by Daniel A. Kaufman
- On Some Downsides of Unlimited Choice
Even as I make use of the internet and benefit from its near-universal reach, I find myself quite gloomy about much of its impact. In particular, I am concerned that it has expanded choice to a point beyond which it is an uncontroversial good.
As is often the case, G.K. Chesterton spoke to what I’m getting at, concisely and with great clarity and style:
The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men. The reason is obvious. In a large community, we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us…
The best way that a man could test his readiness to encounter the common variety of mankind would be to climb down a chimney into any house at random, and get on as well as possible with the people inside. And that is essentially what each one of us did on the day that he was born. (1)
Some stray thoughts, along these lines —
A. We hear much – and have even spoken a bit ourselves, here, at The Electric Agora – about how difficult it is for young people, today, to bear hearing messages with which they disagree or which cause them any measure of discomfort; about a need for “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings”; and about the increasing – and increasingly shrill – demands that campus speakers be “disinvited,” teachers and administrators fired, statues and monuments dismantled, all so that a person need never see something, hear something, or be forced to think something that he does not want to see, hear or think.
Our young people have grown up in a world in which, for as long as they can remember, they could exercise an unprecedented degree of control over what they heard and saw and with whom they associated. There was never a need to watch whatever television programs were being broadcast on any particular day, at any particular time. The choice of programming is virtually infinite and no longer bound to a broadcast. There was never a need to listen to whatever was being played on the radio, when one turned it on. Satellite radio offers niche-programming and every automobile has a built-in port, through which to connect a mobile device, so that one can only ever hear exactly what one wants to hear. Indeed, technology has brought us to the point where no one need ever even listen to an entire recording, the custom-designed playlist having replaced the album. And there was never a need to find a way to get along with those among whom one found oneself – one could simply join self-selected virtual communities online, where everyone agrees about everything; where values, tastes, and expectations are homogenous; and where, consequently, there are no surprises, bad or, for that matter, good.
And so we find ourselves, now, shocked that we have produced a generation of people – and are in the process of creating a second — who cannot cope with interactions and experiences over which they cannot exercise control. Stunned that our students have no capacity to stomach different points of view or people with whom they disagree. Dismayed that a grown person needs to retreat to a “puppy-room,” when he hears or sees something that he doesn’t like. (2)
It’s funny. Because this is exactly what we asked for. Could we really not see it coming? Or did we just not care, because there was so much damned money to be made?
B.One of the really malignant effects of these new technologies and modalities and the endless “choice” they bring is the almost complete destruction of any sort of substantial, shared, national popular culture. Popular television shows and music could often be of quite high quality and would connect people with one another, even when they had little else in common. The country, who had worked (and laughed) through difficult questions of race and sex and generational conflict, over nine years of All in the Family, mourned the death of Edith Bunker. The last episode of M.A.S.H., after eleven seasons, felt like losing beloved members of one’s family. Casey Kasem was every American’s DJ, for two decades of America’s Top 40. Americans didn’t watch “the news,” they watched Walter Cronkite. The 1983 broadcast of The Day After was viewed by 100 million people, every one of whom can remember how the next day at school or work was marked by an eerie, frightened quiet.
There is nothing that connects us in these ways anymore – nothing that binds us together as a common culture — and this strikes me as obviously bad, and particularly bad for young people, for whom the national popular culture used to provide their one source of real cultural capital, the height of which spanned the period from the 1960’s through the 1980’s, after which it rapidly, catastrophically collapsed. Because of the way that entertainment is produced, marketed, distributed, and consumed, popular music and film, today, have no power to define generations of young people or to give them a collective and thus, powerful voice – one that the adults cannot deny or ignore — in the way that they used to. Today, popular culture, with the exception of the thinnest, most grotesquely commercial garbage, is entirely broken up into niches, and the social and cultural ghettoization that results has served only to disempower young people, in their engagements with the larger society.
2. On What I Look For in a Person
Given that I teach philosophy, do professional writing in philosophy, host and produce an online show devoted to philosophy, and generally operate in intellectual circles, I am obviously often in the company of a lot of very smart people.
Lately, however, I have found myself tiring of what seems to be an overvaluation of intelligence and especially, of rationality. Somewhat recently, in the midst of a particularly irritating exchange with a particularly irritating New Atheist-type, in which my interlocutor disparaged any and every level of religious commitment, on the grounds of its “irrationality,” I began thinking about all the kinds of people I would rather be talking with, which then led to my making a mental list of all the qualities in a person that I care about more than his or her level of intelligence and rationality. Here’s what I came up with:
A love of good food, good drink, and good conversation.
Well-traveledness. (I know. Not a word.)
A healthy sense of irony.
A distinctive, personal style.
Adventurousness and a willingness to take risks.
I wonder what sorts of things might make their way onto our readers’ lists?
(1) G.K. Chesterton, “On Certain Modern Writers and the Institution of the Family” (Heretics, 1905).