To cyberspace with M&S Infinite choice is around the next bend in the information superhighway. But wi ll we want it?

Do we, does anybody in their right mind, actually want this avalanche o f choice? Locked away with their screens, will they not dissolve into cyberspace?
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The Independent Online
Some smart young technocrats in one of the big American media corporations were brainstorming the interactive future. They had been hard at it all morning, revelling in their power to dispense a thousandfold increase in consumer choice of films, television programmes, games, home shopping, educational aids and so on. This, surely, was the cutting edge of contemporary reality. At some point the hotshots felt like lunch and they went down to the local deli, where the brainstorming continued.

They were interrupted by the waitress - I picture her as Carla from Cheers! - demanding their order. Irritated by the distraction, the technocrats looked impatiently at the vast menu.

"What's good?" one of them asked.

"Meat loaf," snapped back Carla.

"We'll have eight meat loaves."

As the waitress left, the bright boys suddenly stopped, caught each other's eyes and experienced an revelation. There they were, talking about providing people with an effective infinity of choice but, when it came to lunch, all they wanted was to be told what to eat. Never mind the information superhighway, in the real world they couldn't even handle a sassy waitress and a menu.

And now Carla is heading in our direction, waving her gigantic menu. This summer, in 2,500 homes in Colchester and Ipswich, BT is to try out interactive TV, a kind of one-lane version of the superhighway. This is one of about 50 similar trials going on around the world this year. Billions upon billions of investment money are waiting on the results.

Users of the BT trial system will be able to shop, bank, acquire local information and, through a system called video on demand (VOD), watch TV programmes and films whenever they want, all via a TV screen with a box on top of it. They will, compared withthe rest of us, dwell in a paradise of choice.

And yet this is, of course, no more than a pale dress rehearsal for what comes next. Video on demand, once fully operational, will allow us to call up almost any film in the world, to watch any TV programme and to compile "dream schedules" - our own perfect evening's viewing. It will offer up to 1,200 TV channels and allow us to bank, shop anywhere, play games with people we have never met, surf the net, cruise cyberspace and so on. High streets will be depopulated, video shops closed. In America, the g arbage disposal industry has said, quite seriously, the refuse system will collapse under the weight of discarded TV sets.

This is all more or less possible now. We have the technology, give or take a few million lines of software code. But there are problems. There is, for example, no immediate likelihood of the big corporations agreeing on a compatible equipment standard. Until they do, the consumers will hold back, fearful of buying the wrong box/ screen/ software, whatever.

But the real $64m problem is the meat loaf problem: do we, does anybody in their right mind, actually want this avalanche of choice? Isn't this new technology little more than what one observer has described as "the most brilliant cure yet invented for which there is no known disease"? Wouldn't we rather just ask the waitress what's good?

Nobody knows the answer to these questions. On paper the possibilities appear dazzling. And, after all, people like TV, they like games, so won't they like more TV, more games?

For the moment the answer appears to be no. The turnover of new technology in the shops is now so rapid that most of the population is simply not buying. In the Sony company, it is said, the consumer people are trying to persuade the manufacturing peoplenot to churn out quite so many boxes, their customers are reeling from box-shock.

In addition, the technologically illiterate public does not really understand what all the excitement is about. Already they can play computer games, watch videos and listen to music. This, surely, is the good life. What more can there be?

But of course, the technocrats can convince themselves that this is a temporary state of affairs. The masses will buy when hard and software are sorted out and when a new generation of technologically literate computer nerds rises up to take control of the household spending decisions. And they will buy when they see that the wired-up Joneses are having more fun that they are.

These are easy rationalisations, respectable disguises for an irrational faith. What the technocrats are really saying is that they cannot, in their wildest imaginings, believe that this amazingly smart, flashy stuff will not find a mass market. This, tothem, is the telephone, the Model T Ford, the big idea that changes the world by democratising technology.

Their absolute faith is that new technology must create new markets. And, of course, up to now they have been vindicated - one way or another people have found the money to buy whatever gadgets they could be persuaded they needed.

The ideological basis of the technocrats' faith is that choice is freedom. Offer people everything they could ever possibly want and you are enhancing their liberty to do what they like with their lives. But as the meat loaf story shows, there is a flaw in this. Freedom to choose does not work unless you can identify some logic or justification for your ultimate choice. Faced simply with an endless menu, you find yourself without reference points, without a reason for choosing one thing rather than another. So, rather than be free, you turn to Carla, an authority figure, and ask her.

The smarter technocrats have worked this out. They know that, faced with an undifferentiated sea of goodies, the consumer will always play safe, going for what they recognise. Branding will be everything. Look at the whole Virgin phenomenon. Branson's company is now producing a cola whose sole appeal is that it has Virgin on the can. The name matters more than the product.

What will count on the superhighway is familiarity, precisely because it will be at such a premium. In the midst of the chaos that floods down the fibre-optic cable, a sign saying Marks & Spencer, BBC or Virgin will be clutched at gratefully. So now Microsoft, the biggest software company in the world and probably the technological leader on the superhighway, is pouring out corporate advertising simply to make its name stick. The idea is that, in time, people will feel safe buying anything with their lo go attached.

There is something reassuring about this impulse to limit our own freedom when confronted with the chaos of contemporary choice. It speaks of a need for security and authority. People will not want to lose themselves in the net, they will want to survivewith their prejudices and tastes intact. They will not want, like their teenage children, to surf the net, they will want to navigate their way around it, probably in a rowing boat.

And this leads on to the argument advanced by the smartest of the technocrats - that this new, interactive technology is a genuine, moral improvement on the old, non-interactive systems. The argument is that the old broadcasting and media distributions

systems favour the lowest common denominator - the blockbuster film or the mindless soap - because these tend to push out more specialised interests from the limited amount of available space.

But with interactivity, and therefore freedom, people can pursue their own specialised interests. Art house movies and obscure documentaries will discover vast new audiences. Global micro-communities will be formed of trainspotters, twitchers or those poor, sad souls who like Anderson Country on Radio 4. There will, in other words, be a net increase in genuine cultural diversity. People will feel more at home, not less, rowing about the interactive future. The homogenising tendencies of the old, passivemedia will be replaced by the pluralist forces of interactivity.

This is, in fact, a surprisingly good argument. The sheer scale of the superhighway will permit the creation of any number of niches and it will clearly be a better world if people pursue a variety of interests rather than all watching Neighbours or Sylvester Stallone. The fear is, of course, that the existence of this vast electronic landscape will deaden people's ability and desire to create niches. Locked away, alone with their screens, will they not simply dissolve into cyberspace, losing the context which once gave them an interest in birds or trains?

Those are the two poles of the arguments about interactivity and the superhighway. Take your pick. I don't know. But I do know that I like meat loaf and even, once in a while, being told to eat it.