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My Favourite Planet > Blogs > Edwin Drood's Column > September 2012
back Edwin Drood's Column
18 September 2012
The tyranny of choice at the Mysterious Edwin Drood's Column
Now that we live in a world of unlimited choice, well almost, if you believe the blurb, Edwin
would like to know whether we’re better off and, in particular, whether it’s good for us.

The moment the new iPhone 5 appeared, a wail of complaint was raised by those who thought Apple, through a change of connector, was forcing us to buy a whole raft of new phone-savvy appliances. What on earth are they moaning about? A private company decides to improve an item in its production catalogue in order to take advantage of a decade of technological advance and a whole lot of folk act like they’ve been stabbed or cheated on by their spouse. Grow up, already; it’s just a piece of plastic the size of your pinkie-finger-nail! Unless you’re actually a shareholder or one of those happy workers in the hive, you have no claim on Apple whatsoever. If you don’t like the damn connector, don’t buy the phone! Let’s just step back a little bit, ok?
Why Bonaparte tore his phone apart
For the first forty years of my life, a phone was something that came with a house attached to it. Our first phone was nearly as heavy as the fridge it stood on. If you wanted mobility, well, there might be a clunky, metal and Bakelite monster with a far-too-short cable somewhere in the vicinity, hanging in a filthy, urine-scented booth that was magically able to amplify wind-chill and traffic noise. One without either a) a queue or b) a seemingly resident mother-having-a-good-long-natter-with-daughter ... was probably vandalized.

And the phone, once you gained possession of it, was just that, a phone. It didn’t advise you where to eat, guide you there and pay the bill afterwards. It didn’t take films of your kids or photos of the Victorian sideboard you were thinking of buying but wanted a second opinion on. It didn’t forward your email or let you videoconference with your colleagues. It didn’t do flow charts, agendas or keep you updated on the price of vanadium. It didn’t teach you how to play “eine kleine nachtmusik” or chess or bezique. It didn’t check your pulse when jogging (jogging didn’t exist), tell you what weather to expect or remind you of a dental appointment. It didn’t tell you where you were, where your wife was or locate your car-keys. Hey, it didn’t even tell you the time, unless you were that sad sort who would dial a special number just to listen to the talking clock. No wonder the things got blown apart by thugs. They were major naff.
From why phone to my phone
We never thought of the phone company as a “provider” and I’m sure we never had a contract of any kind. Neither did it have extra services on offer, such as cable-TV and the un-invented internet. There were no free minutes, preferential numbers, roaming reductions, fidelity credit, flat-rate options, etc. And if that was typical of the phone, it was typical of just about everything. Radio stations? There were three of them. TV channels? There were two. Rail service, bus service? There was one and it usually got you there, rather than dumping you in the middle of nowhere to cope with some local carrier, whose timetable is only published online and who deals with your enquiries from Mumbai. Electricity didn’t come in different colours. You couldn’t ask for a greener variant. Gas was just gas; you couldn’t specify a supplier or choose a more eco-friendly mix. Work was work and home was home, you didn’t bring the one into the other. America was our friend, Russia was our enemy and anyone else was a bit iffy and needed to be kept in their place.

Designer labels were unthought-of. If you were lucky enough to have even seen a T-shirt, you certainly hadn’t seen one with anything clever written on it. Denim was used for bib-overalls and boiler suits. You had heard of jeans, but not seen a pair yet. And any swimwear you owned looked unfashionable even before you squirmed your way into it. You had one school tie, and once you turned sixteen, you probably had a second one (for sixth-formers). Socks were grey or black. Shoes were sober and made by Clarks. You bought your underwear at Marks & Spencers and everything else at Moss Bros. The optician could offer you a wide range of three kinds of frames for your glasses. Your bike was pretty radical if it had three gears. Cars had four. Sex was sex, you just ticked the box: no multiple choices there. God was in his heaven. He was white and most probably Anglican. The closest you got to a genuine choice was a packet of liquorice allsorts. But you weren’t bothered, because it was 1963 and the whole world was opening up like a gigantic flower.
From the garden to the jungle
I was born in the Garden of Eden, like most of the people I knew. The rules were simple. Don’t talk to the serpent. Keep to the paths. Don’t go near the big tree in the middle. We all know what happened then: the sixties, the revolution the primal opening out and letting in of what was once a counter-culture and is now as main-stream as Main Street. We’re living in the aftermath of that great eviction from Eden. The Garden we left had a few nicely chosen flower varieties, some well-managed herbaceous borders, playful fountains, elegant statuary and plenty of lawns to admire. The jungle we live in now has gazillions of millions of everything.

