that the absence of limitations also often means the absence of creativity — and that the particular form of abundance we’ve fetishized can feel so sad, so unspeakably sterile.
Our defense against this feeling of overwhelm has been curation and optimization. We attempt to replicate someone else’s “perfect trip” and find it unsatisfying; we come to rely on a single website to help us navigate the sheer number of consumer goods and wake up and realize we all have the same shitty coffeemaker. We want every option available but also want those options sorted to meet our taste — and, generally speaking, we don’t want to pay for it.
Algorithms do the work for cheap, but when they reflect our taste back at us, it feels misshapen and insulting, a crude and unfair representation. When everything is available, all knowledge, all information, all entertainment ….nothing is perceived as valuable. Not the labor that creates the thing, not the person behind it, not the thing itself. The only valuable thing is our time, and if we spend it on something that isn’t amazing, isn’t exquisitely for us, we understand it as time wasted, instead of time gloriously wandering. That understanding extends to time traveling or with friends or even trying to make new ones. Within this paradigm, the entire experience of finding new things, new people, new places and experiences — all of it feels broken and unsatisfying and bad.
I’m not arguing against mass production, just as I’m not arguing against different types and modes of art that challenge and reshape our understanding of the world. I am, however, wondering how we can recultivate a norm of deep, luscious, mind-exploding engagement with less. Fewer clothes. Fewer emails. Fewer books but more reread ones. Less documentation. Less planning.
Less things but more time with them — time spent. That’s love, and that’s investment. In the person or people on the other side of the art, the relationship, the activity — of course. But also in ourselves. ●