Netflix & the Choicelessness of Choice

  With the advent of ‘modernity’, it has become crucial that we, as human beings, choose, and even more important aspect of it is that we have ‘enough’ choices to choose from. For example, having a Netflix account gives one access to thousands of movies, shows, etc. With so many choices available, life should have been “entertaining” for me to say the least. But every time I open up Netflix, it is so difficult to choose a programme that I end up wasting my time going through the choices, without arriving upon any decision. This led me to think as to how many choices are enough, and if after a limit, too many choices just become too much? Are these choices actually leading up to choicelessness?

Phenomenology of a Choice

  The Oxford Dictionary defines choice as “an act of picking out (something or someone) as being the best or most appropriate of two or more alternatives”. True to the definition, Burton (1982) points out that “choice” contains three main elements – the subjective pole, the mode of consciousness (in this case the act of choosing), and the object being chosen. He stated that when the statement “I choose X” is spoken, one always refers to not what will happen, but to what one will make happen. Thus, it has three variables – “I can do it”, “I prefer to do it”, and “doing it is possible for me”.

This very statement lubricates the path for the debate of choice as a free will versus choice as deterministic. For Burton, choice is always about choosing X over Y deliberately for varied reasons, which make it a decision born out of free will, to the extent that choice is always free, and phrases like “free choice”, or “purposive choice” are all redundant. However, I contend this formulation by the very fact that for a choice to be made, both X and Y needs to be present, and the choice is then determined by skills, capabilities, and circumstances which makes the choice seem possible, but not inevitable. That is, I believe, choice cannot be made in a vacuum, and at the same time cannot be carried out without human agency. Thus, the whole free will versus determinism debate as dichotomies dynamically opposite to each other does not hold true.

Capitalism and Consumer Choice

Speaking of choices, capitalism has opened up a wide path for it. Dholakia and Dholakia (1985) elaborated that most marketing theories are often based on consumer choice. There are two principles that underlie these theories –

(i) a choice exists (supply), and

(ii) the choice is being exercised (demand).

The concept of consumer choice emerged in the 1950s and 1960s when the industries could rapidly expand supply, and it became necessary to enhance demand stimulation. For demand to increase rapidly, it was necessary that the consumers “choose, choose more, choose often and choose the more aggressively marketed brand”. Consumer choice was seen as the only way to achieve marketer’s profit goals.

But theorists like Kotler (1973, 1974) observed that during the 1970s, the economic situation began to take a new turn, and a new management system of marketing needed formulation. But this did not happen, as the ideals of consumer choice continued gaining momentum. Kotler believed that the philosophy of marketing management needed to be changed to “control or limit consumer choice”, because owing to the diverse and unending range of choices, it had led to a situation of customer’s inability to arrive upon a choice. People usually make choices in the market, not on the basis of availability, but on the basis of information that they get.

It must be also noted that their theory dated back to 1985, when social network and media were not so prevalent. If we base this conception at present times, consumers do make purchases based on information that they get. But there is such a flooding of information, including ones that are contradictory, that it has actually added on to the choicelessness, along with a sense of helplessness as to what one should do.

Take for example, water. Apparently, normal bottled water is cleaner than the filtered water we use at home, but bottled water has a lot of varieties. Evian water bottle, for example, is priced at 600-800 rupees for 1 Litre because it is straight from the cool streams of mountainous region, and has “extra minerals” in them. The 20 rupees bottle that we usually buy is not “healthy enough” for being water. It is with this incident that I realize how choices as simple as water and health has increasingly become a luxury. People without enough resources neither have choices, nor access to health. As being healthy becomes more and more expensive, greater number of people will lose access to this basic level of human living.

Dholakia and Dholakia (1985) also conceived the macro-level consumption pattern to be turning into the private-individual-passive-alienated-pole, away from the public-collective-active-synergistic pole. However, they also agree that any deviation from the consumption pattern that is dominant in a particular society comes at a very high economic, social and psychological cost. So perhaps, instead of calling it an individualistic pole, I would say the forces or kind of influence that a collectivistic society once had, has shaped into a different kind of influence – in the form of dominant patterns and idealized normative choices. The individual and alienated aspect only comes in when people are made to believe that a particular choice would “make them unique, and different” from other people.

But what about our choice of skills/specialization? Marx’s dialectic theory of social self-production has some answers. He states that historically capitalism swerved in an era of freedom, where the workers could own their own labour, as their property. And yet they were compelled to sell this labour to whoever was in control of the means of production, because the wages they got in return determined their access to basic survival goods. A strange case of unfreedom and choicelessness, this caused what he called as “alienation”, where workers were distanced away from the end-product, and they did not understand what they were contributing to and for what. Their motivations were solely based on accumulating enough wealth to lead a life.

In a personal interpretation of the concept, I see my student life as a means through which I can achieve skills that I can then sell and earn enough capital to live what I call the “decent life”. In other words, I want to have the capability of accumulating resources to access the choices available to me in the market. To arrive upon this decision as to which skills I want to enhance or procure, although I made a choice that was of my interest, I also chose the one that would be more “valuable” for sale.

