October 29, 2011

The peril of the new shiny

I'm a little bit behind in my movie watching. About 35 years behind.

Yesterday I saw the movie "Network" (1976) for the first time. Humorous, cynical, and meta is totally my hook, so I had a ball with this one. However, it reminded me of a pretty solemn pattern that I wanted to write about.

I call this pattern the "new shiny", in the same sense that a house cat only sits in your lap in the absence of a shiny thing dangling just out of its reach. In the movie, an older man leaves his wife, with whom he previously shared a 25-year committed relationship, for a younger woman, with whom he's become infatuated.

Now, in this movie's allegory, that younger woman is a metaphor for television and stuff, but that's besides the point for this discussion.

The story presents an instance of the "new shiny" pattern. You happen upon a new opportunity, incompatible with an opportunity you're currently pursuing, and you're tacitly forced to make a choice: pursue the new opportunity, or, through inaction, continue with pursuit of the current opportunity.

As the movie points out, it's easy to become infatuated, even obsessed, with the new shiny, if only because striking out on a new path is exciting and optimistically promising in its "honeymoon phase". In this light, the situation becomes even more difficult: passivity results in an outright denial of something intriguing, leaving you wondering, classically, "what could have been".

Inevitably, evaluating the new shiny with sound reasoning and peace of mind becomes very difficult. The irrationality of attachment — whether to existing things or to things that might be — blurs rational evaluation, if there was really any to be had to begin with. Often, no matter which you choose, you will quickly begin to wonder how much better things would have been on the other path.

...lovers, technologies, jobs, subjects of interest, projects...

Some categories don't have the same existential scarcity that makes the new shiny perilous. Take food: there's little cost to returning after venturing off to sample another cuisine. You don't feel the same kind of remorse choosing soup over salad. Other categories are far less forgiving.

There's also ample reason to fear the new shiny. Every time you make a commitment you disavow the temptation of the new shiny and its hold over you. And, typically, unless you take steps to strategically isolate yourself, you have little control over new shiny encounters — these things are just stumbled upon in the course of everyday life.

There are very few tools at our disposal to deal with the new shiny properly. Human prescience is quite limited to begin with. I suppose that the new shiny is just the classic problem of man versus raw choice taken to its passionate, emotionally-involved and foresight-crippled extreme.