Gail Collins, writing in the New York Times about student loans, nails a phenomenon that has long bedeviled me: the oppression of options suffered by the modern American consumer.
Our economy generates an endless array of choices, offering its customers the opportunity to tweak and fiddle and adjust their purchases at a very fine-grained level of detail. Drives me insane about half the time: I hate walking down the cereal aisle; I hate buying toothpaste; I hate renting cars; I hate contemplating my financial-planning options. In each case, there are just too many choices—and the key thing is, the plethora of choices appears to be an end in itself. Quality has been written out of the equation, except to the extent that it is a secondary factor in the mind-boggling array of options. Brand X may be better than Brand Y (or maybe not, who can tell?), but “better” isn’t the point. “Different” is the point—in fact, Brand X is likely to offer six or seven sub-brands, none of which is any better than the other, all separated by minute shades of difference devised by marketing departments.
I suppose this all constitutes one of those miraculous small luxuries of late capitalism. Anymore, however, I find it far more luxurious not to have to make a choice at all. Restaurants with set menus are awesome. One of Portland’s best makes a point of declaring that “substitutions are politely declined.” I fantasize about launching a car rental company that offers no variations in its selection: you call, you say when you need a car, and you get a good car at a set rate, with no choices between different models or insurance or mileage regimes. Pay us, get car—that’s it. I’d call it Excellent Car Rental. One of the great (and obviously spendy) pleasures of checking into a good hotel is that the hotelier has made all the choices for you.
Why do people obsess over the men’s style in a retro show like Mad Men? Not because its characters display anything like the wild spectrum of slovenliness, trendiness, degrees of formality and “casual” wear you see on the streets today. No. The guys in Mad Men look great because they all look the same. They’re not “expressing themselves.” They dress with care and discrimination, but not choice as we conceive it today. They’re wearing suits. They look good, and that’s it.
Choice: a false god. Let us burn its heathen temple and revel in the pleasures of uniformity. Or something.