Saturday, October 18, 2008

Rant against choices (and solution)

This is a mashup between Barry Schwartz's paradox of choice talk and sigfpe's presentation of ordinals as a survival game.

Apparently, math tells us that there are three kinds of totally ordered single player games.

  • ∅, where we've got no choices at all. if society gives you this choice, blame society.
  • successor ordinals such as 42 or ω + 1, where you've got many choices, including one which is obviously better. if society gives you this choice, pick the best move and smile.
  • limit ordinals such as &omega, where no matter which choice you make, you could have made a better one. if society gives you this choice, pick as best as you can, then blame yourself for not choosing better.

Barry Schwartz noticed that consumerism yields societies with lots of choices of the third kind, which makes people unhappy. Perhaps his book offers practical solutions, but in his talk he just seemed nostalgic of the days when society gave him choices of the second, perhaps even of the first type. Well, I've got a message of hope for him.

If ordinals are any indication of the evolution of society (!), then we're going to experience an alternation of successor and limit situations, so we're going to be fine half of the time. Society is not going to revert to the old days of the finite ordinals, when there were few enough choices to make correct decisions. Instead, I predict that we're going to have even more choices, but that this time it's going to be pretty obvious which one to make. ω + 1: one step above the competition. Would make a great slogan. Soon after, said competition is going to adopt the new technology and we'll reach ω + ω, another disappointing limit ordinal. Then a new technology will project us into ω + ω + 1, and the first few consumers will experience satisfaction once again.

In short, the secret to happiness is not to have low expectations, as Barry suggests, but to be an early adopter!

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