Do we need to break free of the fish-bowl? Is it better to have a world of a million choices or a world with limited choice? This is a question posed by Barry Schwartz – and to which he concludes that, in western society, we all have too many choices and this has made us ill. Of course, the official dogma of our civilisation is that the more choice we have the better things are. However, Schwartz argues that when people have too many choices they find it very difficult to choose at all.

Choice makes people procrastinate, it can paralyse them into inactivity, they are baffled by an incomprehensible list of possible choices. Also – more choices lead to regret. You think about the joy you are missing out on if you had made a different choice. We start to have high expectations from all these choices – and with high expectations comes low depression.

The talk made me think about the book I am currently reading. The Commissariat of Enlightenment is about a guy called Astapov working for Stalin in Communist Russia during the early 1920’s. Astapov makes films to spread Communist ideology across the masses – he is a master of the new film making technology and loyal to the Communist cause.

With a complete understanding of the relationship between image and power he looks over to western society and compares the two cultures different use of the camera:

“[T]he west was creating an image-ruled empire of its own, a shimmering electrified web of pictures, unarticulated meaning, and passionate associations forged between unrelated ideas. This was how to do it: either starve the masses of meaning or expose them to so much that the sum of it would be unintelligible.”

In his talk, Barry Schwartz tries to get people away from the ideology that more is better. This idea is so engrained into our culture that it leads to clinical depression and suicide. Astapov, looking out from Communist Russia, admires the western use of images to baffle, confuse and perplex the minds of the population. He commends the creation of a society of people who would be “unable to complete a thought without making reference to some image manufactured for his persuasion”.

Confused, bewildered and exhausted – western society longs for thoughtlessness, and that is where political power and commercial gain creep in. It is important to liberate ourselves from these forces – and maybe it is better to stay in a fish-bowl than flounder in a world without constraint.