Today, we have more access to greater amounts of culture (books, movies, music, etc.) than any preceding generation. Devices like iPads and Kindles, streaming services for music and movies, and online retailers have placed vast amounts of information at our fingertips — literally, in some cases. Indeed, it can be rather mindboggling, though we don’t often think about it due to its ubiquity. Really, how often do we think that the iPhone in our hand can easily hold thousands of books, or tens of thousands of songs?
If and when we do think about such things, then we might find ourselves curiously stressed out and under an increasing pressure to read it all, hear it all, and see it all — especially when we receive a flood of recommendations each time we visit Netflix or Amazon. Our attempt to consume as much as we possibly can, ironically, brings about a sort of paralysis that ultimately makes it difficult to decide what, exactly, to consume. The psychological term for this is “analysis paralysis”: a person can become so overwhelmed by the numerous options available that he can’t make any decision whatsoever, for fear of making the “wrong” decision.
The Guardian‘s Dorian Lynskey chronicles his experiences with such a phenomena in his recent article, “The tyranny of cultural choice is making my brain gasp.” He writes:
In spite of all of the flexibility and choice that he could enjoy, Lynskey has found it liberating when he can actually remove something from his “to-read” or “to-watch” list.
Technology has birthed new versions of the bedside pile of books: the neglected links stacking up in my Twitter Favourites column; the high-minded Netflix queue compiled by a tired parent who has somehow mistaken himself for a film-studies undergraduate; the earnest documentaries waiting in silent accusation on my DVR, like an unused gym membership, until the day the device mercifully crashes. At the same time, the digital buffet can erode your ability to commit to one thing at a time. The main reason I don’t own a Kindle or iPad is my suspicion that, without the firm anchor of a physical book, I will get restless and float away in a sea of options.
Time anxiety induces a perverse reaction to recommendations. Links to “must-read” articles or rave reviews of “must-see” box sets make me sigh. Must I? Conversely, if I hate, say, the first episode of a new TV drama I feel a thrill of elation: “Thank God for the Newsroom‘s smug, self-parodic hokum! I’ve just saved myself hours.” Recently I was a few chapters into Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (which belongs alongside On the Road and The Magus in a subcategory of Books You Should Read Before You’re 18 or Not at All) when I realised I loathed it and could exile it to the charity shop with a clean conscience. It felt great.
When I hate something these days I find it liberating rather than disappointing because I like too much. It wasn’t just the deprivation that Reynolds mentions that guided my teenage choices; it was a certain militant narrow-mindedness. With cheerful ignorance I consigned vast swathes of culture to the Land of Not My Kind of Thing. Even though I missed out on countless books, films and albums that were, in fact, My Kind of Thing, I didn’t know that at the time, so I was free to go deep instead of broad. I never had the sense that the clock was ticking and Middlemarch wasn’t going to read itself.
Lynskey concludes his article by asking a question that is quite relevant given the rates at which we can, and often attempt to, consume culture: “Does manically devouring as much culture as possible make me a better person or just a better armchair University Challenge contestant?”
It is very easy, thanks to technology, to try to take a broad approach to cultural engagement, to attempt to consume as much as possible in the small amount of time we have. And that same technology makes it tempting to believe that we actually can consume it all. But can such engagement actually lead to our own betterment? Does it make us more thoughtful — more appreciative of, and in tune with, truth and beauty? Or does it simply reduce reading, listening, and watching to a glorified “to do” list?