The best lose all conviction
December 23, 2018 12:18 PM   Subscribe

A set of related essays on consumerism, searching for "the best", and the `paradox of choice'. Of these, the essay discussing the paradox of choice and the consumer construction of identity is most comprehensive; the rest of them are worked examples, as it were, from either the producer's point of view or the consumer's (in both cases, people at the bottom of the top, which is great clickfodder but also annoying in all the Metafilter-annoying ways).
posted by clew (19 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Le mieux est l'ennemi du bien.
posted by gimonca at 12:50 PM on December 23, 2018

One word : Satisficing
posted by panama joe at 1:44 PM on December 23, 2018

I get obsessed with finding the best budget option. This is not because I need ~*The Best*~, but because if I can't afford the last-for-a-decade thing, I want to at least buy the last-for-two-years thing as opposed to the last-for-three-months thing when they cost the same. I am trying to stretch my money as far as possible. So these reviews can be a godsend.
posted by Anonymous at 1:45 PM on December 23, 2018

Capitalism, like current mega-blockbuster Fortnite, is a game designed to produce 99% losers and 1% winners. The anxiety to find that very best product reflects the condition of living in a system where to be merely average is to be a failure.
posted by Pyry at 1:51 PM on December 23, 2018 [5 favorites]

The main linked interview, I think, sort of misses the mark by just a bit in failing to fully realize the cumulative effect of choice, reviews, and personal identity, thinking of it more in terms of those things being singular events instead of a more comprehensive world view that follows accepting ideals of the importance of choice.

Take this quote from early on in the interview:

Choices are about making us feel good, or about getting us to some other thing that we want. But there’s a third thing about choices that’s mostly been ignored, and that is that the choices we make are statements to the world about who we are.

That "third thing" hasn't really been ignored at all, but more importantly the consideration of "statement to the world" needs to be looked at a more complete philosophy or rationale than being about a choice statement alone.

This doesn't seem to be the case judging from the rest of the interview, as when they discuss reviews and then summarize ideas in this exchange near the end:

How much is the desire for the best just an attempt to avoid regret?

I think it’s huge. I think it’s what produces paralysis. The only way to avoid regretting a decision is not making it, so I think a lot of the reason people don’t pull the trigger is that they’re so worried that when they do pull the trigger, they’ll regret a choice they made.

If the purpose behind choices, even if unconsciously, is in making a statement about who we are, then regret is perhaps less an issue than the signal of our own failings that a subpar statement would make as interpreted by others judging our choices from the same attitude of importance we hold them to.

It's something one often sees in reviews where there is frequently an attempt made to not speak from just experience or one's own enjoyment but from some outside perspective as idealized arbiter or judge of what others would like or should find of merit. It's a perspective that holds as a worldview where the person making the claims has special standing. It isn't about a choice, but the values of the person making them, their position in making those claims, and shows the validity of their view as defining.

Superior choices show a superior person in the sense of them being statements of who we are. So a faulty choice is less about regret of the instance than loss of standing from failing to properly differentiate. That's why it's so important to find external reason for excusing bad choices as not being our fault or even just the random fluctuations of normal happenstance but some deliberate malfeasance on the part of the provider of what was chosen so as to remove the bad choice from our ledger and place the fault elsewhere.
posted by gusottertrout at 1:58 PM on December 23, 2018 [3 favorites]

There are some things, like electronics and cars, where I spend a great deal of time researching all options for within my budget, and because of the importance of those things to me and the satisfaction I get out if them, it's totally worthwhile. The larger point still stands though that we're being played for suckers by being enticed to prove our superiority through mere consumption.

(On review, what the comment above says more fully.)
posted by blue shadows at 2:01 PM on December 23, 2018

Seems to me that regret includes regret that we invoked other's scorn.

