Abundance and the Paradox of Choice

2 Nov, 2017

Imagine four guys, age 20’ish, sitting at a table in a bar with a beer. There’s no chatter because everybody is faced down with their heads in their phones, fully distracted. Every now and then one of the guys looks up and says “hey, look at this, this is funny”. Two guys ignore him, one looks up, but doesn’t look interested, bats an eye for a second to his friend’s screen, and says, “Uhu”. End of conversation. Everyone is back with their heads in their phones.

This continued for the rest of the night, and the only evidence of a great night is a selfie of the bunch with the hashtag #bestfriends. What just happened?

Now, imagine a beautiful woman, age 40, and a handsome man, age 43, at a dinner table at a beautiful beach scenery. There’s this awkward, yet exciting discomfort, because it’s the first time and there is, well, lots of insecurity. We’ve all been there. The phones stay on the table with the screen up, and with every notification on the phone, their eyes take a peek. They’re distracted, and their awareness drifts off.

No real conversation happened that night and definitely no magic. Only a post on Instagram an hour later from the food with the hashtag #lifeisabeach and #lovemylife. What just happened?

Missed opportunities

What just happened is that in both stories, there was an opportunity for bonding, spontaneity, and building relationships, but that opportunity passed by. There was an opportunity for the four guys to really be best friends, an opportunity for the couple to really become a couple and enjoy each other’s awareness, without being distracted, but this too faded away. This would just have been a story about a missed chance for a great night, except it is not. It is the blueprint we all live by, and it creates miserable lives all over the place.

We are more connected, yet never felt more alone. So, what’s the cause? We could blame it on technology and just insert a random study on it here, but that’s not the story I want to tell. The story I want to tell is about abundance and responsibility.

Digital abundance

We live in an age where there is digital abundance. There is plenty, and it becomes more with every second. Need information about dressing a pig? It’s there. Chopping a tree with your hands? The Internet can keep you distracted all day long. The source is infinite, yet we try to keep up because we are scared not to know what’s going on, but the task is simply impossible. The embodiment of this phenomenon is the infinite scroll. It’s a stupid concept if you think about it.

Who wants to scroll in infinity? No one, but we all do it. Do you even remember what you scrolled passed two minutes ago? Was it really relevant? Did it resonate with you, and did you stop and be aware, or did you keep scrolling? Why? What are you scrolling towards? Is there an end you want to reach? A destination? Is there a pot of gold on the other end of the scroll? Do you get happy scrolling? More fulfilled? Tell me, what’s going on?

Does it matter?

You can scroll for a minute; you can keep scrolling for an hour, even a week, it doesn’t matter. So why do you keep scrolling? Is the infinite scroll a metaphor for life? Are we lost and desperately keep searching to find something we might already have?

I don’t know. What I do know is it doesn’t make sense. You know what makes sense? Fast forwarding a cassette tape makes sense because you knew that one song is coming at any moment now. You are filled with excitement cause it’s almost here. You know what makes sense, as well? Waiting with anticipation on a train with your lover in it, to finally hug and kiss her. What if she was on the train of infinity and would never arrive?

So ask yourself the question: Is scrolling every day for an hour really relevant? Are you becoming a better person, smarter, maybe even wiser? Are you happier, more fulfilled? And are you really enjoying yourself? I doubt it. Imagine what you could have done with all that time if you weren’t distracted. You can read a book in two hours. Watch a documentary, play a game with your family, take a walk in nature, swim, start a business, have a workout, call your mother, start boxing classes.

An hour a day is 365 hours a year. You can become pretty good at most things with 365 hours. Loads can be done in an hour, and if you would make a list of importance, infinite scrolling will definitely be last.

The cycle of life

A book has a beginning and an end, a movie has a beginning and an end. Flowers have a beginning and an end. The universe has a beginning and an end. Even our lives have a beginning and an end, and that’s what makes it so awesome. Infinite scroll is infinite, and infinity has no beauty. There is no excitement, no urge to act. Infinity is dangerous. When do you stop? What if you can’t stop? What if you are distracted every minute of your life? There is no end. You keep walking, but the end is nowhere to be seen.

Infinity even destroyed movie night. I can spend a full night scrolling through Netflix to choose a movie and get overwhelmed by the choice. I had a hard disk with 500 videos on it. The day it broke was the best day of my life. I was free again. I liked movies better when there where still videotapes you had to rent. It was a journey to get a treasure. There was responsibility, choices, everyone at home depends on you. You had the walk to the video store — decisions to make.

“Am I renting the new movie for a day for 7,50, or three older movies for three days? I hope the movie is still there. What if it sucks? Even if it sucks, we are going to watch it without getting distracted. We have to; I invested too much.” If the movie was good or not didn’t really matter, it was movie night, and we made the best of it.

So, what now?

Awareness. That is what now. Being aware of what is really important to us and focus on it. I fuck up daily. Even when I’m aware, I fuck up. I go to the bathroom to take a piss, and on my way to the bathroom, I know I will take my phone out of my back pocket in the heat of the moment. I don’t want to, but I know I will. It has no function. It just takes away from my little moment for myself. I can’t even spend 30 seconds in the bathroom without being distracted to take a piss and really be there. My body is there, but the rest is gone. This is junkie behavior. I confess: I am a junkie.

So what now? Who’s fault is this? It is my fault. Not technology. I need to be responsible for my life and the way I deal with an abundance of technology. Here are five things I do to escape the infinite race that leads to a land of nowhere:

5 steps to self-awareness

1. Minimalism. Not the minimalism in which you have one pair of jeans and are kind of miserable because you got rid of all your stuff, you secretly still wanted. Minimalism in the sense of continually questioning if you still really enjoy something and if you should get rid of it. This goes for material things like books, clothes, etc., but also things you follow on the internet and people you are connected with, online and offline. Discard what doesn’t add to your life, double down on the things that do.

2. Set a timer. I set it to max 15 minutes, and even when I do, I stop earlier because the thought of the silly act keeps going through my brain. It doesn’t have to be a real timer. Just being aware of the fact you are going to scroll without a real goal triggers a notion of ridiculousness.

3. Leave your phone in the living room when you go to bed. The bedroom is for rest.

4. Leave your phone at home when you meet with people. If you have to take it, put it somewhere out of reach. By the love of God, please do. Reaching for your phone every two minutes might seem harmless, but it destroys way more than you are willing to give up.

5. Go offline for a day and be aware. It won’t take long until you see, you can do perfectly without being online constantly, and you will even feel better. This all might look a bit blown out of proportion, but it isn’t.

Life is not infinite

Our life is a compound of the small things we do on a day to day basis, and if we mindlessly scroll on a day to day basis, our life becomes an infinite scroll of meaningless things, except our lives, are not infinite.

Photo credit: Ricardo Stoelwinder Photography