Too Much Predictability
As explained in Barry Schwartz’s book, The Paradox of Choice, having more options is no promise of happiness or satisfaction, and can even lead to “self-doubt, anxiety and dread”. Schwartz identified this anxiety as stemming from twin sources: first, contemporary consumers are confronted with more choices than ever before. Second, consumers have fewer and fewer preconceptions about how to make these choices. Schwartz argues that even for serious choices such as selecting a doctor or following a religion, fewer people feel obliged to follow their families or other peers in making these choices, and that this uncertainty leads to the aforementioned anxiety and dread.
While choosing a CD or a movie is hardly on par with making a religious commitment, the same proliferation of choice can be seen in the sphere of media. When we are no longer limited by what we find in the bin of a local record store, the variety available may be exhilerating, or it may leave us paralyzed, not knowing where to click first.
And this infinite variety, with its accompanying and confusing impacts on our psyches, is only part of what characterizes the 21st-century relationship of people to media. Perhaps most significant is the fact that we now have very little expectation of an experience that is shared with our peers. With so many disparate forms of media competing for our attention, the likelihood dwindles that you and your next-door neighbor—or you and anyone you know—are watching the same program at the same time and will therefore have a common topic to chat about the next time you see each other. Individualized access to digital video recording technology and websites that stream popular television programs have only increased this disconnect.
Writing about the BBC program Doctor Who in for The Guardian (“Now we’re all time lords”, Mark Lawson wrote that “the biggest defining feature that TV has had, in comparison with other art forms such as theatre, film and literature, is that millions of people watched the programmes at precisely the same moment—in the way they still do for a football match or news of a terrorist attack.” (11 April 2008)
That has since changed, as Lawson explains, thanks to the myriad technologies that allow us to watch whatever programs we like, whenever we choose. But he argues convincingly that we still have a desire for shared experiences, despite opportunities to avoid them. “The huge queues for pre-hyped books and movies when they are finally released suggest a culture of being first at an event, a culture that TV, by making it easier to see things later, is resisting,” Lawson writes. The queues Lawson refers to offer rare opportunities for people to gather publicly in quest of a common cultural goal—and to share some time chatting with strangers about a common subject.
In his essay “Here’s ‘Johnny’‘, in Chuck Klosterman IV: A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas, Chuck Klosterman argues that this lack of shared experience is something we, as consumers, have brought upon ourselves in a paradoxical way. Mourning the death of Johnny Carson as “the last universally shared icon of modern popular culture”, Klosterman notes that “Choice makes us depressed. We just don’t realize it.”
Dismissing an example Schwartz gives about “having thirteen different options for uncooked pasta”, Klosterman argues that the true problem of overabundant choice is not stress—“I don’t worry about stress”, Klosterman notes—but rather the fact that shared cultural experiences may have died with Johnny Carson. Klosterman goes on to point out that, rather than this state of affairs having been imposed on us by some outside force, we have brought it upon ourselves by opting into the infinite variety of media available to us.
“We all possess the ability to stop ‘Johnny Carson’ from happening”, Klosterman writes, “and that is exactly what we choose to do”. This is because, unlike Schwartz’s angst about pasta, having lots of choices for cultural offerings usually strikes us as a good idea. Who among us wishes our favorite band had put out fewer great albums? who yearns for fewer episodes of our favorite television shows? But as Klosterman says, “The problematic rub is that—over time—choice isolates us. We have fewer shared experiences, and that makes us feel alone.”
As broadcast television loses viewers to on-demand viewing, as conventional radio cedes ground to satellite services, it becomes less common to experience media as a stream of flowing content, to be tapped into at precise junctures of space and time, like Johnny Carson’s 11PM time slot. Instead, media is experienced more often as a menu of static options, to be delivered at our behest. We download individual songs instead of buying albums; we select television programs to record or to view online instead of flipping channels. In doing so, we not only increase our freedom of choice, but we remove an element of unpredictability.
Listening to the radio has always been a game of chance, but satellite radio offers nearly 200 different stations tailored to narrow niches. Country-music fans listening to XM Radio can choose from classic, contemporary, “rockin’”, honky-tonk, “today’s new” country and hits from the past 30 years, in addition to bluegrass.
While television viewing is often targeted toward specific programs, a lot of the pleasure of watching TV also comes from the knowledge that we might stumble upon a program we hadn’t set out to watch. These happy accidents are why we channel-surf, or hit the “scan” button on the radio. When we watch only the TV programs we already know we like, or download only the songs we hear on the radio, we shut ourselves off to the possibility of discovering something new.
On-demand services can rarely satisfy our old-fashioned desire to sometimes be surprised. We’ve read too many reviews and PR quips about the show before clicking to download it - we know exactly what to expect. What’s lost in this process is the joy of stumbling upon something new and exciting—the accidental discovery. Lost, too, is the thrill of the chase for that elusive something that, in ancient history, led members of our species to many a dusty shelf or bin in an old fashioned brick and mortar store.
On-demand media exerts conflicting pressures on us. It draws us away from our co-workers and neighbors while simultaneously connecting us to a global community thousands strong. It dilutes the dwindling pool of cultural touchstones we share, but in doing so, exposes each of us to a vast ocean of possibility. It gives us virtually anything we could ever want at our fingertips, but threatens to overwhelm us with such abundance.
We can only hope thatwe can learn to balance this push and pull on our attention span, and somehow remain open to the occasional happy accident, should it occur. If we do not—if we continue to carve out increasingly smaller and more-specialized and predictable cultural niches for ourselves—we may find that we lose more than we gain.