Expansion of choices reduces diversity???

I just read an article from The Nation, by Colin Robinson (via Alternet.com):

How Amazon Kills Books and Makes Us Stupid

In summary, Amazon’s dominance of the book market and their intense drive to reduce the costs of books are having these effects:

  • Drastically reducing the number of independent book sellers.
  • Reducing the income of publishers, and especially authors.
  • Making it more and more difficult for authors to produce well-crafted and thoroughly researched books.
  • And reducing cultural diversity by overwhelming customers with choices.

This last point is the most surprising – and sounds the most paradoxical.  How could more diversity of choice reduce cultural diversity?

Embedded in the middle of the article is this explanation:

According to industry statisticians Bowker, just over 172,000 titles were released in 2005. Last year “traditional” output had risen to 288,000 titles, a significant enough increase by itself. But adding what Bowker describes as “self-published” and “micro-niche” books, the total inflates to a staggering 1 million new titles in just twelve months.

“Many would argue that the efflorescence of new publishing that Amazon has encouraged can only be a good thing, that it enriches cultural diversity and expands choice.

“But that picture is not so clear: a number of studies have shown that when people are offered a narrower range of options, their selections are likely to be more diverse than if they are presented with a number of choices so vast as to be overwhelming. In this situation people often respond by retreating into the security of what they already know.

“As Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice, explains, ‘When the choice set is larger, people tend to make worse choices. They choose on the basis of what’s easiest to evaluate, rather than what’s important to evaluatethe safe, highly marketed option usually comes out on top.’

Actually, this phenomenon isn’t really the fault of Amazon, but is rather part of the effect of making it easier and cheaper for individuals to create their own content, i.e., to self-publish.   It’s of course not just happening in the world of books, but in all manner of media and content, including newspapers, reporting, editorials, and reviews, film, video, and photography, music, etc..

This is an incredible expansion in creativity and expression; and at the same time, this expansion has clear effects of creating echo-chambers where we, “the masses” who are now “personalized” are clumping together like never before and having less and less thoughtful exposure to ideas beyond those that we ‘naturally’ prefer and seek out.

So these are not new reflections.

But still, what are the answers?   How can we break through this paradox of explosions of expressions and choices that somehow create an implosion of diversity and dialogue?  (Actually, it’s not an implosion of diversity, as much as an explosion into huge and small fragments that appear to have not much to do with each other.)

Somehow the “answers” will have to be the creation of common experiences that invite curiosity, openness, and simple kindness.   Curiosity mixed with kindness can bridge differences, without eliminating differences.

What kind of experiences would these be?

As a designer of social technology, I can only think that, among other things, these experiences have to include radically new ways  a) to manage attention overload without killing serendipity, and b) to discover “content” that is rewarding – even deeply fulfilling – without relying on naturally clumping algorithms like “Show me more like this one” — or “Show me – books, movies, ideas, etc – that other people like who like the same kinds of stuff I like.

Honestly, with algorithms like that, what can you expect other than bigger and bigger clumps?

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1 Response to “Expansion of choices reduces diversity???”


  1. 1 Doug Mackey August 7, 2010 at 6:15 pm

    Luckily Amazon has other ways of helping you navigate the information explosion than its somewhat awkward algorithms (which do occasionally, however, turn up something of interest). The encouragement of the user community to fill in the gaps in the system, by offering their own reviews and lists, and ebay-like sales efforts, creates more opportunity for free choice. The publishers’ kvetching about Amazon business practices is about as convincing as tea-party Republicans complaining about Democrats taking away our freedoms. Publishers themselves have been killing the midlist long before Amazon was a glint in Bezos’s eye. In just about all these complaints, Amazon is anticipating and exploiting changing realities in the economy and the culture, not creating them. Self-publishing was already exploding before Amazon jumped in. There are some very elitist suppositions in that article you quote…such as people can’t really make intelligent choices unless there is restricted information flow and gatekeepers to tell them what they should read. That’s kind of a red flag.


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