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January 25, 2014

Picking your own music has its downside


Sure, there are algorithms that are supposed to provide us with mathematically generated happy accidents. My Pandora station was built with these algorithms. Similarly, If you search for “Die Hard” on Netflix, the website will recommend movies such as John Woo’s genre-defining “Hard Boiled,” the 2010 comic-book smash-up “Kick-Ass,” and (of course) the “Die Hard” sequels.

But none of this, however carefully calculated to reveal wants you didn’t know you had, can mirror the experiences of browsing, whether it be turning the radio dial, running your finger down the spines of books on a library shelf or flipping through records in a bin.

Of course, many of us do this pre-selection because we feel (and rightly so) that there is a lot of garbage out there that we don’t want to weed through. We know that if we turn on the TV to “see what’s on,” we’ll find infomercials, reality TV, re-runs and opinion masquerading as news. We don’t want to have to hunt through all the millions of books on Amazon to find what we want. If our Web browser remembers that we recently ordered 12 ounces of Starbucks pre-ground French Roast coffee, we are pleased to add it to our virtual shopping cart again without having to wade through the other thousands of products available online.

We welcome the ability to search, rather than browse, because the wealth of variety we face at every turn can become overwhelming — what social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister calls “decision fatigue.” And plenty of companies are all too willing to combat our fatigue by assuring us that we will have only what we want, what we need, what we like.

But what are we missing? How do we find the things that we didn’t know we wanted? Are we leaving room for discovery, for chance, for randomness to creep in? Or has the stream of media we let into our lives become too small?

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