Has the digital revolution paralysed us with too much choice?

Man is condemned to be free” announced a bespectacled old French man who was partial to cigarettes and coffee. And although he presumably wasn’t talking about Spotify and Netflix when he conceived said phrase, Sartre’s iconic line may ring true when we consider its relevance to the generation that has free reign over effectively every single piece of music and video ever created. Simply put, we’re spoilt for choice.

Despite what streaming services of all forms tell us, our brains don’t like having too much choice. The psychologists say so, pointing to a phenomenon called ‘choice paralysis.’ It turns out that when we’re faced with lots of choice as opposed to some, we tend to not want to make a decision at all. What’s more, when we do finally decide, our enjoyment of the object of choice is lessened through a comparison to what ‘could have been’ – a sort of ‘decision-making fear of missing out.’ Case in point: trying to find something to watch on Netflix. One can spend aeons trawling through the various categories and recommendations, but in the end, something is half-heartedly settled on with a sigh and a “this’ll do.” Should’ve just stuck to Friends.

Perhaps this psychological phenomenon is a contributing factor to the revival of vinyl, with the UK continuing to witness its decade-long increase in LP sales in 2018. Music streaming is a business that, for the most part, runs on the listenership to individual songs and the playlists consisting of them. The scrolling, shuffling, skipping and queuing involved when venturing outside the comforts of a playlist of your own creation, or that of the mysterious ‘playlist curators,’ is an involved process, culminating in that frantic flurry of song-skipping at such a rate that one forgets what sort of tune one was searching for in the first place. LPs, as a vessel for the album, revoke this choice — and this is a selling point. Pretentious yap of how ‘listening to an album in its entirety is the intended art form of the artist’ aside, an album can be seen, crudely admittedly, as simply a playlist created by your favourite artist. This choice-to-time ratio is appealing.

Artists are recognising this phenomenon and are beginning to explore the middle ground between our track-oriented short attention span and the attraction of prolonged engagement, as well as greater artistic freedom, through the ‘short album’. The summer saw the likes of Kanye West and Future release records sub-thirty minutes in length, a Goldilocks balance between a single and an LP that encourages active listening whilst going beyond the casualness of an EP.

Likewise, this thought can be seen to account for the almost surprising resurgence of music radio, with both BBC Radio One and Capital Xtra FM reaching their largest ever audiences this year. Despite the success of the likes of Spotify’s ‘Discover’ feature and the amazingly comprehensive recommended artists algorithm, the simplicity of being able to rely on a single station to provide an eclectic selection of music old and new for a sustained period of time has maintained if even garnered appeal. There’s a certain comfort to not only minimising decision making but also entrusting decisions to someone ‘qualified’, such as a reputable disc jockey. You don’t even need to choose an album! 

This isn’t a pitch for a Black Mirror episode — streaming has revolutionised the way we experience both audio and video culture for the better, democratising access and creating a generation that experiences culture as atemporal. But recognising that technological trends might pull us in one direction whilst our little old brains might want to push us in the other can only serve to make life easier — or at the very least, help us figure out what we want to listen to.

 

Image Credit: Reuben Fox McClure

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