Monday, August 10, 2009

Freedom of Choice

Fact: I spend way too much time on the internet. Wikipedia shoulders a large part of the blame for this. I can spend literally hours on that site. Here's how it works: curious by nature, something pops into my head. I go to Wikipedia and look it up. While reading, I think of something else. I look it up. This repeats again and again until I am reading about something far removed from my original target and much time has passed.

What's wrong with this? Nothing, other than the opportunity cost of other things I could have been doing with the time. Arrows for my future Jeopardy quiver, I tell myself. But it does bring to mind this pit-of-the-stomach feeling I used to sometimes get when I was in college and went to the library. It was hard to describe, but in essence was this: so many books...I wish I could read them all. Then a slight pang of disappointment to know that I never could.

I remember reading an article in The Atlantic not too long ago about a problem of modern society: choice overload. Give a person too many options and instead of being grateful for the opportunity he gets frustrated. Hundreds of TV channels. A world wide web full containing almost the sum total of human history. Millions of books on every subject imaginable. This looks interesting, but how about this? This looks like the best, but if I pick it, what will I be missing instead?

In ancient Rome

There was a poem

About a dog

Who found two bones

He picked at one

He licked the other

He went in circles

He dropped dead

--"Freedom of Choice", by Devo

Most people dismiss Devo as kitschy, dated 80s New Wave weirdos. But there is a notable pervading philosophy in their lyrics: much of what we term progress in modern society is actually dehumanizing and degrading us..."de-evolution." This song sums up that philosophy better than any I've heard. Freedom of choice can be both liberating and imprisoning.