Last week I was chatting with a workmate about what we’d done the night before – the usual water cooler stuff. We’d both been at our homes, at a loose end, sifting through things to watch on TV. Options, options and more options. Netflix, Amazon Prime, iTunes, old-style TV, box sets, our DVD collections – all of them with thousands of choices.
Our shared and slightly miserable conclusion was that we’d spent hours pondering and no time experiencing, wading through the shallows of trailers, cast lists, reviews and plot summaries before eventually giving up with no time left to do anything at all.
It’s like Goldilocks turning up to the house and discovering that the bears have a massive extended family of fussy eaters.
Getting to the medium-sized room temperature serving of oat and date porridge with malt and cinnamon sprinkles is going to take poor Goldilocks quite a while. It’s also going to leave her unsure whether she has made the best choice long after it’s far too late. That porridge won’t taste as good as it might if it were one of three. That’s the paradox of choice.
The same option frenzy now applies to music, books and social choices. We weigh so many decisions so precisely that we’re left with little time for the experience.
Choice is also a participatory sport. We quiz our friends for options. We even place ourselves in the choices when we finally, if briefly, settle on something. The first thought is to upload a picture of each course at a restaurant. Self-fulfilment becomes self-actualisation becomes self-obsession becomes the selfie. How ready we are to record an act of experience with ourselves in it.
In this choicefest we’re like the vultures in that scene in the Jungle Book – “What do you want to do?” “I don’t know, what do you want to do?” And round and round it goes in the circle game.
I believe we’ve reached a point when the time we spend considering choices exceeds the time we spend doing the thing we decide to do.
I remember first noting this in a diner in Boston in the 1970s when my mother rather innocently asked what salad dressings were available. There followed, in a practised monotone, “Ranch, Italian, Russian, French, Vinaigrette, Greek, Newman’s Own…” On and on for about a minute and a half. My back of the envelope calculation, after taking into account time devoted to clarification and dithering over the choice, plus a change or two of heart, is that much more time was spent weighing and internalising the choice than was spent internalising the salad.
Back in the olden days, before everything spoke to everything else, choice was a moot point. The TV show Blind Date, made famous here by Cilla, had an early incarnation in Australia. One of my favourite TV memories was an extract from the first programme.
There’s the part when the potential dates are asked to give answers to questions so that the chooser can make a slightly less uninformed choice. Back then, the chooser had no say in the questions and was also required to answer. So the presenter asked this rather random question:
“What is your favourite meal? Is it (a) roast beef or (b) fish and chips?”
Ponder this for a moment. How can a favourite meal be reduced to one of two options? There’s no vegetarian option, no option for neither and no opportunity to supply an alternative.
In a way this seems dumb, and in another it’s strangely refreshing. The decision the contestants make invites all sorts of other thoughts: why did he say ‘fish and chips’? Does it mean that he likes the seaside? Is he pescatarian? If he likes fish and chips so much, does that mean he’s a comfort food fan? All sorts of questions that make us think more deeply about the situation.
Choice is bewildering. A lovely word, bewildering. It originates in the 17th century and is an amalgam of ‘be’, which means ‘thoroughly’ and ‘wilder’ which means ‘led astray’. Choice leads us astray into a wilderness of indecision.
When I was very young there were two black and white TV stations and VCRs hadn’t been invented and my sense of appreciation of a choice, insofar as there ever was one, was great. I looked more closely at the things I was offered and they made their mark in a way that quite a lot of our eventual choices no longer do. Think for example about a film with Jason Statham in it. He’s made quite a few. Now try and explain, even roughly, the differences in the plots between them. The line ‘plus ca change, plus c’est le meme chose’ was written for today’s choicefest.
On the weekend I discovered that there is a local film group in a room above a pub. The choice isn’t declared. It belongs to one person. The group is over-subscribed. How strangely liberating to show up to something unknown. Another local cinema offers a new service that allows you to see an as-yet unreleased movie for a fiver on a Monday night. You aren’t told what it is. I gather, again, that the idea has been a runaway success. We lose sight of the idea that no choice at all sometimes has its merits.
Faced with choice, how do we make the choosing more manageable and the destination more fulfilling. As participants, we can reduce our choices by shutting options down.
For marketeers, perhaps there are two lessons that arise from all this catastrophic availability:
(1) Be spartan. Too many menu choices don’t spoil the broth, but they do make it far less likely that the broth you’re trying to shift will be sold if there are 27 of them. Work out what you’re best at and lead with that entertainingly repetitively.
(2) Be genuinely tantalising. The story that you use to get people to the door is as important if not more so than what the customer experiences when they come inside. But don’t give it all away. The story shouldn’t be the fully monty.
Maybe what we crave mostly is entertaining repetition. We all have our top ten this or thats. Fewer things done better.
Here’s map of the Internet in 1973. Each circle represents a website. How small and contained and comforting it looks.
Imagine: none of the wading through everything every time. That kills time which isn’t the same as killing time.