Russ White had an interesting post this week about the illusion of choices and how herd mentality is driving everything from cell phones to network engineering and design. I understand where Russ is coming from with his points, but I also think that Russ has some underlying assumptions in his article that ignore some of the complexity that we don’t always get to see in the world. Especially when it comes to the herd.
Collapse Into Now
Russ talks about needing to get a new mobile phone. He talks about how there are only really two choices left in the marketplace and how he really doesn’t want either of them. While I applaud Russ and his decision to stand up for his principals, there are more than two choices. He could easily purchase a used Windows mobile phone from eBay. He could choose to run a Palm Tree 650 or a Motorola RAZR from 2005. He could even choose not to carry a phone.
You’re probably saying, “That’s not a fair comparison. He needs feature X on his phone, so he can’t use phone Y.”
And you would be right! So right, in fact, that you’ve already missed one of the complexities behind making choices. We create artificial barriers to reduce the complexity of options because we have needs to meet. We eliminate chaos when making decisions by creating order to limit our available pool of resources.
Let’s return to the mobile phone argument for a moment. Obviously, not having a phone is not an option. But what does Russ need on his phone that pushed him to the iPhone? I’m assuming he needs more than just voice calling capability. That means he can’t use a Jitterbug even though it’s a very serviceable phone for the user base that wants that specific function set. I’m also sure he needs a web browser capable of supporting modern web designs. Perhaps it’s a real keyboard and not T9 predictive text for everything you could want to type. That eliminates the RAZR from contention.
What we’re left with when we develop criteria to limit choices is not two things we feel very ambivalent about. It’s actually the resulting set of operations on chaos to provide order. Android and iPhone don’t strongly resemble each other because of coincidence. It’s because the resulting set of decision making by consumers has led them to this point. Windows Mobile also suspiciously looks like Android/iOS for the same reason. If the mobile OS on Russ’s phone looked more like Windows Mobile 5.0 instead, I’m sure his reasons for not choosing iOS or Android would have been much stronger.
Automatic For The People
So, why is it in networking and mobile phones and even extra value meals that we find our choices “eliminated” so frequently? How is it that we have the illusion of choice without many real choices at all? As it turns out, the illusion is there not to reinforce our propensity to make choices, but instead to narrow our list of possibly choices to something greater than the set of Everything In The World.
Let’s take a hamburger for instance. If you want a hamburger, you will probably go to a place that makes them. You’ve already made a lot of choices in just that one decision, but let’s move past the basic choices. What is your hamburger going to look like? One meat patty? Three? Will it have a special kind of sauce? Will it be round? Square? Four inches thick? These are all unconscious choices that we make. Sometimes, we don’t make these choices by eliminating every option. Instead, we make them by choosing a location and analyzing the options available there. If I pick McDonald’s as my hamburger location because of another factor, like location or time, then I’ve artificially limited my choices to what’s available at McDonald’s at that moment. I can’t get a square hamburger with extra bacon. Not because it’s unfair that McDonald’s doesn’t offer that option. But because I made my choice about available options before I ever got to that point. The available set of my choices will include round meat patties and American cheese. If I want something different, I need to pick a different restaurant, not demand McDonald’s give me more choices.
Artificially limiting choices for people making decisions sometimes isn’t about resource availability. It’s about product creation. It’s about assembly and complexity in making devices. It’s about what people make important in their decision making process. Let’s take a pretty well-known example:
On the left is the way cell phones were designed before 2007. Every one of them looks interesting in some way. Some had keyboards. Some had flip options. Some had pink cases or external antennas. Now, look at the cluster on the right. They all look identical. They all look like Apple Mobile Phone Device that debuted in 2007. Why? Because customers were making a choice based on form factor that informed the rest of their choices. In 2008, if you wanted a mobile device that was a black rectangle with a multi-touch screen and a software keyboard, your options were pretty limited. Now, I challenge you to find a phone that doesn’t have those options. It’s like trying to find a car without power windows. They do exist, but you have to make some very specific choices to find one.
Some choices are going to be made for us before we ever make our first decision. We can’t buy networking switches at McDonald’s. We can’t eat our mobile phones. But what we can do to give ourselves more choices is realize that the trade off for that is expending energy. We must do more to find alternatives that meet our requirements. We have to “think outside the box”, whether that means finding a used device we really like somewhere or rolling our own Linux distribution from Slackware instead of taking the default Ubuntu installation. It means that we’re going to have to make an effort to include more choices instead of making choices that automatically exclude certain options. And after you’ve done that for more than a few things, you will realize that the illusion of few choices isn’t really an illusion, but a mask that helps you preserve your energy for other things.