Every path we take bifurcates after only a few metres; either prospect is equally entrancing or scary, depending on your attitude. We are assaulted with scents and sensitivity, bombarded with options and comparisons. Choice is everywhere. It invades every aspect of our lives, from where to live right down to two or three-layered toilet paper and whether we want a wet-wipe with that ... I choose, therefore I am!

Two centuries ago, nobody would have tried to sell me a horse, because I’m neither a farmer, landed gentlemen (despite the airs I may give myself) nor country doctor. Today there are dozens of oily salesmen ready to convince me to trade in my darling Miranda for some common car with a six-speed DSG shift, twenty-four-valve tech, lean-running eco-engine, satellite navigation system, Bluetooth compatibility, eight-speaker surround sound, 0 – 100 kmh in the time you’ve read this line and a five-year guarantee. Oh, but that’s only the beginning!

I also get a choice of credit purchase over 12, 24 or 36 months, hire or lease, hatch-back, coupé, saloon, extended or mono-space, business, sport or family styling treatment, three kinds of vehicle service contract, 105 colours, 7 kinds of upholstery, three different facia designs and two interior lighting moods. Speaking of lights, I can pick conventional, halogen, xenon or LED. I also get to decide between three kinds of wheel trim, two types of suspension, four tyre treads and fifteen different insurance policies. And we’re still talking about the same basic model from the same manufacturer; the merest tip of the iceberg.
From the jungle to the gym
Back in Henry Ford’s day, when this whole idea of mass production was still synonymous with production for the masses, you built a car – cheap and good – put it in the window and hoped it would sell. Now we know that the masses are legion. There is no car that can please them all, but there is maybe a car that can please one of them and they’re all ready to build it for me. It won’t be entirely individual. There’s about a one in three million chance that someone else might make ALL the same choices and a further one in five million that they park next to me at the tennis club. But I can live with that. Problem is; nobody seems to know exactly what car I need, least of all me, so I can’t blame them for trying.

Now, I could consult a lifestyle guru online. He or she would tell me what people like me are driving ... if there is anyone like me. Architects used to drive Saabs. Now there’s no Saab anymore, have all the architects disappeared? No, they all drive either Audi or Volvo, which suddenly puts them in the same pool as most of their clients. Audi are wise to this and can offer architectural options aplenty. Volvo, on the other hand, who no longer build indestructible boxes, must be asking themselves how far they have to wander away from their DNA to become unattractive to men who wear knitted silk scarves and spend six hours a week at the gym.

A modern person may take a dozen guided, so-called lifestyle-choices every day. These will range from coffee to office affairs, from clothing to healthcare, from where to eat to what to do after, from what to listen to on the subway to where to worship on Sunday. This would all be fine if it weren’t subtly but surely undermining the very ability to make choices upon which the entire system relies. Too much choice soon becomes a chore rather than a luxury. The mind begins to go numb at the unmitigated yawn factor of deciding, yet again, which type of yoghurt to buy or which type of satellite TV tariff to sign up to.
From my phone to i-Phone
We have become so tyrannized by the devious multiplicity of the jungle we have chosen to inhabit, that we cower behind the couch when the commercials are running, for fear of needless enticement. Far from an abundance of choice liberating us to live more individually and in greater freedom, it is having the opposite effect: we spend so much time making choices, comparing services and options, filling out the forms, answering the customer satisfaction questionnaires, etc., that we no longer have time to live freely (remember “freedom of choice”?), but have become the confused and frustrated slaves of the same infinite variety that was once so tempting.

Steve Jobs always wore the same clothes. Spending his entire day dealing with complexity vs. simplicity issues made him hunker down in Buddhist mode when it came to his own wardrobe. He knew intuitively that real freedom of choice is to choose no choice at all. So why not go with the product, service or supply that offers us quality and style with as little choice as possible; the one that’s already done our thinking and deciding for us?

Far from tyrannizing its acolytes and turning them all into mindless fanboys, Apple, by making only ONE phone at a time (rather than dozens of models and flavours), actually liberates consumers to indulge in the genuine delights of a varied life. Enjoy the view, smell the coffee, relax and forget about your phone at least for a year or three while it quietly runs your world for you. The only tough call you’ll be faced with in the near future is who to vote for in the Presidential elections. After all, there are two political parties ... some choice!

© Edwin Drood, September 2012

Shopping at Izmir's Kemeralti Bazaar

Kemeralti Bazaar, Izmir, Turkey

Photos © David John 2012
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