Every week, AT&T and Comcast conduct a direct-mail duel to see who can offer me the most channels of digital TV. I believe we are up to about 900 now. Then there’s Netflix, with more films and TV shows than I could watch in a lifetime. Even if I limited myself to just those that close friends have recommended, I would have years worth of material. There are hundreds of thousands of books I can download instantaneously to any number of devices, and millions more I can command hard copies of or borrow from a library. Then there are the millions of songs I could stream or download at the touch of a button. The billions of hours of video on YouTube. And best of all, the unceasing tide of social media: ever-replenishing tweets and status updates from nearly every person I have ever met, scattered across all corners of the globe.
The situation with physical stuff is fairly analogous. The south loop Target has an entire wall devoted solely to toothpaste. You could try a different type of toothpaste, a different type of chewing gum, a different type of mascara, and a different pair of novelty Halloween socks every week, and be set for years. The supermarket two blocks from me carries about a hundred kinds of breakfast cereal, and probably equally as many soft drinks. In my pursuit of a floral sundress for the spring, I discovered that Forever 21 stocks over 400 designs of dresses at any given moment, and that is only one store. It’s a very special kind of first world problem: there are so many options of things to consume floating around at any given point that it can be difficult to actually see, let alone evaluate, any of them.
When it comes to the things I consume, when it comes to media and stuff, I often feel as though I’m standing before an infinite buffet table, packed with more kinds of food than I could ever possibly try in a lifetime. I’ve got a limited amount of room on my plate (and time in my day, and space in my home), so what do I fill it with? Even when I weed out everything that’s not of direct interest to me, there is still more than I could ever possibly read, watch, listen to, eat, wear, or use. When everything is made to be as enticing and alluring as possible, and everything looks better than the next, when something better might come along at any moment, how do you make a choice and feel confident in it?
I approach literal food with a very distinct schematic for decision making: is it vegan? Is it healthy (enough)? Am I hungry (enough)? Do I even like this? Do I have time to sit down and eat? Now I need a kind of intellectual and emotional veganism, some way to cultivate a healthier appetite for material things and information as well. Aspiring towards minimalism has helped in regards to stuff (and I say aspiring, because I am too capricious to be a true minimalist). There is a natural limit to the things you can actually touch and use in a given period of time. But learning how to consume the intangible, consuming media and information, is much more difficult, and I believe we as a culture are still learning how to regulate our appetite for it.
The problem is not consuming; after all, just as every person needs food to survive, there’s a baseline level of material things and information about the world that one needs to survive and be well. The problem is not even that what’s on the table is bad: along with the 7-11 Slurpee of The Real Housewives of Atlanta is the fine wine of classic literature and the green juice of scripture and philosophy. To me, the real problem is being unable to get up from the table at all, to be so entranced by what one could possibly consume next that one never leaves the dining room, so to speak. It’s not that an information binge can’t be wonderful; who hasn’t burned through a fascinated hour on wikipedia or stayed up all night completely engrossed in a book? But if, like me, you don’t fully trust yourself to curate your own attention, to engage in some discipline, there’s something a bit unnerving about the infinite table. Anyone who knows what it’s like to binge knows that there’s a crucial difference between stopping when one is sated and stopping when one has reached the point of illness.
So I need a limit, I need criteria for knowing what to put on the plate of my attention, and when to leave the table and do something else. As with food, I have to ask, is this good for me? Do I enjoy it? Unfortunately there’s quite a lot of money to be made off an infinitely distracted audience. Social media outlets are replete with advertisements; news articles, blog posts, videos all link to a seemingly infinite amount of seemingly fascinating material, all slathered in more links and more ads. The allure of the internet astounds me, and in the midst of early twenty-something angst and existential discomfort, the temptation to just plug back in, keep reading, keep watching, and keep surfing sometimes feels overwhelming.
Close friends have heard me talk about what I call my ‘allergy to fiction’ and my ‘allergy to television;’ I have a steep aversion to these things. I don’t like to watch television alone. I don’t like to read novels because I’m actually afraid I will like them too much and then lose too much sleep over them. It’s a bit ridiculous. Perhaps my Protestant work ethic has gone to my head, or I’m having a really peculiar hangover from the cult of over-achievement I participated in for most of my education. There’s a part of me that’s afraid that I’ll turn into David Bowie’s character from The Man Who Fell to Earth: an alien lying before a wall of TV screens, so entranced that he can no longer complete his mission on earth. But perhaps it’s not an entirely inaccurate fear.
For every smirk and raised eyebrow that my ‘media allergies’ have gotten me, I’ve heard many more lamentations of grad school applications not completed because of a TV marathon, term papers neglected in favor of video games, hours upon hours drained away on Facebook. I am certainly overly sensitive in this regard. But my college experience was awash in complaints of endless distraction and temptation, and I still hear them now. After so many hours spent browsing the infinite table, we didn’t have the energy to work, or to play. So much sugar made us lose our appetite for vegetables. We’d spoiled our intellectual dinner. I discovered that media distraction could be a trigger, just like actual food or alcohol.
I touched on this a bit in my last post, but it’s a gift to have access to more information and more material resources than any generation in human history. But I also think now more than ever, people need to be selective about what they let into their attention in the same way they have to be selective about what they put into their bodies and bring into their living spaces. A twinkie won’t kill you, but do you really want to eat a case of them a day? A lolcat here and there is not going to derail my entire personal and professional life. A cocktail with friends is not the same thing as drinking alone. But to get sucked in, to drain away so much time, over and over again, whether shopping or reading or whatever, can do a number on one’s sense of efficacy in life.
What I’m seeking is the feeling of satiety: when something has been both nourishing and enjoyable, when the experience itself is good and it provides the energy for other experiences. But determining satiety requires you to listen. It requires a level of attention that is very much at odds with how our culture likes to do things. If we really paid attention to our goals and values, then the vendors would have to cater to our tastes, rather than serving up more of the same sugary crap. For now, I am trying to select the stuff and the information that actually serves my life– and then have the wherewithal to say, “that was delicious,” get up from the table, and go outside and play.