What we've lost in having access to everything

Last night I watched broadcast TV for the first time in years. That's not totally accurate as I watch sporting events all the time but last night I just opened up the DirecTV Now app on my Apple TV and just clicked through the channels until I found something to watch. I ended up watching the second half of a Seinfeld episode.

Of course for those old enough, this is how most of our TV experience has worked. You had a limited set of content options that are out of your control, and you don't get to start/stop it -- the stream goes on with or without you.

In many ways, watching the last 10 minutes of a random Seinfeld episode interspersed with 5 minutes of commercials was a poor experience, but I didn't feel annoyed at all. I actually enjoyed it and felt something I'd almost call "warmth" from the experience.

The same thing happens when I turn on the radio. I listen to KEXP which is a local independent radio station in Seattle. About half of the time I don't know or particularly like the music they play but I like to hear local voices. Something as small as a comment like "its pouring out here" lights something up in me and gives me a sense of connection. Again there's this weird sensation of "warmth" in knowing I'm joining a stream along with thousands of others nearby.

Today we have much more control over our experiences. Be it TV or music, we can choose whatever we like from massive catalogues at any moment we please. Yet, we've all had that experience of endlessly browsing Netflix and giving up because we can't commit to watching anything. Control is a tricky concept.

This sense of control plays out in other facets of our lives like the things we read and even the restaurants we go to. I remember as a kid, going out to eat, while always exciting, was not overly thought through. My parents would just take us to places within a few blocks of our neighborhood and that was that. Today, finding a lunch spot involves pouring over hundreds of reviews and honing in on the perfect place.

Ultimately, it's hard to argue against the claim that we have improved the content of what we are consuming, but I wonder if we've truly improved the experience?

Today the onus of control is on us. Whatever we do, we have a clear sense of what other things we could be doing. We are the shapers of our reality. This is a truly new power which ends up weighing on us more than we may realize. The amount of time and energy we spend researching, browsing, trying, switching, optimizing each and every thing we consume is a massive amount of work and responsibility.

And there's no turning back from this freedom. Even when I was "stuck" watching half of a Seinfeld in the back of my mind I knew I'm technically free to watch practically anything else at that moment. You can put away your phone and try to live more spontaneously but even that is a choice. The genie is out of the bottle when it comes to our freedom in consumption.

Still, I think we will increasingly crave experiences where our sense of control is (artificially) restricted. In other words we will opt into not having choice and remaining ignorant about our options. Increasingly, I'm realizing this very restriction is the core of what makes a community.

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