I had a number of interesting conversations this week about modern living, but there was one in particular that really had me thinking. It was about selection overkill; namely, what happens to our idea of value when we have too much stuff to choose from? We know what the economics tell us about a saturated market, but I’m more interested in the effect it has on our personal values. For example, I used to think I cared less about music these days simply because I was getting older. Maybe it was just what happened to people as they aged: they got bogged down with work and responsibilities, and they didn’t have the time anymore to keep up. But as I listened to an eighties hair band mix before going to bed last night, it hit me: I don’t listen to less music these days, I’m really just overwhelmed by modern access online and it often paralyzes me. Where do I even start when I can listen to anything I want instantly? Eventually I just shut down because whittling down the world to just a single momentary option is almost impossible. There’s too much to choose from. It’s the same with TV and I’ve witnessed a similar phenomenon when it comes to our spirits customers. Some of them are actually put off by all the new whiskey we’re bringing in, not excited by it, and a number of them have simply stopped buying whiskey altogether because they can't keep up. We know that too much of any product devalues its monetary value, but could it also be that simply having access to something, whenever we want, also devalues its meaning and its importance? Maybe having every possible option at your fingertips is actually worse than having a carefully curated few?
Let’s look at free speech as an example, a value that we hold dearly here in America. Free speech is one of the most important aspects of our society, but what about too much free speech? Could too much access to freedom actually result in censorship—the opposite of what was intended? New York Times columnist Tim Wu tackled this subject in yesterday’s op-ed, writing:
The complete suppression of dissenting speech isn’t feasible in our “cheap speech” era. Instead, the world’s most sophisticated censors, including Russia and China, have spent a decade pioneering tools and techniques that are better suited to the internet age. The Russian government was among the first to recognize that speech itself could be used as a tool of suppression and control. The agents of its “web brigade,” often called the “troll army,” disseminate pro-government news, generate false stories and coordinate swarm attacks on critics of the government. The Chinese government has perfected “reverse censorship,” whereby disfavored speech is drowned out by “floods” of distraction or pro-government sentiment.
In the internet age, it turns out the best way to kill something is to completely drown it out rather than eliminate it. Could it be that we eventually kill our own appreciation of art and culture in the same fashion? Do we cheapen the value and the meaning of whiskey by having five thousand new options on the market every year rather than just a hundred good ones? Do we move further and further away from the enjoyment of drinking by convoluting the meaning behind why we do it?
When I was back in Las Vegas a few weeks ago I visited my first marijuana superstore (coming to California this January) to get a first-hand look at how retailers are selling customized pot in the new free market. It’s truly amazing what’s happened to weed since I was a teenager. You can go into one of these stores, tell the clerk exactly what you want to feel, and they can give you precisely what you want. You don’t want to smoke it? Fine, there are topical oils and edibles instead! You don’t want to feel hungry, or paranoid, or anxious? No problem! They’ve found a way to eliminate all of that, giving you the customized experience you’re looking for. What I found refreshing was how everything was centered on the desired feel and state of being rather than the brand. No one was talking about the best marijuana terroir or the most complex highs. It was all so practical. I remember when alcohol used to be the same way. Before going out, we would take shots to get a foundation going, then switch to beer so that we didn’t get drunk too fast. There was a clear strategy involved with how we wanted to feel, not what we wanted to taste. Hunter S. Thompson wrote about booze in that fashion, the various effects of beer versus wine versus liquor. In the end, we’re all drinking to feel something. That's the essence of drinking.
Getting back the basics of alcohol in that sense has been important in maintaining its value for me personally. Why do I like to drink? When does it make me happy? When does it not? It may seem hard to believe, but having access to free booze and a million whisky samples whenever I want them has actually been a curse, not a blessing, in terms of how I value alcohol. However, it’s not just the access; it’s also the intent. In a sense, the constant search for new flavors and new experiences is a part of that problem. When you’re always looking for the next new bottle, how can you focus on and enjoy the ones you already have? The current market only exacerbates that problem for me. I’ve already seen my attention span for music and movies dwindle under the infinite weight of the internet's possibility. I’m taking steps now to make sure my appreciation for alcohol doesn’t follow a similar path. Oversaturating people with information has become a weapon in the modern age — as Tim Wu writes: used as "a tool to confuse, blackmail, demoralize, subvert and paralyze” — so clearly its having some effect on our psyche.