We have even less knowledge about what others will scorn than we do about what boots we will enjoy, though, so it's a mug's game. Sometimes others are actually scorning us and pretending it's our choices and we -- well, I don't know; I was going to say we should save the effort of even trying to appease them, but I may be underestimating the comforting effect of believing we'll get it right someday.
posted by clew at 3:16 PM on December 23, 2018

Capitalism, like current mega-blockbuster Fortnite, is a game designed to produce 99% losers and 1% winners

I wish we could have a version of Capitalism more like Fortnite, which owes much of its megasuccess to how well it makes losing almost as fun and worthwhile as winning.
posted by straight at 4:13 PM on December 23, 2018 [4 favorites]

I don’t have any clue about the answer.

but he doesn't imagine he might be wrong about the question. what a day it'll be for barry schwartz the day someone sits him down and explains to him that the reason people aren't often happy when they get the best thing is because for many, maybe most people he misclasses as "maximizers," what they enjoy is reading, researching, browsing, and shopping. none of which is the same as purchasing, consuming, or having. they don't get to stop hunting when they run out of potential items to inspect and consider; they have to. you're not happy about that any more than you're happy when you run out of pages in a book you loved. it does not follow that you were wrong to think you wanted to start reading it.

the reason you have a goal in the first place is to give shape to what is otherwise a shapeless and unboundaried activity (looking at beautiful things and lists of beautiful things). you make the goal as elusive and unattainable as possible (finding "the best") because that way the activity can go on for as long as possible. that's the point. the activity, again, is shopping: looking; dreaming; imagining. not buying and not possessing. a quest, not the self-satisfied and self-conscious enjoyment of some material substance and emblem of wealth.

the piece about beauty 'holy grails' isn't very good but it at least understands this, as does everyone who engages in the activity. the pleasure of investigation, examination, and classification, and the pure visual pleasure of looking at things has almost nothing in common with the deep but boring anxiety -- class, status, or financial -- over making an imperfect purchasing decision. classing them and studying them as though they were the same thing is the source of Schwartz's confusion. maybe someday psychologists will work it out.
posted by queenofbithynia at 4:31 PM on December 23, 2018 [10 favorites]

I feel like this 'best' thing started (in my experience) among Boomers (of which I am one) who became Yuppies (of which I was not one) in the late 70's- early 80's. There seemed to be a quest for buying the best. I had no understanding of why this was a thing. I know part of it for me was a sense of not having enough money for 'the best', but mostly, I just didn't get it.
I am reminded of a guy I met who grew up in the USSR. We asked him what he didn't like about the US, and he said "too many choices". He was used to going into a store to get the one item there that was in the item class he was looking for- e.g.- the one laundry detergent/soda/cereal instead of 30 choices of each. He found it overwhelming.
posted by MtDewd at 4:54 PM on December 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

The android versus iPhone thing touched on in the interview is underexplored I think. Like, let’s say for the sake of argument that the iPhone is objectively the best phone. I think they’re still would exist a pretty big group of maximizers who study the different android phones in tensely to find the best one among those. Which would be a much more entertaining task if you’re that kind of person then just grabbing which ever iPhone model you can afford.
posted by Space Coyote at 6:14 PM on December 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

Excellence is THE trend of the '80s. Walk into any shopping-mall bookstore, go to the rack where they keep the best-sellers such as "Garfield Gets Spayed," and you'll see a half-dozen books telling you how to be excellent: "In Search of Excellence," "Finding Excellence," "Grasping Hold of Excellence," "Where to Hide Your Excellence at Night So the Cleaning Personnel Don't Steal It," etc.

The message of these books is that, here in the '80s, "good" is no longer good enough. In today's business environment, "good" is a word we use to describe an employee whom we are about to transfer to a urinal-storage facility in the Aleutian Islands. What we want, in our '80s business executive, is somebody who demands the best in everything; somebody who is never satisfied; somebody who, if he had been in charge of decorating the Sistine Chapel, would have said: "That is a good fresco, Michelangelo, but I want a better fresco, and I want it by tomorrow morning."
(Dave Barry)
posted by praemunire at 7:29 PM on December 23, 2018 [4 favorites]

Sometime in the 1970s, there was a book called something like "The Best", and it just listed the best of everything, with a brief description explaining why it is the best. It listed all kinds of disparate things: the best watch, the best city, the best lane to drive on the freeway.

Now days, with the internet, this sort of thing is very common. A good example is the NYT website Wirecutter, but at the time this conceit was novel (at least in its wide variety of items to select the best of), and the book was a bestseller.

