I’ve been trying to think of a subject to write about for the an end-of-year blog post, and, having ruled out Jade Goody’s cultural legacy, the death of Auto-Tune and the career prospects of Tiger Woods, it jumped out at me.
So-called “choice fatigue”, more than any other topic, seems to me the most easily identifiable cultural trend and the most vital issue of the past year, nay, decade.
If you’re wondering what this suspiciously jargonistic concept could possibly represent in the real world, it’s basically the theory that the array of choices presented to us in the modern world doesn’t actually entail any kind of increased happiness or enlightenment. It’s something that readers of Armando Ianucci’s Observer column might recall him lambasting a while ago, and it seems to be gaining more traction as a buzz topic of conversation in its own right. Hell, it’s so proper it even has its own book.
In the Noughties choice fatigue crept up on us while we weren’t looking, through the rise of internet shopping and eBay, MP3 players and iPods, not to mention the explosion of blogging and online journalism.
But over the past twelve months this galaxy of choice has contracted to a black hole, an infinite, inexhaustible portal to… everything.
In music, Spotify was the big advancement in 2009. Catching on by word of mouth and those oh-so-exclusive invitations (until you realised that every citizen of the EU could procure one), it quickly crossed over into the mainstream by virtue of its amazing selling point: (virtually) all the music you could ever imagine, at your fingertips, for FREE (with ads). Spotify has shifted the emphasis from ownership to streaming, and the sheer quantity of music opened up by this, along with the equally impressive Last.fm and The Hype Machine, is unthinkable.
That other digital buzzword of 2009 (even if it began a few years earlier) also played its part in the trend toward radical democratization. Yes, it’s Twitter I’m talking about. The jury’s still out on its actual worth, but this year the micro-blogging service became the ultimate source of information. Whether it was breaking news, daft video clips, top 10 lists, career advice or blurry photos of your mate’s night out, there was one place where it all ended up. And what does this lead to? Discovery? Exposure?Turning a light on corners of the internet we might never have (or indeed needed to have) seen?
Even in the dusty old Great British Living Room, the cult of choice is taking over. Instead of trying to time our routine around the TV schedule, we can just watch the entire series back-to-back with a DVD boxset, or play catch-up on BBC iPlayer or 4od.
In short, 2009 was the year when infinite choice became the standard, the expectation; a word that’s increasingly used by politicians and commentators in an unquestionably positive sense.
But are we really any wiser, happier or more cultured than we were in a decade ago, before all these advancements? No, we’re not. In fact, faced with so much choice, the public rarely want to experiment, settling instead for repeats of Top Gear and Come Dine With Me, streams of the latest single by Lady GaGa or Coldplay or a quick check of Facebook or YouTube.
Choice fatigue, the feeling you get when you stare blankly at your MP3 player as it scrolls through hundreds of not-quite-appropriate-for-my-current-mood albums.
So what exactly am I arguing for here? As tempting as it is to listen to our inner dictator (what, you don’t have one?) and seize back all choice from the individual (make them watch Brasseye, listen to Boards of Canada and read Charlie Brooker’s columns), that would make for a pretty warped society.
No, the answer lies with how we respond to the multitude of options before us. If the thought of Doctor Who or Avatar or the new Cormac McCarthy novel only vaguely flits through your brain tubes, rule them out. And do it decisively; make a concerted effort never to let any of these things occupy your mind again, and focus your attention wholeheartedly on what really interests you.
There you go, a ready-made resolution: become narrower-minded in 2010.
I’m off to continue my quest through the Sopranos boxset… (I really am).