Paralysed by Infinite Choice

Moving to something of a lighter topic than the last post (while keeping the same holiday setting as an introduction), I want to use this post as an opportunity to discuss my theory of the crushing burden of too much choice. Yes, that’s right, I said “too much choice”.

Please let me explain.

While we were on holidays, we partook (a couple of times) of a really nice buffet dinner. I know that some people can’t get their head around that apparent oxymoron, but it was pretty good as far as I’m concerned. This was, of course, in addition to the glorious buffet breakfasts we were treated to every morning (which didn’t do me much good in regards to trying to reduce the old waist line!).

What never failed to amaze (and frustrate!) me, was the way in which people could be standing in line for anywhere up to five minutes—looking at the very food that they were to be choosing from that whole time—only to be overwhelmed by the options once they were forced, tongs in hand, to finalise that decision. It was like their heads quietly imploded as they pondered the seemingly infinite possible combinations of meat, salad, veggies, and artery-clogging desserts, and they were left lobotomised (with requisite drool forming at the side of the mouth) and holding up the line for those who had decided to avoid such a difficult decision by precariously piling some of everything on their plate (only to then be forced to decide how to navigate the tricky path back to their table with this leaning tower of pizza, pasta, and chocolate sprinkles threatening catastrophe at every point).

This same situation, in its basic form, is demonstrated over and over again.

It’s the lady in line for coffee for 12 minutes who then freezes when the spotlight shines on her to decide between the caramelly-thingy or the whatsy-a-chino (and will that be small, medium, or ‘grande’?). “I’ll…ahhhhh…I’ll just have the..ahhhh..just get me one of those…ah gee…”

(As a side note, there are few things in life more dangerous than holding up a caffeine addict from that morning hit. If you can’t decide what you want, just move quietly to the side and you might survive.)

cheeses

It’s the guy picking up a few things at the grocery store, staring at the dazzling array of cheeses laid out before him like he’s been hypnotised.

It’s the driver in the car park confronted by the unnerving situation of discovering too many possibilities and who ends up, weirdly, steering into the only spot that has a solitary shopping trolley sitting uncomfortably near that concrete stopper thing that’s there to make sure you don’t nudge the wall as you’re parking.

Basically, my anecdotal experience has confirmed for me that too much choice—too many options on the table at the one time—is not actually helpful.

But this leads me headlong into a dilemma. Though too much choice can have a crippling effect on someone being able to make what really should be simple decision, the idea of limiting choice has a sinister kind of feeling to it.

The staggering array of cheeses may be overwhelming, but it seems to be far better than arriving at the cheese aisle only to find that the major supermarket chain has overridden your God-given right to stand limply before the enormous display in worshipful awe by swapping out the dazzling range of brands for their own generic product. It’s not right! They can take our cheese, but they can never take our freeedoooooom!!!

Of course, it’s the sort of complaint that is constantly levelled at companies like Apple: a consumer (apparently) needs to have control over every aspect of their experience—including changing the way the home screen looks if they bloody well want to! Anything else is a kind of Orwellian prophecy fulfilment.

But I think, at least for myself, I’ve been able to find a way through this impasse by toying with the idea of self-limitation in choice. Choice is ok. It’s probably better than having that choice taken away by some external force. But I’ve come to the realisation that I only have the capacity for making so many choices each day. As such, I want to save them for the important ones.

I think Steve Jobs might have actually been on to something!

I could spend a lot of time thinking about the clothes I wear, or I could just find something that works for me and buy heaps of the same thing. Truth be told, sometimes I feel like D’Angelo from The Wire trying to make what should be a very simple decision about what I’m going to wear but being caught up in a ridiculous game of trying to figure out what’s going to ‘work’ for a given situation. This is wasting a perfectly good decision on a useless point!

Food is another one. Why not just pick some constants for breakfast and lunch so that important decision-making capacity isn’t used up on choosing between the something-or-other-foccacia and the trendy-but-unfulfiling-salad? It doesn’t matter!

And this is why I actually appreciate Apple. Sure, I don’t have the ability to do some things on my devices that I might be able to do on another, but I really, really don’t care. I understand this when I make the initial decision, and no one’s holding a trendy-but-overpriced gun to my head forcing me to use them. This ‘tyranny’ is something that I have freely chosen, and it works out, in a weird way, to be ultimately liberating.

So here’s the punchline of this post. There is a certain kind of tyranny in too much choice. There is a certain kind of tyranny in too little choice. But there is something wonderfully liberating in the act of self-limitation. I’m not quite sure how or why this is the case—and I’d appreciate your input to help me work it through—but I’ve certainly found it to be true.

And on that note, I’m heading out to buy a black skivvy.

The Value of Human Life, and the ‘Other’

I was recently on holidays with my family in Australia’s magnificent Whitsundays(!). This post could easily become an advertisement for such a truly beautiful part of the world (and the extraordinary privilege I have to be able to take a holiday there), but I’ll try to stay on point. It was a wonderful time for our family, and our children enjoyed it immensely.

Many times the kids simply wore themselves out, and we ended up carrying them back to our resort room for a rest before once more setting out on our adventures. One such time, I was carrying my exhausted 2-year-old daughter in both arms (with her in a reclined position across my body), and I got caught up in admiring her beautiful porcelain-like skin and her perfect face and began smiling to myself at just how tired she must have been to be in such a comatose-like state.

However, as I admired her almost-perfect stillness, my thoughts were violently invaded by the powerful and highly distressing pictures I had recently seen from the excellent French photographer Anne Paq (follow her on Twitter at @annepaq). You can view some of the images here:  http://activestills.org/collection/1199/142 (*I do warn you, as strongly as I can, that these images probably will – and should – stay with you forever*).

At that moment, my heart was gripped by unthinkable terror. Looking down at my daughter’s tiny body, I suddenly imagined myself as one of the Palestinian parents from those photos carrying the body of their beloved, now-lifeless child. For a split-second I was overwhelmed by a sense of grief and loss and anger and fear, struck by the sheer senselessness of such death and the unfairness that so small a child would be robbed of the opportunities of life before they even had a chance.

Then I remembered where I was, and who I was. The reality is that a middle-class white family in Australia simply does not face this kind of situation—a situation that is ‘routine’ for many in our world—but for the most extraordinary of circumstances.

And I was angered as I began to think about the lack of outrage over these pictures of beautiful children robbed of all possibility. Why is it that we are (rightly!) outraged by events like the Sandy Hook massacre, but we turn a blind eye to the drone bombings that routinely obliterate small children ‘over there’? How is it that my nation can lock up children, whose families are only seeking the safety of refuge, in indefinite detention, and why do we continue to offer almost unconditional support for Israel when we know beyond all doubt that their policies and actions are causing such tragedy to Palestinian families and children almost every day?

Why is it that we are horrified at the thought of our children being senselessly murdered, but we don’t seem to mind when it happens to children who don’t look like ours? How are we able, still, to value human life differently depending on if it’s one of ‘us’, rather than just one of ‘them’?