Can Things Be Too Good?

I have a very vivid memory of a morning a few years back when I asked a friend if he wanted to get breakfast at a fancy sit-down place and he declined. His reason? The place was too good. The day prior we had had breakfast, lunch, and dinner out, and the idea of eating out yet again, at yet another nice place, had started to feel excessive.

In his essay "A Cup of Decaf Reality", Slavoj Zizek writes about how modern culture has created a sense of the world that you can have the good without the bad. As he writes, "on today's market, we find a whole series of products deprived of their malignant property: coffee without caffeine, cream without fat, beer without alcohol... And the list goes on... Virtual Reality simply generalizes this procedure of offering a product deprived of its substance... Virtual Reality is experienced as reality without being one. Is this not the attitude of today's hedonistic Last Man? Everything is permitted, you can enjoy everything, BUT deprived of its substance which makes it dangerous." That is the essential problem of too good, in my mind: everything you want at your fingertips without the struggle, the mess, the work.

But why would someone reject something that's too good?

One explanation of the problem is that we need contrast in the experiences of our lives. Without lows, there are no highs, and without highs there are no lows. Experience is inherently relative. If everything is good, nothing is good. It's the driving principle behind the boy born with a silver spoon who is unable to experience happiness.

Another explanation could be that there is something biologically engrained in us to work for our indulgences in order to take pleasure in them. In the early stages of Homo sapiens' development, the successful tribes and bands, the ones that had the opportunity to pass on their collective genes, would probably have been aided by a drive to work and contribute to the tribe's affluence. If there were too many individuals who were simply content standing by and soaking up the fruits of others' labor, the group would not be successful and would likely eventually die out. On the other hand, as an individual within that group, shirking would have been adaptive to some extent. That is, if you could get away without expending too much effort or calories on work and still be clothed and fed, it would be beneficial to you, but you alone. As is the nature of group versus individual selection, we have opposing instincts in battle with one another. It is the characteristic human contradiction of altruism versus selfishness at play. Likewise, perhaps there is something in us that both tantalizes and repels us of from convenience at the same time.

I work at a startup where everyone uses rdio, a music service like Spotify where just about every album you can imagine is available to stream instantly. To the chagrin of many, I refuse to use rdio. It's too good. The work of discovering music through blogs or a blurry cascade of links, as opposed to simply looking at what's trending on rdio, is part of the pleasure of musical experience for me.

The idea of too much good, too much convenience, too much crowdsourced curation, extends beyond music. Look at this comment I stumbled upon from reddit:

"I really really really really miss Blockbuster. Watching movies online at your leisure is not the same as going down to your local Blockbuster (In my case, I had to walk with my buddies, making it kind of a trip) and looking through all of the crazy movies they had, trying to find something that looked like it would hold your attention. Then you find something obscure, and you watch it all together. Now you have a bond. You found some random-ass movie in this video store, just because it looked fun to watch, and you watched it, and whether it was good or not, it didn't matter. You all could talk about this movie that you had to search for, and sometimes it ends up being your favorite movie. And that's special."

This is a bit tangential, and a bit not. But I also see this as a contributing factor into how this whole hipster thing got to be a thing. Sure, part of it is aesthetic, part of it is a futile pursuit of authenticity, and another part is perhaps nostalgic romanticism for a simpler era, but if nothing else, a side effect of all this having to go through work to experience pleasure.

Less tangential, is the modern smart phone: the zenith of too good. Dopamine at your fingertips. The good news, if you will permit me to make a value judgment, is that there are some early signs of awareness of "too good" as a problem, even if it's not phrased in such a way. Some yuppies have created playful rules to curtail the destructive nature of smart phones, by for instance having the first person to check their phone at dinner pay for everyone's meal.

Some people might think I am conflating too many problems into one. Maybe I am, but whatever the web of systemic influences might be, I think we will see in coming times more examples of cultural backlashes against "too goods." In short, people will think more carefully about the hidden price of convenience and excess. Perhaps it starts with the vocabulary of too good entering the lexicon of the mainstream.