[Dug out this 2006 essay from my archives because it seems to apply as much now as a decade ago. Only the technology has moved on, not the human species.]
Dedicated to Peter Balen
If life has you feeling more overwhelmed and less able to cope all the time, it might not just be encroaching senility, the accumulation of bad chemicals in your body, or even 9-11. Consider what might connect such random areas of interest as
- Prescription drug programs
- Retirement planning
- Airline deregulation
- The blogosphere
- School vouchers
All of these are relatively recent social and economic developments, but what else unites them? In a word, the common thread is mounting choice, the necessity to select one or more things from a set of alternative possibilities. All of the above tend to introduce more and more choices that individuals and families never had to think about before but may need to make:
- How can you minimize out-of-pocket costs for the particular mix of drugs you take?
- Which investments will bring the highest returns on savings from your earnings?
- What kind of ticket on which airline will buy you a good, safe, and cheap trip?
- Who do you turn to when you seek to understand current events more deeply?
- Where should you send your children to school, if not to the closest one?
- Why should you care where and by whom things you buy are made?
“Ah, yes,” you murmur wisely, “Such things vex us because the world has become more complex. But don’t forget about computers and how they help us answer questions faster and solve problems more efficiently!” True, computers do more than ever now, but that includes cubing our junk mail, hammering us with online ads and newsletters, littering our search results with chaff, raising our learning curve, and generally demanding a larger share of our attention. [ed: Not to mention purging our privacy.]
It works like this: After outsourcing phone centers to distant time zones, the biggest trend in customer service right now is “self help,” often euphemized as “empowering users.” That’s right; the answer you seek to why your DVD player won’t work while your Tivo is online is, well, online! All you need to do is type a few appropriate questions and answers to the friendly Entertainment Center Advisor at www.mydigitalflicks.com/support/wizards/dvdadvisor.php and you’ll receive dozens of tips and tricks you can apply at (the expense of) your leisure. After 45 minutes of running back and forth between your den and your living room trying to narrow down the problem, you’re advised to press Enter -> Mode -> Diagnostics -> Codec -> Test on your remote and wait for the DVD to troubleshoot itself. When its readout then blinks FAULT 28-042, you rush back to your PC and enter the number in the textbox labelled Diagnostic Code and you have your answer! All you need to do now, you are clearly instructed with seven simple steps, is to fill in an online form, print out the RMA shipping label that comes up next, go down to the basement and retrieve the unit’s shipping box that you presciently squirreled away (complete with packing material), disconnect and box up your DVD player, seal and label the package, run it over to your nearest parcel store, hand it over the counter with $12.48 in postage, wait three weeks for a new DVD player to be shipped to you, unpack it, reread the manual to recall how to connect it to your system, plug it in, turn it on, configure your options, and hope that your problem is solved. Wasn’t that easy? If only your DVD player could help you that nicely when your PC gets a virus and won’t boot…
You say you don’t own a computer connected to the Internet? No problem. Just call 1-800-FIX-MYDVD, enter 2-1-3-1-1-4-2 (or # to go back to start again) or 0-0-0 and be politely asked to wait approximately 46 minutes and 20 seconds to talk to a customer service representative, who will tell you to press Enter -> Mode -> Diagnostics -> Codec -> Test on your remote and wait for the DVD to troubleshoot itself, then call back for further instructions.
Technology and deregulation give us so many incredible options. Take telephony: In 1975, basic phone service from AT&T might have cost you $12.95 per month plus 25 cents a minute for long distance calls. Now you have your choice of CLECs, ILECs, mobile carriers, VOIP providers, and calling cards. Chances are that you receive three phone bills and pay at least $50 a month, all told, or more if any of those lines are broadband. [ed. And perhaps double that now if you have cable TV too.] Are you getting what you want, what you need, and what you pay for? How many of those 500 Anytime Minutes are you using to upload snapshots from your cellphone, and what are you ever going to do with them?
Speaking of digital photos, only five years ago, when George W. Bush’s presidency was but a gleam in the eye of the Project for the New American Century, few of us owned digital cameras and had easy options for printing out snapshots. Now every photo shop, chain store, printer vendor or Web portal lures us to up- or download our images for processing onto CDs, online galleries, and hardcopy, with or without audio tracks, greeting card formatting, and email notifications. For a few more dollars on our credit cards, we can order our snaps on mugs, T-shirts, mouse pads, and Most Wanted posters. Nowadays many of us use our home computers to format and archive our photos, which can mean buying new computers with massive storage and camera connectors and new printers that spit out snapshots all by themselves. Of course, we have to learn how to use this stuff, figure out what to do when things go slightly or horribly wrong, and how to tell the difference. We put up with the cost and hassles because we’re hooked on choice and instant gratification. Convenience or curse, you decide (because nobody will decide for you).
