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The Internet Gave Us Endless Options. Why Aren’t We Happier?

As algorithms play tour guide through our ever-crowded online world, the embarrassment of riches somehow leaves us feeling empty.

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There have never been more options for what to read, watch, eat, or buy. Or listen to. Or who to date. Or which dating app to use. Or which meme, productivity tool, or podcast you can spend your one wild and precious online life enjoying. Today, the average amount of time a person spends on a single task is 47 seconds, so the very fact that you are spending any of those on this paragraph is a wonder in itself. Thank you.

You can’t say we weren’t warned. In 2004, back when we were able to devote a generous 2.5 minutes to a single task and Facebook was a small, university-focused social network, psychologist Barry Schwartz published The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. His findings weren’t new—analysis paralysis has been alive and well since before the days of Aesop’s fables, when a single-minded cat outlived an option-rich fox who couldn’t figure out which way to escape ravenous hounds. But Schwartz’s book, elegantly timed to the start of the cycle of enshittification of the internet, handily explained why the deluge of options we faced online didn’t seem to improve our outcomes.

Now, we’re all so aware of the issue that you can explore it via, you guessed it, a tremendous number of thoughtful articles. Jason Parham asks how the instinct of more, bigger, now has only exacerbated our worst impulses. Eva McCarthy delves into how hyper-personalization can often end up falling into the so-called “creepiness ditch”. And Anne Helen Petersen investigates how our defense mechanism to the overwhelm creates new issues. Among others, of course. Use your blocks of 47 seconds as you please.

Image by 4FR / Getty Images

The Sterile World of Infinite Choice

Anne Helen Petersen
Culture Study

“We want every option available but also want those options sorted to meet our taste—and, generally speaking, we don’t want to pay for it. Algorithms do the work for cheap, but when they reflect our taste back at us, it feels misshapen and insulting, a crude and unfair representation. When everything is available, all knowledge, all information, all entertainment ….nothing is perceived as valuable. ”