The information revolution will not be streamed online
June 14, 2011, 12:54 am
Filed under: Editorializing

We are confronted be an increasing amount of choice. How many flavors of jam do you have to choose from at your local supermarket, despite evidence (from Sheena Iyengar’s research) that we are less likely to make a purchase when confronted with so many options? Yet at least we have marketers there to help us decide. We know we want (or need) Gatorade or McDonald’s or Nike or Xbox because marketers have been so kind as to make up our minds for us. Also, those of us with office jobs have many other decisions made for us, or at least have to make many difficult decisions only infrequently. To save for retirement, we select an option (or take the default, if offered) at most once per year; our employers don’t even request our input when deciding which insurance provider we will use. As Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo write, the poor often have an uphill battle against the human urges we all share, to spend now and plan to save later, because they don’t have the benefit of an employer putting savings aside out of their wages or direct depositing them in a bank, for instance.

Is Benjamin Barber (author of the horrible book Consumed) right that markets are “infantalizing” us by making us slaves to the choices they want us to make? Or should we be asking for more help, so that we can once again be untroubled by so much choice?

Choice can be paralyzing. One way companies can help optimize our pleasure (and their sales) is to offer direction among the plenitude. This of course includes recommendations (a la Amazon and Netflix), but it can also include categorization. It is a recurring theme of mine that I would like to see a service recommend what to study at which university, what job to take, where to live. But my hopes for the next phase of the information revolution were recently dashed when I began exploring the Android Market, Google’s answer to Apple’s App Store (both of which were preceded by Linux’s handy package managers). Google the internet genius, whose bread and butter is recommendations of websites and of course advertisements, somehow did not anticipate that I would want to sort apps in their store by, say, the number of stars they receive from reviewers. And there are categories, but you can’t filter for a selection of them (such as “business” AND “productivity” and “tools”), just one at a time, navigating in, then hitting the back button to try to remember what categories you haven’t looked at yet. Maybe they’re just trying to keep us occupied so they have time to finish some amazing job and school recommendation app. One can only hope.


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