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Paradox of Choice

A foul demon hides amongst the blurs of thumbnails whipping across our screens like hyperactive digital fleas. Lurking in the dusty shadows of the dimly lit obscure section that hardly anyone visits, purposely placed in the back corner of that large, overbearing yet still pleasantly smelling book store. Beamed directly into our visual cortex via the flat black monoliths of mindless stimulation; a kaleidoscope of consumerism, horribly catchy jingles, and enough context switches to cause even Johnny Five a short circuit trying to keep up. (Bonus points if you get that joke and reference without searching) A subtly pernicious predator that feasts upon our now fragile willpower and attention spans, while skillfully exhibiting naught of its presence.

“Information Overload.”

“Decision Fatigue.”

“Analysis Paralysis.”

“How the fuck am I supposed to choose from all this shit?”

The demon goes by all these monikers, and casts an invisible needle sharp toothy grin every time it preys upon another helpless victim. Sadly, this demon was born not of evil, nor a maleficent magical conjuring, nor even the seeding of our minds with an alien parasite — as cool of a sensationalist story that would make for the news outlets — to make us go slowly insane. No, this is far worse. The demon was born of us. Of our insatiable need for more. For better. For everything we don’t have but want to. Forged from our own impatience, envy, lust, and greed. The irony that three of those are part of the list of deadly sins should not be lost upon us, for those are mistakes made instead of lessons learned.

Recently, however, I learned firsthand the demon need not win any longer, and in fact can be exposed and annihilated like a vampire wilting and dissolving in blistering sunshine (though summer seems to have that effect on non-vampires as well, but I digress). You see, the paradox of choice we face on an almost daily basis is the very thing that gives this demon its power; take away that choice and you snuff out the foul creature.

I can already hear the cries from afar; “Wait, you want to take away our choices‽ You’ve seriously hit your head on something, see a fucking doctor!” No, I’m not that crazy unless you catch me before my morning caffeine intake, in which case all bets are off and I won’t be held responsible for the consequences of my still half-asleep, post-dream-laden wits. Merely I’m suggesting we crush the paradox of choice by not allowing it to overwhelm us.

Recently I ventured out into the real world, you know, that thing we used to have and experience before gwano hit society’s fan. After much pleading to the universe, fate has bestowed upon me a new bookstore here in town — conveniently right next door to the café to once again boost my caffeine levels to something above the level of “blathering putz” — which I ventured into for the first time. Its beautiful quaintness is in no way diminished by its small size, in fact quite the contrary. The handful of shelves in the store belie its most potent feature and weapon against the paradox and the demon; calmness and lack of overwhelming choice.

By keeping a small in-store selection of bestsellers and interesting gems across a range of genres, it acts as a spark of inspiration to pique my curiosities and grab my attention instead of completely smothering it. The best part of all is that any book can be ordered, which thus begs the obvious question: does it even need to be a big store? I felt no anxiety or fear of missing out as is often the case walking into a massive corporate bookstore, confronted with rows upon rows of shelves like soldiers on the front line waiting to wage war upon my patience and sanity. The paradox was crushed, and so was the demon.

When faced with a seemingly endless myriad of choices, sometimes we simply can’t — or don’t — make one at all. And therein lies the paradox. Research has shown the mind’s limit is four items, which perhaps not ironically is even less for me before previously mentioned caffeine intake, so you should probably just run with that number. While the study looked at this in terms of memory, I’m fully convinced this limit applies to many things, including when we’re faced with choices. Humans are fallible creatures, seemingly incapable of making a decision when faced with too many options.

Outwardly we may be smiling and enjoying the experience of the cornucopia of prose from that typical massive bookstore, but nestled in our skull is a mind that stares emptily like a deer caught in the headlights. Perhaps we knew exactly which title we wanted before even walking through the doors, but as soon as we start perusing those endless wooden rows of colours, cover art, and typography, we’re lost in a sea of choices. Maybe we just change our mind and decide to think more about what we really want, and walk out of the store again. Or maybe we come up to the counter with a stack of books, knowing there were others we didn’t select, and experiencing the regret of whether we’ll ever get around to reading them at all. Cue the demon laughter here.

