I know this has happened to you. You're (a) madly in love or (b) madly confused about love when a song comes on the radio with words that seem to be written not just about you but to you. Suddenly the world makes sense. You are not alone. In the minutes that follow, you find yourself using words like Fate and Karma.
You have just experienced the random kindness of the universe, a phenomenon that's getting tougher to come by in this world of iPods and TiVo. Take my teenage kids. They love the word "random," possibly because so little in their lives is actually random. Every song in their iPods, for example, was selected from their playlist. Each song represents a choice. They never listen to the radio -- too random.
And it's not just kids. Technology asks us to make countless trivial choices. Pick your desktop background. Program media sources to send you only the news you want. Design the options packages on your car. Click here to vote for your favorite (fill in the blank).
Even the big three TV networks are moving toward commercial-free programming on demand. ABC recently announced that it will offer episodes of "Desperate Housewives" and "Lost" on Apple's new video iPod service. And then NBC and CBS said they, too, would make certain shows available to some satellite subscribers with DVRs. It's enough to make me shout, "I WANT MY OLD TV."
I watch TV strictly to waste time. My goal is to make no decisions, no commitments. I flip channels at random, waiting to be surprised by something. By contrast, the future of TV offers me the chance to turn TV-watching into a job. To use my powers of reasoning to determine which shows I want to commit to. I'll get to compare and contrast, use hierarchical thinking, make value judgments, plan ahead. The only problem is, I don't want all this control.
I want someone else to choose the options packages for my car. I want my news unfiltered. I like to wander through bookstores. Frankly, I'm insulted when Amazon thinks they know the next book I'll buy. I don't even want to know the next book I'll buy until I find it.
I want less control over my life. I am not the best person to design clothing or furniture. Let someone else make the choices. I'll do the buying. There must be some other purpose for technology.
When did progress and success become tied to how many choices you get to make? A few of my successful friends have recently built custom houses. Which basically means they have made more than 400,000 relatively useless choices. They have spent a year of their lives deciding which cupboard pull is the right one. My house, built in 1922, came complete with cupboard pulls. And the best part is someone else chose them.
Let's put this discussion into philosophical terms. Let's assume that the number of choices a human being can reasonably make in a day is finite. Then every trivial choice reduces your capacity or inclination to work on other choices, more important choices such as whom to vote for or which charity to donate money to or what to do with your life.
Don't get me wrong. I'm no Luddite. I just fear that technology is keeping us so busy controlling the minutiae of our lives that we have no time left over to devote to the things that really matter. And that doesn't seem much like progress to me.
Jim Sollisch is a writer in Cleveland.