Monday, August 21, 2006

Monday Morning Musings: Choice vs. Chance

One of the key characteristics of an individualistic, consumerist society (which is now, since the decline of communism and other alternative models, accepted as the established world order), is freedom of choice. Whether it is the shampoo you use, the telecom provider you select to keep you connected, or your career, you have a choice. And the fact that you have a choice is a big thing. It is an intrinsic property of individualism, celebrated throughout the world and zealously guarded by the keepers of capitalistic faith. The TV remote is the ultimate weapon, and channel surfing the most popular pre-occupation among viewers. Sometimes I spend more time doing that than actually watching any specific channel. I guess I could say - to surf hopefully is a better thing than to watch, to paraphrase an old adage.

For a guy like me who grew up in a time of scarcity (when ration cards were actually used for the purpose they were created) in a world where you had precisely one TV channel, the abundance of options available today is mind boggling and almost scary. It has enriched my life, yes. But it has also made my life far more complex. The anxiety of making a choice, which obviously never existed when you had none to make, is sometimes heightened to a new kind of neurosis - the fear of missing out on a better life. What am I giving up when I commit to a choice I am making? Was there a chance for a better life, in some of those other options I rejected?

In my life, I have spent several hours, days even, pondering the what-if's behind each important decision I took. And that has applied to past decisions as much as decisions on hand at present. When the agonising over the what-ifs reaches delirious heights, I slip into an imaginary world ... where I am immortal, can go back in time, and can therefore traverse the multitudes of paths my life would have taken for each choice I could make. This flight of fantasy can get more complex if one were to consider the fact that each of those choices changes the chooser, and in order to return to the point when the choice was first exercised, you have to un-live the segment of your life that corresponded with the choice you made and unbecome what you became over that time frame.

Some people are lucky - they don't need to get into a sci-fi world; they can actually 'see' life as it evolves further downstream, for each choice waiting to be made. As a strategy consultant (a hat I sometimes wore), I used to do something called scenario envisioning for my clients, dealing with multiple possible scenarios of which one may be picked as a desirable end-state - but these are consciously and rationally constructed models, carefully built with mathematical precision based on reliable information and a dash of creative imagination about the future. Forced insights leading to an intellectually predicated forecast. Some people do this intuitively, and surf through those scenarios as though they were TV channels.

But the world we live in is chaotic. How accurately can one predict the future? Regardless of whether you take an analytical approach to project the future based on mathematical models crunched by a supercomputer, or a mystical one to divine what is foretold by the stars or the lines on your palm, there's always the possibility that it may not happen. That something else, altogether different, and unforseeen, might instead. That's where chance plays its mysterious role. Surprised or shocked, you are reminded yet again, that things need not turn out the way you thought they would. Or should. In fact what eventually happens may not even be in the same ball-park as what you had imagined or gambled on. The future is increasingly getting to be more and more different from the past, but at the same time, the more things change the more they remain the same. And that's the paradox of choice and chance.

When Launchcast first launched many years ago (it's now a yahoo music service) I was struck by the peculiar blend of chance and choice this product represented. What they offered was what I'd like to call 'programmed serendipity'. Spell out your choices (by picking and rating genres, bands / artists, albums, songs ...) and it will play them to you by chance. No, this is not the same as the shuffle option on your CD changer. This is more like a radio station. Launchcast could even bring you tracks you haven't heard, but might like. Because the track has features that you approve of (e.g., fav. artists). Or because others who have similar taste as you, have liked it. So you can enjoy the unpredictability of what will play next (you don't get that pleasure when you play your own music, even with random play), but be reasonably sure that it will be suited to your taste.

Which leads me to the uncanny thing that happened this morning, that inspired me to write this blog entry. I was listening to a CD and then switched to FM ... only to hear the same track again! Here's my take-away from this - there's a chance that the choice you make may turn out to be no different from what would have been had you left it to chance. But does that mean that you don't make choices? Not a chance!


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