I guess Consumer Reports has always done this, though only with consumer goods: 'This is the best vacuum cleaner." At least they (usually) list enough products and give enough details so you can make a different decision if you have different requirements.

But some people just want that one answer, which the article goes into. Wirecutter helps cure me of this because I almost always completely disagree with every choice they make.
posted by eye of newt at 9:58 PM on December 23, 2018 [4 favorites]

Millennials have every reason to believe this aggressive comparison shopping is necessary, because we've gone from "well the store brand isn't quite as nice as the name brand" to "Amazon sells 300 versions of this exact thing under brand names that didn't exist a year ago and half of the reviews are fake" or "every retailer sells a small appliance by this company but they all have slightly different model numbers and features and some of them are constructed much better than others". So, yes, if I'm buying something, I'm looking at least at Wirecutter's pick even for small stuff, and often more than that for anything that's at least $50.

Like, I believe that you can't have an "objectively best" between Android and iPhone--friends and I have different favorites there because as it turns out we just use our phones differently and have setups that work for us on our preferred ecosystem. So that just plain takes some time to figure out. But I would love to have been able to go buy a vacuum cleaner without ten hours of research beforehand, you know? But I'm the one who gets financially punished if I don't do that.
posted by Sequence at 11:10 PM on December 23, 2018 [16 favorites]

I agree to a certain extent, but I'm just not sure there objectively can be "the best" product of any sort; the idea of what's best is too subjective.

As with phones, so with vacuum cleaners - our needs aren't the same. I have a couple cats, a basement, no carpet and one big hide rug, and I'm in interminable renovation mode. So my vacuuming needs consist of "what can get between the cracks in the floor and the couch cushions" combined with "I need a wet-dry vac for when the basement takes on water or I'm demolishing a wall." No single product does both things well, but on the spectrum between those two types of vacuum there are a number of designs that might work for someone with e.g. two cats and carpet who doesn't need to do demolition.

I suspect the type of ranking under discussion is really a slightly newer version of something that's been going on for centuries, although first as the product of a region rather than a company - Champagne, Parmesan, fine "China" were the best, even if you could get sparkling wine, aged cheese, and porcelain from plenty of other places. A side effect of mass production/manufacture, maybe? One that was vastly exaggerated by the age of mechanical reproduction in an increasingly globalized world. Haven't read all the articles yet but IME Vox isn't particularly good at, well, history.

The particularly eighties "make a list" component seems very related to how Trump-type rich boomers don't really want to figure out what's best for them, just a list of conspicuous things to consume.
posted by aspersioncast at 9:31 AM on December 24, 2018

Good title! (But do you know where I could find a recommendation for loosing the best possible blood-dimmed tide? Some inferior tides barely inundate the ceremony of innocence, when it ought to be properly drowned)
posted by rossmik at 9:40 AM on December 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

I really wish they had talked a little about the Wirecutter/CR and similar sites. To some degree, the Wirecutter has cured a lot of my own maximizer/choice-paralysis tendencies; for nearly anything that I need, but don't actually care about too much (in reverse order for 2018: a whisk, a Qi charger, wine stoppers, packing cubes, a standing desk mat, measuring spoons and cups, Sonos speakers), I go to the Wirecutter, read the relevant article, look through the competition section to see if they've disqualified anything based on criteria I don't share, and then purchase whatever it is. For most of those things, I just bought the recommendation. For me, that's created an experience similar to what people are describing here as a phenomenon from the past, where I just got a thing that worked well and I was able to stop thinking about it, but it also gave me the mental cover that this is "the best" thing (even if it actually isn't, because I know lots of people disagree with the Wirecutter's recs).
posted by protocoach at 10:49 AM on December 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

For me, the best thing is the thing I own, and I'd tell you all about it, except I don't want you to be tempted to bite my style. Best you make your own mistakes and learn to be your own person: I'm not getting paid to do it for you, nor do I have any desire to.
posted by some loser at 7:33 PM on December 26, 2018

The other reason everything sucks more now is we're too good at engineering. Used to be you'd have to design things to last decades if you wanted to make sure they would last beyond the warranty. Now you can reliably design things to the bare minimum quality and cheapness necessary to be functional for a few months.
posted by straight at 8:19 PM on December 26, 2018 [2 favorites]

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