The right to choose? No thanks

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Indy Lifestyle Online
The other day, a colleague asked me to fetch him a sandwich. "What kind?" I asked. "Whatever," he replied casually. I felt a momentary impulse of irritation, though this could hardly be described as an exacting request. So why should it feel like an improper burden and not a release? Because, I think, he had managed to slip me a little bit of his choice and, contrary to the prevailing wisdom, most of us could happily spend less time choosing.

Earlier in the week, I listened as a senior broadcaster sketched out the digital future. It was partly an admonitory vision - Murdoch is up and about while everyone else is sleeping - but there was also a gleam of wonderment in his description of a world in which choice had gone critical. Viewers would become their own programme controllers, scheduling exactly what they wanted at any hour of the day or night. Similarly, we are told, newspaper readers of the future will compose their own publications, tailored precisely to their interests and prejudices - you want the Daily India Watcher and Guppy Keeper's Gazette and you will be able to get it. Niche- marketing will be over because every one of us will be a niche of one.

For the political right, this is an uplifting prospect - after all, choice is the indispensable lubricant of the free market and this looks like the ultimate refinement of the machine. For the radical techno-hippy, it is equally promising because choice is also an essential component of democracy - they see a world liberated from the cultural tyranny of media gatekeepers. I think both, though, make the mistake of imagining choice as an infinitely expandable good, that more is always better. I can't help feeling that it might be different, that a world of unhindered choice might result in your taste closing ever tighter around you until you asphyxiate.

This isn't a Luddite protest, incidentally - I love the new technology with the helpless passion of a shy boy yearning for a cheerleader. I know it's doomed to be unreciprocated - that my clumsy ardour means every encounter will end in awkward confusion, but I will continue to worship from a distance, wistfully admiring of every new development. And some expansions of choice offer nothing but delight - imagine being able to download your own greatest hits CD down a phone-line or constructing your own historical archive from past news programmes.

It's just that I think there might be a price to pay for gorging at the electronic cornucopia like this. Already the last 30 years have seen an explosion of personal choice, from the food we buy to the pensions we don't. Not all of it is genuine choice, which may account for the fact that total television watching, despite a vastly increased number of outlets, has actually declined over the last few years. But undoubtedly the demands on our decision-making - proper and trivial - have grown enormously. Selection fatigue is beginning to set in.

One might even wonder whether the human brain, built on the frame of a scavenger's biology, necessarily content with the serendipity of the savannah, is constructed to cope with this. Perhaps unrestrained choice will turn pathological, induce in us psychoses we can only guess at. Watch a teenager with a channel controller - watch me, let's be honest - and you already see someone scratching the unappeasable itch of choice, the digital equivalent of a panther pacing its cage. Choice used to be the prelude to a superior form of reflection; now, the act of choosing is the thing itself.

What slow atrophy might endless choice bring about in our minds, what slowly fading capacity for surprise and compromise, for capitulation to ideas initially resisted and tastes initially disdained? Some would say that limitless choice will restore to choosing its intellectual rigour, that the current flickering agitation is simply a transitional state in which the old habits of mind are accommodating to new plenty. We're as stupefied as Russians entering a Western supermarket for the first time. But I suspect there will be losses too, along with the gains. The idea of tailoring the world to fit your tastes seems to me ultimately a dreadful one, a claustrophobia of self in which you sever yourself from contradiction and affront. And that is surely to be less human, not more.

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