Freedom from Choice

by Rob Horning

13 November 2006

Thanks to an ever diversifying market, our consumer choices are supposed to reveal precisely what we prefer. But is all this choice overwhelming our personal preferences and sweeping us up into futile overconsumption?
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One of the things I used to naively romanticize about the Soviet Union as a teenager was the idea that there were purportedly so few choices among consumer goods, that the stores were bereft of brands. I felt terrorized by the need to own brand-name clothing and crap like that, so I used to daydream about the land beyond such distinctions.

This image, from the English Russia blog, pretty well illustrates what my austere fantasies were like: gray, with dowdy unsmiling people in ill-fitting clothes, shopping in starkly unadorned facilities where only utilitarian products like plungers and saucepans were available.

Despite the demise of Soviet socialism, there’s reason to remain skeptical about the American alternative of superfluous consumer choice. As Jackson Lears and Richard Wightman Fox explain, “Life for most middle-class and many working class Americans in the 20th century has been a ceaseless pursuit of the ‘good life’ and a constant reminder of their powerlessness.” Consumerism is the mode through which this paradox is conveyed. It promises an impossible combination of effortless leisure with the ardor of commitment; it lets us signify a passion for a certain way of life while prepackaging the decisions that comprise it.

When we buy something, what we are getting is not only that thing but all the decisions that went into making that thing, and making it appear the way it is. Though we still experience the power inherent in making a choice in the market, what we pay for, in part, is the “freedom” to be out of the loop of the discussions that went into making a consumer good what it is; we pay to acquire that debate in commodified form, already finalized. We possess it rather than experience it.

We pay for editors and designers and marketers and executives and their many meetings to determine what form a thing must be in to be most attractive to the niche to which we would like to belong. We pay to avoid the burden of critical thought so that we may relax with our purchases, instead. Rather than hash out these decisions with our friends, or in various civic institutions, we instead can make them in broad strokes with a single shopping act.

By accepting a panoply of consumer goods in lieu of responsibility for shaping our identity through a deeper involvement with our peers, Americans have simultaneously become more and less free. “Although the dominant institutions of our culture have purported to be offering the consumer a fulfilling participation in the life of the community, they have to a large extent presented the empty prospect of taking part in the marketplace of personal exchange” (The Culture of Consumption, Pantheon, 1983).

So instead of concerning ourselves with social and political power, with the inequalities and injustices we all tolerate, we concentrate on the cultivation and gratification of whims, manufactured desires. For example, my leisure can lead me to idly read about yerba mate in some lifestyle magazine (the drink of Che Guevara!), and then I can go out and immediately buy some at Whole Foods and brew it for myself and have a revolutionary beverage experience. But the hedonistic promises of American capitalism—get what you want now, have paradise here now via material goods, via this great car, this HD television or this ultraefficient egg poacher—are ultimately frivolous and futile. There’s always another manufactured desire waiting to supplant whatever ones we manage to fulfill; we can always be duped, as well, by the need to replace everything we already have with a new and improved version.

According to happiness researcher Daniel Gilbert, people derive more satisfaction from routines than from constant variety and the endless pursuit of novelty, arguing in Stumbling on Happiness that those prone to “false variety seeking”—those who seek new choices for their own sake—are generally less happy than people who stick to established preferences. Yet it may be fruitless to condemn manufactured desires for something new. Most of us are convinced that we like being infused with desire. We like to fall in love, even if it is for a new flavor of Gatorade. The problem only becomes noticeable comes when we are confronted with too many competitors for our affection.

The shortcomings of the goals consumer life sets out for us begin to become evident when optional paralysis sets in. Faced with more consumer choices than we can comfortably process, we become more and more afraid we’ll make a less than optimal choice and we put off making decisions. The more choices we are presented with, the more likely it is we’ll become a “maximizer” and cease being a “sufficer”, (to use the terminology psychologist Barry Schwartz uses in The Paradox of Choice), meaning we’re more likely to be unsatisfied with anything less than perfection. Thus the benevolent process of retrospective rationalization hasn’t a chance to kick in as long as we suspend ourselves over multiple possibilities and “keep our options open”.

Or instead, we may find ourselves overconsuming, as a recent study, which found that people with more TV channels watch more TV than they say they want to, suggests (“TV Channels, Self Control and Happiness” by Benesch, Frey and Stutzer, Institute for Emperical Research in Economics). At this point, if you were a neo-classical economist, you be saying that’s nonsense. Consumer choices, economics tells us, reveal preferences, so people are in effect incapable of choosing something they don’t really want and if they say they have they are lying to themselves and putting up a false front of virtuousness or morality or modesty or what have you. (People say they want smart programming on TV, but they actually watch According to Jim. People say they are going to quit eating unhealthily, yet they do their grocery shopping at Circle K.) From this point of view, overconsumption is a ludicrous oxymoron.

Revealed preference is an attractive (if unforgiving) notion because it assesses people’s interests by what they do and not what they say. And it eschews judging the interests so revealed, or prescribing “normal” preferences to everyone. Thus it seems to admit the greatest possible scope for individual freedom. But a quick glance at reality suggests the obvious empirical fact that many people (myself included) don’t always know what they are doing or why.

Overconsumption really happens. Environmental and psychological factors lead people to choose poorly and against their interests and intentions. People don’t always respond rationally to incentives. Imperfect information, stubbornness, altruism or sheer stupidity can wreak havoc on such models that ascribe to humans a uniform rational competence. The advertising industry exists to create information asymmetries, to produce irrational behavior, to provoke marginal stupidity. Often consumption choices reveal simple confusion or inertia or rather than any actual preferences; over time these non-choices accrue and culminate in a cosmic self-misrecognition—the “this is not my beautiful house” moment described in the Talking Heads song, “Once in a Lifetime”.

