Nearly 15 years ago, I used to do stand-up.
I had a routine about trying to buy condoms in an American supermarket, and being confronted by so much choice that it became impossible to actually make a selection. Having to consider every possible colour, size, shape, flavour and texture, and how those choices might reflect on me as a person, was simply too much for me to bear when making a simple retail choice. The punchline involved giving up and using an empty crisp packet instead.
Don't judge me.
Thing was, back in 2001 or whenever, the idea of too much choice was an oddity. My eye-wateringly hilarious observations about American supermarkets were highlighting an unusual anomoly in a world where we were used to our choices being limited. That world no longer exists. If I sit down in front of my TV tonight, how many things can I choose between for my viewing pleasure? Given that my TV can connect to the internet, as well as other sources of content, my choices are pretty much limited to ANYTHING THAT HAS EVER EXISTED EVER.
Same deal with music, of course. I succumbed to the temptation to upload my entire music collection to Google Play, and now I can access the everything I've ever owned without the terrible inconvenience of lugging my iPod around. That ain't the end of it, of course, because between Deezer and Spotify and YouTube, I can pretty much access everything I don't own as well.
So shouldn't all this choice mean I'm watching and listening to a broader range of stuff? Finding new movie genres and cool new bands to get into?
Well, personally I've found that I'm getting more conservative. I'm actually consuming less varied media than I did when I had limits on my choice, largely because having limits used to force me to watch stuff that I was only borderline interested in. It forced me to give things a chance, but increasingly I'm finding that I'm watching stuff that fits a fairly limited window of things I actively expect to enjoy. This means that my patterns of consumption get more and more defined, and my experience of wider culture gets more limited, with every passing year.
All those crappy mainstream shows that I used to profess to hate but yet somehow ended up seeing nonetheless? I genuinely don't see them anymore. Why would I? I can access loads of things that I think that I'm likely to enjoy more, so why should I watch something that doesn't fit my self-image? I can access a million songs that I think are great, so why the hell should I listed to one I hate? Or one I dislike? Or one I might dislike? Or one that I might like a little bit less than the one I really like?
Why should I give anything a chance?
I really miss having no choice. There's a real frisson to those moments when you lose the remote control under the sofa, or the wi-fi network packs up. You might have to watch something you don't like, or even something that you have no opinion about yet. Losing the remote is a scary rollercoaster of possibilities.
Possibilities that only seem to be opened up by taking other possibilities away.
I miss the sheer lack of choice that was presented by the cassette Walkman. You used to have to commit to an album (or compilation) at the point you left the house. What kind of freak would carry around a dozen spare tapes to listen to? Sometimes the tape you selected wasn't the easiest option. Sometimes you'd go for the difficult fourth album by a band whose early work had been much more accessible, and you'd force yourself to listen to that bad boy all the way into town and back. You'd commit. Once you'd left the house, you and that album were just gonna have to learn to get along somehow. Particularly because the FM radio on your Walkman was busted.
Nowadays, that tricky fourth album never gets listened to past the third track. The temptation to listen to something else, something easier but less rewarding, becomes overpowering. That accessible second album gets put back into heavy rotation, and you never grow to love the weird little acoustic track at the end of the fourth.
You know the one. It's got a lovely little intro that goes 'Da da da dee...'
Ah, no. Of course you don't know it.
Because you're just as painfully limited by having too much goddamn choice as I am.