Day by Day



14 July 2006

Choise Schmoice...

Wow, CNN Money is winging about too much choice! Author, and FORTUNE contributor, Marc Gunther, waxes nostalgic about the benefits of limited choice.

I think the explosion of choice has left us poorer in at least two arenas.
The first is journalism. (Yes, as a Fortune writer, I've got a stake in the
health of the mainstream media, which bloggers call the MSM.) The network
evening newscasts, big-city newspapers and the national news magazines once had
the money, access, skills, commitment and power to deliver lots of original
reporting and put important issues on the national agenda. Today, they are all
diminished.

To pick a single, timely, example, The Tribune Co. announced just the other
day that its newspapers would be closing foreign bureaus in Johannesburg,
Moscow, Lebanon and Pakistan. This is happening all over newspaperdom and it
happened years ago at the broadcast networks.
Yes, there is more information
available to us than ever, but I don't think we are better informed. Niche media
will, inevitably, continue to weaken mass media.
The second arena where we
are worse off is politics. This is related to journalism, as the moderate and
responsible (okay, bland) voices of the MSM get drowned out by partisan,
opinionated cableheads and bloggers.

Politics in America has become polarized for many reasons, but a big one is
the fact that people can now filter the news and opinion they get to avoid
exposure to ideas with which they disagree. Anderson suggests that this could
well be a temporary problem, and that if the major parties continue to move to
the extremes and the quality of debate continues to deteriorate, the Internet
could well enable a new party or parties, to arise.

Humph. Pardon me while I wipe my eyes. As a staunch free marketer, I have little sympathy for the “left behinds” of our world. Although I do agree that the proliferation of choice serves to drive a social balkanization of our society. There is no overriding “mass appeal” culture to which we can homogenize the globe.

Homogenize the globe! Shout my more liberal readers (both of them), that’s socialism! Ah hah! We knew it! You’re just a communist in disguise! Perhaps, however, allow me to clarify. I believe that there exists a “best way” to do things. This is perhaps a flaw of my engineering background, or maybe my insanely over inflated ego.

I don’t believe that all societies are equal, or that all people are equal. I do believe that all people should be afforded equal opportunity and are entitled to some primary rights (the life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness). If we take an optimized approach to our analysis of any system, then we discover that there is a best way to do things. An old joke once had the punchline that heaven was where the engineers were German, police were English, and the cooks were French. Hell was where the police were German, cooks were English, and the engineers were French.

A stereotype, to be sure, but it underscores the fact that somewhere, someone does something better than others. This applies to societies. While the US is certainly imperfect, I would list it at the top of societies for meeting the needs of humanity. It is tolerant, free, adaptable and inclusive. Other societies may have some institutions which are better, but these are marginal improvements (or require too significant a compromise in other critical areas – see freedoms).

But to the point of choice, if an individual is exposed to the wide variety the globe has to offer, what would they choose? If they had an equal understanding of all that choice before them, what would they elect? Some marketing genius has pointed out that when consumers are offered more than six choices, the proliferation of choices actually has a negative impact on the decision process.

Do you have too many choices? Or do the choices you have in your society (recognizing that this may be read in areas outside the USA) enhance or degrade your quality of life or worldview?

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