But because perfect rationality is enshrined in the received analyses of capitalism, and because capitalism shapes our consciousness in ways we can hardly even begin to enumerate, we tend to expect this perfect rationality of ourselves; we overrate the “freedom” that comes from consumer choice and underrate other forms of political and social freedom.  Or rather, we see our ability to vote, to participate in civil society, to expresses ourselves more or less freely as finding our most perfect expression in market situations, in the choice among products we’ll own. And since we are encouraged by the standard economic analysis of capitalism (which trickles down throughout capitalist culture) to never regard our free choices as constrained or curtailed or shaped by any force other than our own will, we believe the exercise of that will in the market is the most meaningful self-defining activity we can undertake—consumption trumps production, and we are what we own rather than what we make and do. And it gets harder to understand what is happening when the market disappoints us, when we discover we have made the false choices that received ideology has taught us are impossible. Society allows no space for such disappointment to exist, since we can’t blame our perfectly rational selves or the perfectly efficient market. So it just builds as a kind of dark matter, perhaps finding expression in the rise of mental illness, stress, and fundamentalist spirituality.

From the realm of consumer goods, the effects of superfluous choice spreads to other aspects of existence, such as the way we communicate. Rather than facilitate better communication, for example, cell phones and other communications technologies make it wasteful and inexplicit, complicating communication by making it seem inordinately simple and inviting us to replace mutual comprehension with sheer accessibility. Because cell phones, et. al., allow people to forestall committing to any plan; everything becomes contingent and open to last-minute modification. “I’ll call you when I get there, and then we’ll figure it out.” And because our own decisions have been made provisional, we assume everyone else’s have become that way too, and thus we must keep calling one another to firm up plans or to again lobby for what has already supposedly been agreed upon.

Technology seems to demand that you become more indecisive to take advantage of the flexibility it provides you. You have to become more irresponsible to justify carrying one, and this pattern reinforces itself until you are blabbing about your every move as you’re walking down Houston Street. Calls multiply themselves, adding to telcoms’ bottom line while adding to our sum total of everyday insecurity. Yet that systemic low-level insecurity is hard to perceive; instead we remember those instances when cell phones prove truly convenient.

A surfeit of choice, in general seems to work this way: The confusion it generates is masked by moments of pseudo-serendipity: when the convenience store has the packing tape you needed, when a cable channel happens to be showing an old movie you had just remembered earlier, when the supermarket has the gluten flour a recipe strangely calls for. Such moments may lead us to overrate having options while preventing us from noticing how psychically wearing they can be.

So as technology presents us more choices, it’s in fact standardizing behavior and expectations. This plays out not only with communication but with standards of appearance. Thanks to beauty products and cosmetic surgery women have more choices and options than ever in how to conform to an oppressive standard of beauty. As Alexandra Wolfe remarks in a review of Beauty Junkies, a book about the cosmetic surgery industry, “Since women can achieve an approximation of attractiveness through one procedure or another, they all end up looking vaguely like the same person: an aging porn star” (“Alas, It’s Still Only Skin Deep”, 13 October 2006). Cosmetic surgery permits women to eschew their natural looks in favor of a technologically produced fashionable alternative. Rather than seek to be appreciated for our peculiar and unique qualities, we seem to prefer to be judged in terms of more universal criteria, demarcated by what is technologically possible. Why? Because this standardized, manufactured “beauty”, now available as a product, is universally understood as a proxy for money and class: Those with the income and the access to the right surgeons can achieve that plasticized, robotic, always-alert look, which isn’t beautiful so much as it is evidently expensive.

Cosmetic surgery is indicative of the how technology and expanded consumer choice manage to proliferate. When consumer choice colonizes a realm of everyday life—the way we look, the way we talk to one another—it absorbs it into the play of the cycle of fashion and the zero-sum rigor of manufacturing class distinctions, the requirement of consuming conspicuously. The “choices” are actually coercive in practice; they destablilize one’s sense of self and intensify feelings of insecurity, they intentionally create the impression of inadequacy. Decisions forced upon us by capricious changes in fashion choices don’t increase our sense of freedom; they instead force upon us opportunities to inevitably fail. (Hence another of my naïve teenage Communist fantasies: the dream of the all-purpose Maoist uniform, and the universal suppression of outward shows of individual expression, which seemed to me the actual distractions from what I thought made me unique. I wanted the uniform to protect me and everyone else from the failure to appear as who I really was.)

Thus it seems both plausible and extremely depressing that the pressures of self-presentation women are subject to will spread to men and intensify. Pandagon blogger Amanda Marcotte predicts that “as women gain power, we’re going to grow weary of tap dancing for men, but on the other hand, men are going to start tap dancing for us. I’ve got no problem with this; in the abstract sense, a lot of things marked feminine are joyful in themselves, but only problematic because they’ve got the baggage of inferiority attached to them. Ornamental dress and grooming isn’t really a problem, unless you have some sort of grudge against color and beauty”.

I suppose I do have a grudge against color and beauty, because in consumer society, those concepts aren’t for themselves but are tools of producing, displaying, and reinforcing economic inequality (as well as reinforcing gender inequality, as they do now). Aesthetic beauty has no objective reference point (there’s no universal ideal); it derives from the imperative of signifying class. The “baggage of inferiority” is always attached to beauty once it becomes subject to fashion—that is, once it becomes an on-demand product. Ultimately that’s the whole point of “feeling beautiful” as opposed to simply being beautiful: to make yourself feel superior and others inferior. And the byproduct of this, that we all feel insecure over just where we rank in the beauty hierarchy, makes us that much more likely to cooperate, to line ourselves up when the next season’s fashions—in clothes, in cell phones, in cars—are introduced. If only I could march around in a Mao suit without calling so much attention to myself.

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