The Second Eclectic

Technology changes how we relate to God and each other

All-You-Can-Eat at the Horn of Plenty Buffet

Note: I wrote this piece a few weeks ago without Thanksgiving or Black Friday in mind, but when I reread it this weekend, it seemed especially fitting.

"It is not good to be too free.
 It is not good to have all one needs."
 

                              –Blaise Pascal, Pensées 57

Freedom to choose: This is one of the core motives animating technological innovation and development. Yet we have conflated “freedom to choose” with “having more choices.” These two things are not the same. Having more choices, rather, leaves us in “the paradox of choice”—the paralysis of choice. Thus, for our deluge of options, we turn to various technical filters to help us narrow them down and choose the best one. However, as Nicholas Carr points out, the information overload we face is not because of filter failure but because of filter success.

A shift from needs to wants: This is one of the outcomes of mass-production technologies like the assembly line. Starting in the early 1900s, efficient mass production—in the U.S. at least—sufficiently fulfilled our basic needs for food and shelter, sleep and safety. This shift enabled us to begin focusing on fulfilling desires. Hence, by the mid-20th century, Maslow had developed his hierarchy to account for the new "needs" that Americans were experiencing. And by the end of the century, we were no longer working primarily to meet our finite needs, but instead to fulfill of our boundless desire.

Combine these two dynamics—having more choices and working for desiresand we find ourselves not only with a buffet of choices but also with an insatiable appetite. We do not choose based on need but based on want. After our basic needs are met, we are restricted simply by the means to achieve our desires. So we must prioritize desires.

Making such priorities necessitates self-reflection, and asking ourselves, “What do I want?” It's a question we are nearly forced to ask—and to answer. But this question is much harder to answer than, “What do I need?” With the “want” question, we are presented with a buffet of options but no real way to know what's good for us, and with no sense of where to start. 

Should I go to the grocery or the drive-thru? Which grocery? Organic or wholesale? 
Should I shop at thrift stores or buy fair trade? 
Should I ride a bike or take the subway? What about ride-share? 
Should I take a vacation or donate to a charity? Which charity? How can I vet them? Who can I trust?
Should I open a retirement account or buy investment property? 
Should I purchase a hybrid or a subcompact? How can I know which is really better for the environment?

While our government may have given us the freedom to choose, it was our technology that gave us our choices. Once it had supplied our daily bread, it went on to promise to fulfill our desires—if only we can identify what they are. Pursuing them is the goal. Endless pursuit. The ever-receding horizon. Any restriction, moral or otherwise, is a boundary and a burden we do not want to long endure. To restrain ourselves is slavery or imprisonment. To restrain ourselves is to rein in our desires in a spirit of self-control. Meanwhile, technology continues adding items to the buffet. It's all-you-can-eat.