I like my coffee black. I like Terry Gilliam films and Dave Eggers books. I weed out the stuff I hate (Oliver Stone) every day so I can enjoy my favourites. Recently, this privilege to choose has evolved to encompass themes much broader than taste in movies and literature.
The Internet and the iPod, along with other modern technologies, give us an unprecedented ability to filter what we experience in real time. Recently, historian Christine Rosen, fellow at the U.S. Ethics and Public Policy Center commented on this ability to choose in her widely quoted article for The New Atlantis called The Age Of Egocasting.
Rosen defines egocasting as the "personalized and extremely narrow pursuit of one's personal taste." She argues that remote controls, TiVos, and iPods are spoiling us with choice.
"They encourage not the cultivation of taste, but the numbing repetition of fetish," she says.
We run the risk of withdrawing from a world that is unmediated and confusing, preferring the solace of our controlling technologies.
She points to the invention of the remote control as the first instance of a personal technology designed with choice in mind. However, Rosen presents this scenario as if TVs didn't have a channel knob before remotes.
She goes further, though, and suggests that our obsession with choice might erode the very foundations of our democracy. Once we get used to getting our way, we won't want to engage with people who have differing opinions.
Hello, I'm Special, a book by Broken Pencil co-founder Hal Niedzviecki, has a different philosophy. Niedzviecki argues that the choices we are offered in the marketplace are presented as a way to assert our individuality, yet the options remain firmly in the hands of the corporation. Our desire for choice has been co-opted and manipulated to the point where there is no choice at all.
Both these critiques of our excess of choice miss the bottom line. Whether it's the right blaming the modern consumer for selfishness and the decline of traditional values, or the left blaming corporations for the co-option of choice, human beings still do surprising and original things with whatever choices we are given.
Rosen's hysteria over remote controls ignores any benefits the clicker might bring. Universal remotes can be used to turn off TVs in a bar, making a public statement about individual preferences for eye contact and conversation over the passivity of the TV. The locally produced TV Carnage series depends on the rapid, selective power of the remote to create hilarious mash-ups of weird TV clips.
In music, the situation is the same. Rosen laments the fact that we can just sample the good parts of a symphony without "savouring" the full piece "as its composer intended." But personal experience trumps a composer's intention, causing every song to be heard in a unique way.
This trend has recently become overt, with album remixes hitting the Web within days of release: who's to say that Mahler mashed up with the Roots is less interesting than either original?
Niedzviecki complains about the maddening similarity of pop music, disguised to convince us to think we're cool and different for listening to it. The power of the iPod, though, lies in the fact that you can reinterpret a Britney Spears song when it's playlisted next to a Beatles song.
The selfishness of these choices ends when we share our interpretations with other people. A quick glance at the blogosphere or an Internet chat room quickly confirms that people are addicted to communicating their opinions. There is no difference between this and discussing options over the phone.
It's just that the tools have been updated.