I love books with a passion. Despite that, the above feeling has been very real to me even though I could easily set up a hammock and sleep in a bookstore, were it not for those pesky motion sensors setting off when I get up in the middle of the night to use the john. The problem is, we’re surrounded by choice everywhere we look, every single day.

Hundreds of YouTube videos about breakthrough diets, cleaning ear wax, fixing your posture, or the best way to reverse male pattern baldness. (Spoiler alert for that last one; it rhymes with “fun”, which is what you should actually be having instead of wasting your time watching how to cure baldness, seeing that’s the equivalent of a wet sneeze into a highspeed fan). Dozens of advertisements of new cars, beauty products, law firms, LED spotlights, and laxatives — that’s right, you can make a choice of how you want to be regular. Tech stores with enough arrays of connected home devices, cell phones, headphones, speakers, and television sets that it would give even the most limber owl a kink in its neck and a shitty disposition the rest of the day.

Never have we had so much choice and information, but, never have we had so much choice and information.

So why do we inflict this upon ourselves? Part of this is because we’ve become consumeristic by nature, but it’s also from our need to be in control. Choices provide us with the illusion of control up to a point, after which they become a self-defeating prophecy. What good are a tonne of choices if we simply feel overwhelmed and end up not making one at all? Why do some things even need to offer up so many options? Could the time we invest in mostly duplicating our efforts for little reward — in many cases — be better diverted elsewhere? Does the choice even matter at all when quantum mechanics tells us there are an infinite number of us in infinite realities, where amongst all of our doppelgängers the choices would have been exhausted anyway? Cue the creepy Sci-Fi music here.

Obviously, this conversation dips its toes in the waters of both philosophy and minimalism, and while I’m no Plato, the idea of minimalism is near and dear to my caffeine caressed heart. It was the driving force behind Steve Jobs’ decision to wear the same outfit every single day; eliminate the anxiety around choice, thus keeping the mind free for creativity and productivity. Perhaps less drastic but still garnering the same calming end result, is the paring down of everyday household items to just the bare essentials, or, if you choose to channel a portion of Steve, clearing your closet of clothes you’ve only worn a couple of times since buying them. Part of minimalism teaches us to focus on what we find most important and valued, while shedding needless things, burden, and yes, choices.

Which brings me back to that bookstore. Within no time at all, my reader’s laser vision had already targeted a couple of books that I happily plucked off the shelf wearing a huge dopamine induced perma-smile on my face. Yet, I felt no regret that I had so quickly reached the end of the shelves and that there was nothing left to peruse. Quite the opposite, as I started a pleasant conversation with the owner about one of the books I had selected, and about the eclectic little roll top desk perched at the front of this quaint little bookstore. A shining beacon to the beauty and simplicity of minimalism. And for the owner no massive stock needed to line the countless shelves, no massive HVAC systems or hydro bills, and no massive taxes on an oversized building. Win-win.

Choice has become a prized commodity in our consumeristic society, to the point where everything is sold to us under the guise of the temporary control it affords us. But when everything before us becomes an overwhelming slew of choices, it’s hard to separate the wheat from the chaff. When the day has already bombarded our senses with a proverbial pinball machine’s worth of direction changes, sights, sounds, flashes of colour, and options to max out our score, we run the risk of being disappointed upon reaching the end of the shelves in that charming new little bookstore with the roll top desk and friendly conversation. Upset that it doesn’t have enough selection. Enough to offer. Enough choice.

Perhaps, in another one of those quantum realities, a version of me with a mane of hair thick enough to make a lion envious and a jawline sharp enough to grate cheese, took one look in the front window of that store and moved along. So ingrained with the apparent truth that everything must provide enough choices, he misses out on the joy wandering through that same bookstore would have brought him, and all the while the demon cackles in silence.

Instead, here I am, bald as a cucumber and with a jawline about as sharp as a soggy cornflake, yet still wearing a smile and feeling the joy from perusing the shelves of that quaint little bookstore as if it was just yesterday. There was no paradox, no indecision, no anxiety, and no remorse.

And no fucking demon, either.

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