More on deregulation: On your most recent airplane trip, didn’t the head attendant say as you taxied to the terminal something like “we know you have a choice of airlines, and we hope you have enjoyed your flight and will choose Armpit Airlines again for your next flight.” Right. Our choices include ten classes of tickets, twenty fares, with exclusions, blackouts, restrictions, transfers, and delays, all leading up to the same miserable experience for everyone in our cabin. We have no choice about being herded, prodded, humiliated, and standing in lines, only to be told our carry-on luggage is too large and, yes, there will be a two-hour delay before take-off.
It gets more serious. Perhaps your pension plan has been morphed into a 401k; now, instead of having experienced professionals manage your retirement savings, you get to go on the Web and compare the yields of a dozen or so investment funds as often as you can stand it. [ed: And be told of course “past performance is no guarantee of future returns.”] Someday you may have to do the same for your Social Security account. Or, perhaps you are a senior bent on signing up for the new Medicare part D drug program; you go to seminars, visit Web sites, or wait on hold for help, just to be able to make sense of the hundreds of private plans that have sprung up, each with different premiums, benefits, deductibles and exclusions. You’re in control, you have choices! Isn’t the sense of empowerment a rush?
But isn’t there a point where choice boggles and its utility heads south? Why can’t we come up with a happy medium between societies like Cuba and the U.S.A.? In Cuba, the government provides rice, beans, flour and plantains for people to eat, and free, competent but basic health care for all families. In America, supermarkets make us choose among fifty varieties of frozen entrees, thirty brands of cookies and twenty kinds of toilet paper, but health care is rationed and access to it can cost families tens of thousands of dollars per year and hours and hours of waiting and wrangling.
We’re regularly advised that a free market economy works for our benefit by providing more choices at lower cost, and that the consumer is king. If that’s true, we’re the most run-ragged royalty in history. Is this how Bush’s “ownership society” should work, with corporations doing most of the owning and society doing most of the working? Put it this way: if you owned a consumer products corporation, wouldn’t you be tempted to fire some of your service workers and turn their functions over to paying customers? Wouldn’t that be an easy way to raise productivity for your company and for the economy? It happens more and more all the time.
In general, coercion is bad and choice is good. After all, who really likes being forced to deal with Microsoft’s software? But what good is choice if, like using Windows®, it forces us into doing things one never intended to or learn how to do? Basically, what’s the marginal utility of having 100 choices rather than 10 or even two or three? Maybe the Buddhists have a point about people being slaves to their desires.
If we can’t all be Buddhists, maybe the only clear way out of this bind may be to heed Henry. Thoreau admonished readers to simplify, simplify, and that’s what we should do when faced with choices we never asked for and do not require. So, perhaps we should try to distinguish between essential and nonessential choices that come our way. Who, after all, would put a choice of whether to undergo elective surgery on the same plane as, say, selecting a brand of hair conditioner. A CEO (hopefully) wouldn’t deliberate as thoroughly over which golf club to join as where to locate a new distribution center. Yet in our roles as consumers, we are repeatedly presented with arrays of choices for products and services that marketing and media couch as critical to our well-being. Henry wouldn’t buy this premise. Indeed, he hardly bought anything.
Following Henry, here are some actions you can take to immunize yourself from nonessential choices and rebalance your daily life:
- Don’t buy anything new until what you have no longer serves you
- Buy less expensive generic equivalents to name-brand products whenever you can
- Mute or skip TV and radio commercials (or tune in to public broadcasting, where the ads don’t pander as much)
- Patronize local merchants despite their higher prices and smaller selections
- Prepare meals from scratch from fresh ingredients even if it takes you longer, because you care about what goes into your body
- Put as much effort into choosing a medical specialist as into buying a new car
- Resist being led into indentured servitude to solve vendors’ technical problems
- Read a bit of Thoreau:
But men labor under a mistake. The better part of the man is soon plowed into the soil for compost. By a seeming fate, commonly called necessity, they are employed, as it says in an old book, laying up treasures which moth and rust will corrupt and thieves break through and steal. It is a fool’s life, as they will find when they get to the end of it, if not before.
Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away. It is not important that he should mature as soon as an apple tree or an oak. Shall he turn his spring into summer? If the condition of things which we were made for is not yet, what were any reality which we can substitute? We will not be shipwrecked on a vain reality. Shall we with pains erect a heaven of blue glass over ourselves, though when it is done we shall be sure to gaze still at the true ethereal heaven far above, as if the former were not?
We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor. It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.
‑Walden, ch. 1 & ch. 18
As Henry shows, technology-driven distractions and false choices are not recent or postmodern afflictions. He managed to protest and ignore them and so can we, if we so choose.
Copyright © 2006 by Geoffrey Dutton. All rights reserved.