As is apparent, capitalism has become a natural way of life for everyone. It has been established as the natural, objective “pre-given” world, to which any other overarching alternative cannot be thought of, or would be considered an aberration. We fall into the dull compulsion of economic life. The choice and ideas of freedom – even in the pure capitalist sense – is perhaps a farce to keep the means of production going.

The Intangible Choices

  Contrary to how limited we may feel owing to the sale of our labour, going by Sartre – freedom is the nature of man, and this freedom refers to the freedom of choice. We create who we were, who we are, and who we are to become. Thus, man is nothing in the beginning. And he will not be anything until he makes something out of. He states –

“Man being condemned to be free carries the weight of the whole world on his shoulders; he is responsible for the world and for himself as a way of being…Furthermore, this absolute responsibility is not resignation; it is simply the logical requirement of the consequences of our freedom. …Every thing which happens to me is mine…”

This, he calls the paradox of freedom. Man is often confronted with obstacles that he did not create, but those obstacles are meaningful only in the light of free choice of human reality. Human beings have freedom, but they cannot destroy and come out of that freedom.

Through this understanding, if I bring back the availability of choices in our everyday living, it can be seen how anxiety-provoking the situation is. Because freedom is rooted in nothingness. With so many option to choose from, and given that I have to take full responsibility of the choices I make, I am continually faced with questions of what to do, how to do, where should I go, what should I choose. It is not possible for me to escape making choices. Thus, comes anguish – because I have to continually choose who I am, without anyone here to release me from this curse, or even guide me; and yet I would not know the value or validity of my choices. As Sartre stated –

“I can always choose, but I know that if I do not choose, that is still a choice”.

Media, Choices and Self Identity

  It is Giddens (1991) who talks about self-identity and modernity extensively, and along with this, the key role that media plays in this process of constructions. Self-identity, according to Giddens, is a self-reflective understanding by people of their own biography, and not a collection of consistent patterns of a trait of characteristics. There is a need to maintain a coherent narrative – a concrete storyline in which we place ourselves.

If the need for a coherent narrative is so powerful, I wonder if the social-networking sites are doing more harm than good with their reach. These days the online social network sites have made it possible for people to put everything out there, to the world, through pictures, quotes, statuses, etc. With such an open channel that is forever under scrutiny, how difficult would it be to continue maintaining a coherent narrative?

Now how does this relate to choices? Imagine the plethora of choices you have, and the freedom to choose anything. And yet there is a desire for maintaining the storyline that is out there to the world, in the open. Anything and everything that is uploaded to the media cannot be taken back, and it remains online forever. Amidst this, how easy would it be to actually change our choices? How acceptable would it be considered? So even if there is a high availability of choices, can we always choose what we desire, or are some of our choices arising from the need for the narrative continuity?

Apart from this, media also plays the role of propagating “idealized choices”. Gauntlet (2007) sites the term called the “yuppie lifestyle” that is being propagated as an ideal to achieve. This lifestyle is based on accumulating wealth. The symbols that mark this lifestyle concerns a particular type of apartment, an expensive car, a huge wardrobe of branded clothes and accessories, expensive tastes in alcohol, and so on. What I see through these symbols is that despite the numerous choice of lifestyle, there is an idealized way that needs to be aspired in order to be considered “successful”. So it becomes ironic to consider choice as arising from freedom, because there is already a set pattern of choices that will be considered as “good enough”.

Giddens saw such influences of media that instigates us to establish our “individuality” as a corruption and blockage to our true quest of constructing a self-identity. But its influence is manifold, with diverse shades. Presenting choices, and telling us which should be the ideal choice is a paradoxical way of media giving us a freedom, and withdrawing it away simultaneously.

Perhaps, Shakespeare’s words – “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players” – indeed echoes through our modern day living, amidst the choices that are available today.


References

  1. Burton, R. G. (1982). Choice. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research42(4), 581-586.
  2. Dholakia, N., & Dholakia, R. R. (1985). Choice and Choicelessness in the Paradigm of Marketing. Changing the course of marketing: Alternative paradigms for widening marketing theory2, 173-S5.
  3. Mudane, H. (2017). Marx and the critique of capitalism.
  4. Sartre’s notion of freedom and its implications for individual and society.
  5. Giddens, A. (1994). Living in a post-traditional society. Reflexive modernization: Politics, tradition and aesthetics in the modern social order56, 100.
  6. Giddens, A. (1994). Living in a post-traditional society. Reflexive modernization: Politics, tradition and aesthetics in the modern social order56, 100.
  7. Hay, C., O’Brien, M., & Penna, S. (1993). Giddens, modernity and self-identity: The’hollowing out’of social theory. Arena Journal, (2), 45.
  8. Schwartz, B. (2005, July). Paradox of Choice [Video File].

Mitakshara Medhi is editor of the Science & Technology section of Catharsis Magazine.

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