Perhaps I’m one of the lucky few, but I feel relatively immune from this corrosive disease of completionism: generally, I’ll give a YouTube clip about 10 seconds to capture my interest before moving on to the next thing. I’ll give a news article or blog post a paragraph — at most — to prove itself worthy of my readership. If someone sends me a link, I’m wary of investing even a single click without some foretaste of what lies beneath.
Yet like Mr. Goodwin, I’ve also stubbornly sat through movies that had proven themselves insufferable before the opening credits expired. The difference, it seems, is that by the time I lost my appetite for the films, I had already made a significant investment: going to the movie store, paying the rental fee, reserving a block of time in my day, and, indeed, sitting through the opening credits. The compulsion to complete, then, is not itself inherent to human nature, but is rather a symptom of our instinctive response to sunk costs — sinking deeper. Once we’ve made an investment, of time or money, we’re inclined to stick it out even when it becomes clear that the fruits of that investment are barely edible.
Information consumption on the Internet, by contrast, requires virtually no investment at all: hence why I can guiltlessly shut off Dennis After the Dentist following the child’s first loony remark while feeling compelled to sit through Dennis the Menace to the last bitter temper tantrum. In this way, the Internet provides liberation from the tyranny of completionism: transaction costs vanish and we are free to live and consume in the present rather locking ourselves into whatever regretful choice we may have made at the movie store or newspaper stand.
Once it is understood that the Internet militates against the need to finish what we start, the “wrongs and wrongers” underlined by messieurs Goodwin and York have considerably less (if any) bite. Gluttony is far more likely when your mother insists you polish off your plate than when you’re free to stop eating once sated; similarly, we are at a greater risk of media overconsumption when prior investments weigh on our conscience than when everything presents itself on a no-strings-attached, take-it-or-leave-it basis. On some level, web browsing may indeed be about attaining knowledge for its own sake — hardly a cancerous disposition, if we think liberal arts education is at all worthwhile — but this is certainly preferable to consumption that we neither want nor need.
As to sloth, let’s not forget that while a newspaper is a one-way street, the Internet offers endless avenues of expression. From forwarding articles to making political contributions, the active doing of things becomes much easier online; and inertia, I would argue, is a far more serious impediment to meaningful action than any complacency that may result from the self-satisfaction of knowing. For the same reason, I have little sympathy with Mr. York’s contention that the ability to personalize consumption — and the sense of empowerment that comes with it — is a lamentable departure from the world where a handful of media elites dictated the sounds and images entering our living rooms and shaping our society.