Tobold's Blog
Saturday, March 03, 2018
How abundance makes us poorer

Maybe it was to be expected with an offer that involves charity, but it turns out that for me the Humble Bundle Monthly is mostly an investment in a source for philosophical thoughts. When I initially bought the bundle in order to get Civ VI for cheap, I went for the three-month plan. So even if I since unsubscribed I just got my second months worth of games. And compared to the first month, there are even less games in there which I can see me playing. That is not to say that the offer is a bad one, or the games on offer are bad. Rather it reflects upon how my interests got narrower over time.

I am old enough to remember a time before video games. The first video game I played was Pong on a console that couldn't play anything else, in black and white on a TV screen. When people got the first consoles with cartridges and computers, kids typically had just a handful of games, not necessarily chosen by themselves. If you only have 3 game cartridges, you will play the hell out of each of those games, whether those are your favorite games or not. Fast forward to 2017, where 7,672 games were released on Steam alone, again nearly doubling the number of Steam games available for a fourth year in a row.

Everybody has favorite games and favorite genres. If you are limited by the number of games available to you, you play what you got regardless of genre. If you have an abundance of choice, you get more and more picky and only play your favorite genres. The bottleneck becomes the amount of time available to play, so why should you play let's say a platformer if you prefer role-playing games? Of course the consequence of that is that you end up with a much narrower experience. You only play a handful of favorite genres and don't have the time for a bunch of other genres, which might offer a very different experience of gaming.

I see a parallel to the world of news and politics. Back in the day where your only source of news was one paper you and everybody in your street was subscribed to, you all got the same variety of news and opinions. Today there are so many sources of news and opinions that you can choose one which aligns well with your own opinions. If you are a fan of Trump, you watch Fox News and read Breitbart, if you are on the other side you watch CNN and read Huffington Post. But the result is that you end up in an echo chamber which doesn't allow for a variety of opinions. This has gone so far that the echo chambers of today don't even agree on the same set of facts. A news source that reports something uncomfortable to you is "fake news", truth has become subservient to opinion.

The future is one in which we lead comfortable lives in which we play only our favorite games, see only our favorite genre of movies and TV shows, hear only news that please us. Until we have become so isolated from another group of people (which might well be our neighbors) that the two groups don't consider each other of being of the same kind any more, and start killing each other off. The internet, which had a promise of offering us a much wider offer of everything from information to entertainment, ends up making us all poorer and more narrow-minded.

"The future is one in which we lead comfortable lives in which we play only our favorite games, see only our favorite genre of movies and TV shows, hear only news that please us."

Heaven, in a word. If we were all living that life we'd all be far too content to worry about what the neighbors were doing, let alone remove ourselves from our own personal wonderland to "start killing each other off".

The problem is not that such a lotus-eating paradise is imminent but that it's still, for most of the world, so very, very far away.
Unlike you my interests haven't really narrowed over time and that creates its own problems. I have huge difficulty deciding what to play, what to watch, what to read next. This becomes its own form of paralysis. I know that companies like Google, Netflix and Amazon have spend millions trying to develop recommendation algorithms but they are still terrible. In fact I notice that most of these selection algorithms seem to want to funnel the consumer into an ever decreasing subset of media which I find very frustrating. Just because I watched a Youtube video about card tricks yesterday doesn't mean I want my recommendation list to be filled with card trick videos today.

Question: You have stated that your interests have narrowed over time. Do these recommendation engines work for you?

Excessive choice, leads to fracturing of markets. Socially and politically it reduces any chance of a sizeable consensus. From simply a consumer point of view, it means the old cliche about spending more time searching Netflix, rather than watching it, is true.

I also think that an abundance of choice means that we miss out on exposure to new things. I grew up in the 70s and every Thurday night, I'd watch Top of the Pops. As it was pretty much the only music chart show around at the time (there were only 3 TV stations available in the UK at the time), you had to watch it if you wanted to see your favourite band or artist. Hence you had to spend thirty minutes watching a broad spectrum of material to see what you wanted. Thus you were exposed to different musical genres.

I consider this process to be benefial. With regard to music, I've gained an wider knowledge. Where as today, if you like a specific kind of music then you can simply listen to a radio station or show that exclusively caters to your needs.

I'm not advocating that people should be forced to be exposed to material that they don't enjoy but I do think that a certain amount of time spent broadening your horizons is a good thing.
I was reading through the first paragraphs and thinking to myself, "You know, I think this could really be applied to our political and social climate today"—then that's exactly where you were going lol.
Question: You have stated that your interests have narrowed over time. Do these recommendation engines work for you?

No, they don't work at all for me. I guess my interests are still too broad for algorithms. The other problem is that the algorithm presumes that you are the only person using an account, but for example on Amazon I might well order books for family.
A fairly depressing view of future, not that I don't share it.
At the same time, if you look at the entire world population, there's still a lot of people for whom the problem is how to eat today and not which game to play, so there's still a lot of road ahead.
But I think that overall you're right, and you're forgetting another casualty of this process: it's becoming harder and harder to find people who are actually able to discuss in an interesting way. This was possible on the internet at the beginning, but now medias like facebook and twitter reduce discussion to one-liners.... I like to discuss with people because they challenge my assumptions with good arguments, either resulting in me changing my viewpoint or in better strengthening my arguments. When the people you discuss respond in a way which clearly didn't even read what I wrote and just repeated the stock answer already given 3 replies before, it feels like a waste of time.

The problem with today's environment is that choice is still relevant, and that relevance is still tied to information sources. Like you, I played Pong back in the day, but as the quarter arcades rose to prominence, the most popular ones became so due to word of mouth with no 3rd party influences trying to persuade you otherwise. Then the gaming mags hit the scene and things changed. Gamer's began taking anonymous opinions and considering them as they made their choices as to what games to buy and play. Then the internet came into existence and choice became exponential. People are allowed to have choice, but they are also allowed to not choose. But now we have entities that will try to tell you that if you choose "this", you are given a label such as conservative, SJW, liberal, carebear, killer, explorer...etc. These entities try their level best to compartmentalize choice in order to make it relevant so some "magical" yardstick can be used to measure things. I'm not one who wants to stand around and listen to debates of if Schrodinger's cat is dead or not. I want to open the damn box and find out.
same here, pong generation; Agree with everything but the conclusion, I don't feel poorer because (as you see correctly) it's matter of time and it's the same as before. I feel empowered because I can make a choice, and the new challenge is to find your path, to well being, to your desires, to what you like most. Being isolated or not it's again our only choice. In the past we were indeed (more) isolated and with no choice everything seemed inevitable.
Whatever I do I am always aware I can change my mind every day.
Maybe abundance of media is better for people who experienced life without it, not so great for those who grew up with it (shades of Kingsley Amis talking about the sexual revolution, I know).
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