As some of you know, I’m in a bit of an ongoing conversation/debate about the uneasy marriage of democracy and capitalism (while still trying to clarify my own position on the issue). It began during a live audio interview with the Future of Education’s Steve Hargadon, and continued in the comments section of an Op-Ed I wrote about the popular AMC show Mad Men, which I describe as “a quintessentially American show about disembodied desire and emotion,” featuring a set of characters who “desire only the freedom to pursue whatever it is they cannot have.”
Today, as if on cue, my friend Steve Moore sent me a link to a recent TED talk by Columbia Business School professor Sheena Iyengar, who was discussing the core ideas in her new book, The Art of Choosing.
I’ve provided a link to the video below, because Dr. Iyengar’s research relates directly to the issues affecting the behavior of the characters in Mad Men — namely, the increasing meaningless of choice (the central right in a democracy) when it becomes primarily defined by the products we can purchase, not the ideas we can articulate (or the range of emotions we can feel).
The value of choice, Iyengar insists, depends on our ability to perceive differences between the options. Yet what has happened in the U.S. (the origins of which, to some degree, we see depicted in the early 1960s ad agency culture in Mad Men) is that instead of making better decisions as the number of choices available to us has grown, we have become overwhelmed by the volume, and the emptiness, of such individualized decisions. In this state, choice “no longer offers opportunities but imposes constraints. It is not a marker of liberation, but of suffocation by meaningless minutiae.”
This is the discomfort I was trying to articulate when I described the disembodied desire of the characters in Mad Men. Iyengar puts it this way: “The story Americans tell, the story upon which the American Dream depends, is the story of limitless choice. This narrative promises so much — freedom, happiness, success. It lays the world at your feet and says you can have anything, everything. But when you take a close look, you start to see the holes, and you start to see that the story can be told in many other ways.