The Paradox of Choice and Learning to Savor Your Music

I’ve had a nagging feeling that the thousands of songs spread among my multiple iThings and iTunes libraries are beginning to taunt me.  Since I’m old enough to have actually worked in a record store, I can remember the excitement when new releases arrived each week, the joy of unwrapping and listening to new music, the thrill of discovering a new song or artist and sharing with customers and friends.  It took some effort, but back then it was pretty much possible to keep up.

No more.  Those days are gone forever.  Over a long time ago.  Oh…

Yeah.  The overabundance of music choices wrought by the digital age has had some surprising repercussions on my listening habits:  I’ve actually found myself listening to music less, and not always enjoying it as much.  Kyle Bylin wrote an excellent series of essays on this topic for Hypebot and Music Think Tank, starting out by quoting from a lecture Barry Schwartz gave at TED in 2005:

“All of this choice has two effects, two negative effects on people. One effect, paradoxically, is that it produces paralysis, rather than liberation. With so many options to choose from, people find it very difficult to choose at all.”  In effect, the more albums that a fan attempts to choose from, the more likely they are to either kind of freeze up and go with the path of the least resistance, like the lastest pop album, or to simply leave with no albums at all.

“The second effect,” Schwartz says, “is that even if we manage to overcome the paralysis and make a choice, we end up less satisfied with the result of the choice than we would be if we had fewer options to choose from.”  Why is that?

Well, there are several reasons to make note of:  First, when a fan goes into a record store that has thousands of albums to choose from, if they buy one, and it’s not what they thought it would be—after all, what new album is?  Schwartz explains, “It’s easy to imagine that you could have made a different choice that would have been better.  And what happens is this imagined alternative induces you to regret the decision you made, and this regret subtracts from the satisfaction you get out of the decision you made, even if it was a good decision.”

A recording of Schwartz’s talk appears after the jump, and he explores these thoughts in depth in his book The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.

Paradox or Paradise: Music Choice in the Digital Age

While Bylin’s first essay is rooted in the material world, he delves into the digital domain for his second outing.  At the Technonomy Conferennce earlier today, Google CEO Eric Schmidt noted that we now create as much information in two days as we did from the dawn of man through 2003.  That’s a lot — about 5 exabytes.

We increasingly rely on filters to keep us from drowning in this torrent of data.  From a musical perspective, Pandora is the filter of choice for many listeners.  Bylin argues that what Pandora promotes is the opposite of diversity: its aim is to provide music that sounds like the stuff you already like. Again quoting Schwartz: “Our cultural experiences will only be as diverse as the filters we use to help us select them.  With all that is available to us, unmediated browsing is impossible”.

Bylin concludes his third essay with a call to action:

Sometimes, more music is less.  Other times, that may not be the case.  More important than any of these inferences may be the simple, yet powerful notion that we need to savor our music.  This means, much like it does at the dinner table, that we need to set down our forks and actually taste the food that’s in our mouth.  Same goes with the iPod.  Set it down, forget all the choices, and just listen.

~ Kyle Bylin: Savor Your Music: The Effect of Abundance in Culture