Why endless TV and music options on Netflix and Spotify are leaving us paralysed by choice

The problem is not “57 Channels (And Nothin’ On)”, as Bruce Springsteen put it, but the opposite: there is too much on.

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A friend of mine lives in a flat in London with one large wall-space in the living room that is crying out for a striking centrepiece. She doesn’t want it filled by a ready-framed picture of daffodils, and she is successful enough to be able to afford interesting art. She has been to art fairs and consulted with experts. A whole world of beauty and interest is arrayed before her – and that is the problem. She is, she tells me, “paralysed by choice”. Two years after she moved in, the wall gapes blankly back at her.

Choice paralysis is not a problem created by the internet, as my friend’s example shows. But thanks to the internet, more of us are experiencing it, more of the time. Have you ever found yourself in front of your internet-connected TV, aware that nearly everything you might ever want to watch is available to you, and frozen by that very thought? I have spent hours of my life on the Netflix home page, scrolling dutifully through the endless options. The problem is not “57 Channels (And Nothin’ On)”, as Bruce Springsteen put it, but the opposite: there is too much on.

I know there are hundreds of excellent dramas, films, comedy shows, and documentaries that I can enjoy right now. But I don’t know where to start. I have no sure way of assigning priority – why this one, and not that one? The resulting prevarication brings with it a sort of low-level existential dread. Stuck on the sofa, I start to berate myself for my indecision, and then for wasting time, which then makes me think about my impending death – until I flip to live TV, or switch off and go in search of an argument with someone on Twitter.

It isn’t just TV that can do this to me. I have access to more music than I could have dreamed of 20 years ago, but I’m not sure I listen to more, or enjoy it more, than I did back then. Maybe the opposite. I subscribe to a streaming service. While I do try to remember how wondrous it is that the world’s music is instantly available, I often find myself turning on the radio in order to avoid the burden of having to decide what to listen to first.

Cultural blockbusters – the show everyone is watching, the album everyone is listening to – offer one route out of prevarication. If everyone is talking about something then I will usually watch it too, so that I can join in, if only to disagree with the consensus. Yet there are fewer of these events than ever, as cultural production increases and consumption fragments. The BBC was taken aback by the national frenzy for the political drama Bodyguard. Probably the last album to achieve near-universal cultural impact was Lemonade by Beyoncé. There are just too many artists in too many channels, producing too much stuff, for this to happen often.

The gains of making cultural products easier to access are obvious, but I sometimes wonder what the costs are. Music lovers used to travel for hours to track down a record they might have heard only once, late at night, through the crackle of the airwaves. When they found what they were looking for, got it home and dropped the needle, they paid attention with every fibre of their being. The music would infuse into their bones. Lifelong love affairs would spark into being; future innovations would be born. How often do these epiphanies happen now that everything presses itself upon us?

The psychologist Dan Ariely found that consumers who had struggled to assemble a chest of drawers valued it more highly than they did the same item put together for them by an expert. He called it the “Ikea effect”. When something is easily available or abundant, some ancient part of our brains tells us to value it less. We evolved to care about what is scarce (such as mammoth meat) and to be blasé about what is all around us (views of the valley).

It’s hard to switch off these neurological signals even when we know they’re not appropriate. That’s to say, none of this is rational. I shouldn’t value Madonna or Mozart any less just because I know I can listen to any part of their respective oeuvres any time I want, without expense or effort. But it’s somehow harder to work myself up into the state of reverential attention that The Immaculate Collection or the Sinfonia Concertante deserve, and reward, when I can switch in or out of them with a click or a word in Alexa’s ear.

Making choices is tiring. The reason, according to some psychologists, is that willpower is finite. When he was president, Barack Obama only wore grey or blue suits (barring one memorably disastrous excursion into beige), in order to conserve his decision-making capacity. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing,” he told Vanity Fair in 2012. “Because I have too many other decisions to make.” The more decisions that we can delegate to routine and habit, the more volition we have left over for the big stuff, such as whether to invade Libya. But when it comes to culture, we feel a pressure to ignore convention and be guided by our authentic will.

The optimistic answer to the problem of choice paralysis is that it’s not a problem, but an ungrasped opportunity. Now that I no longer have my cultural preferences handed down from on high by a few controllers of distribution and shapers of taste, I am utterly free to exercise my own preferences. Well, great, but to me this is like when people tell me to follow my passion. What if I don’t know what my passion, or my preference, is?

The old joke, “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like,” is misleading. It implies that knowing about art is the hard thing. Actually, it’s knowing what you like.

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article appears in the 08 February 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Broken Europe