So much choice and so little time…

As a result of one of my previous blogs, I attempted to change some of my habits of a lifetime. I actively sought out new places to go, different products to buy, different websites to visit and even went as far as to try and sit in different chairs. It was a real effort; in fact so much so, that I was amazed by the amount of choice available to me and equally amazed at the confusing effect that actually had on my options.

There’s a sketch that was performed by Fry and Laurie on their television show back in 1990 (before Hugh Laurie got a limp and became mega-rich) where Stephen Fry plays a waiter who’s congratulating a government minister on his ‘wonderful’ decision to deregulate British television; thus enabling the introduction of hundreds of new television channels, (most of whom now seem to show Top Gear and Friends on continuous repeat). The scene ends with the waiter removing the silver cutlery from the table and dumping a large bag of plastic coffee stirrers in their place. The diner is confused and protests as Fry begins throttling him whilst screaming

“But at least you’ve got a choice, they may be complete crap but it’s a choice!”

That was twenty-three years ago; but are we still being led to believe that a greater amount of choice has to automatically result in an increase in quality, and a greater amount of ‘free-will’? Surely the market determines it, the market won’t allow poor quality to survive, and surely we have enough innovation and invention that poor quality products will be over taken by quality products? We have a choice, we can vote with our cash,  isn’t that how markets work? Isn’t quality driven by consumer choice?  Anyone who’s tried to bang a galvanised steel nail into a wall using a Chinese hammer would argue differently, and clearly price still has a great power over quality. But surely there has to be a limit to the amount of choice that is economically viable. Or is it the other way round, by increasing choice are we spreading our options so wide that it actually has a detrimental effect on the amount of money available to contribute towards innovation, invention and increased quality?

This typically Thatcheresque deregulation of broadcasting didn’t actually affect me that much at the time, channel 5 wasn’t available where I lived, and I try at all costs not to furnish Mr Murdoch’s pockets with my silver pieces (though is very difficult as he seems to own half the known world) so I’ve never possessed a satellite dish. But I have experienced enough Sky TV to know that channel surfing using the up or down button on the remote control (as used to be my method of changing channel) now requires a large commitment of time. But what is it about that increase in choice that becomes an assumption of quality, why is more better? Why are twenty channels showing ‘DIY-SOS’ better than one (or even none)? By increasing our access to choice are we actually finding our exposure to new things being limited?

Take for example Google; if you type a word into the search bar within the blink of an eye you get a billion relevant web-pages in response, Google smugly informing you that this took 0.13 seconds, even though in Myanmar you usually have time for a cup of tea whilst you are waiting. It is fairly likely that the link you click from this choice of billions will be on the first page, often within the first ten entries. Those links aren’t there through chance alone or often even on merit, the majority of those links have been handpicked (using Google’s’ top-secret, very complicated algorithms, which we wouldn’t understand) to be on that first page for a reason, and some of them will have even paid to be there. So a Google search of any subject isn’t necessary going to bring you the most relevant webpages for your needs, but the ones that you are expected to view. And let’s face it, with over a billion alternatives going on for page after page it’s easier to click on whatever Google is selling/suggesting on that subject.

Google even interrupts you whilst typing to suggest what you should be inputting, as if what you wanted to choose was wrong, like one of those annoying husbands or wives who answers the end of their partner’s sentences for them. Even if you do manage to get your words accepted into the search bar it often comes back at you with results to a slightly different question, “did you mean…” Google says to me, assuming I’d made a mistake, like one of those people who looks down their nose over their glasses and says, “I think what you are trying to say is…”

For example, if  you are interested in investigating the funding mechanism of The Network of European Museum Organisations (NEMO) and do a Google search with that in mind, Google will instead direct you to a list of entries regarding a cartoon fish, which is no help whatsoever and very presumptuous that you have no interest in financial dealings of museums. This is claimed to be a support mechanism, a help to those of us that can’t spell so well, but is it not just a reduction in our access to choice?

Amazon is another perpetrator in the great choice smokescreen, as it continually reminds me of the things I have previously purchased and recommends things for me to buy:

“Ah”, it says knowingly “I see you recently purchased a pair of nostril hair trimmers” – (it comes to us all, trust me) “would you like to buy some more? Perhaps for a special occasion or as a spare pair?”

Or:

“Ooh, I see you just bought a book by E.L. James, here are thirty other equally badly written over-rated books at 99p all filled with grammatically incorrect sex scenes*

*please note these were both theoretical examples I don’t own Fifty Shades of Grey (with no offence intended towards the multi-millionaire E.L. James, or anyone who reads her books), and I bought my nostril hair trimmers from Argos, but you get my point.

Amazon and all the other purveyors of goods and information on the internet seem to go out of their way to encourage me to stick to the path, to stay on the straight and narrow of known experiences, and to not experiment with anything new. If I did (for some bizarre reason) buy an E.L. James book, (which admittedly would be trying something new) why not encourage me to broaden my horizons even further? Why not inspire me to try something different (other than bondage)?

“Ah, I see you’ve just bought “Fifty shades Darker” (you filthy bugger) have you considered reading ‘Brighton Rock” by Graham Green, or ‘Flowers for Algernon’ by Daniel Keyes?” or ‘The Iliad’ by Homer?

The more we use the internet the more the internet knows about us, the less we are exposed to and the less we actually view. Our surfing is strategically limited to the same pages every day because that is what is presented to us, and to escape that routine involves a struggle, and one that is often too laborious to consider, it’s just so much easier to go with the flow.

Even outside of the internet (in the real world!) we are helped to limit our choices. If you use a club card at Tesco’s you are encouraged to, and rewarded for continuing to buy the same products over and over again, regardless of their quality, and to the detriment of your choice to experiment with other products. If you happened to once pick up a tin of dog food as a favour for a neighbour in 2007, you will forever be inundated with offers to buy that dog food, regardless of the fact that you don’t own a dog. What if you did own a dog and then it died? Isn’t every time you get your club card points letter a painful reminder, aren’t they’re just poking a finger into that open wound, forcing you to eventually buy a replacement dog just so that you can read your statement without bursting into tears. That’s just cruel, bad Tesco, bad Tesco.

So in the same way that when I go to a restaurant with a 20 page menu I always find myself overwhelmed and just end up eating the same thing; when I go on the internet somehow it is just too much hassle to taste new things, experience new flavours and ideas and I generally end up at the same old pages, reading the same old opinions and buying the same old products.

And don’t get me wrong, I don’t think too much information is a bad thing, I just think we become subdued by it, overloaded by the choice and number of options.  We haven’t got time to effectively gauge the relevance of it all, make informed decisions of what to see and use, so it’s easier to stick with what we know, what we’ve already experienced, or its easier to go with what we are recommended. Regardless of our increased options, we often end up choosing from a selection already handpicked for us by someone else, and their reasons for providing that selection may well be not based on the quality, or on the relevance of that choice, it may well be what that someone else wants us to see, based on their reasons (whatever those reasons may be…) and not on our needs, or even our own choice.

 

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