The Problem of Plenty

Two weeks back I accidentally washed my mobile phone (just rinsed it in soap water for about 2 hours) and went to the shop to buy a new one. I asked for a simple phone, which lets me make/receive calls and texts and do nothing else. The lady at the store smiled at me and said 'we don't have such a phone'. The closest piece that matched my description was one with an additional VGA camera. The yellow colored casing forced me to look for another, and as I decided on the next higher model with Bluetooth, MP3 player and 1GB memory, I asked her how many models they have on display. She said, 'about 300 different models' and gave me a sarcastic smile as if saying 'what do you care, cheap guy!'.

My friend had an internet connection at home, one where he had to plug in the cable to his system and connect. Fed up with the restricted movement while browsing the net, he changed the connection and set up a Wi-Fi router. Now he can walk around the house with his laptop, and check mails or access 'important' information even when he is taking a crap. But what if this connection goes down for a while and you want to browse? So as a backup, he bought a wireless internet card from one of the service providers. It has the additional functionality of connecting to his mobile phone through a converter cable and jack. He can now browse his favorite websites on his mobile phone, even when he is walking on the road. Though he is finding his mobile screen a little too small these days, that issue will soon be taken care of, once the new PDA arrives.

You might be thinking what an ignorant moron I am to make fun of advances in technology and the choices we have. This was the same response I got when I told the Insurance guy that my grand parents and parents lived a pleasant and healthy life without any Insurance. So stupid of me! Our general idea is that, more and more freedom and choices will actually increase life's quality. But the reality is far from this. The more the choices, the more miserable we feel, even after adopting the best of the available options. I remember seeing this presentation by Barry Schwartz at TED (author of 'The Paradox of Choice'), where he beautifully explains how shopping for a jeans was such a pleasurable experience, when the only available type was 'blue' in color and 'comfort-fit' in style. Now with all the different colors, brands and styles giving you thousands of combinations to choose from - you are first of all confused and then after making a purchase, inevitably regrets about not buying a better piece. You can watch the video here.

All of us want to surround ourselves with as many options as possible. What if something goes wrong and you are denied access to one.. so you better have as many of them as possible close to you. An excellent example is Microsoft Word, as quoted by David Pogue, the gadget reviewer of NewYork Times. MS Word -as many of us doesn't know- has an inbuilt Database, Calendar, VB editor, Web interface, Webpage designer and an Event scheduler. This is in addition to the regular functionalities like Thesaurus, Language Translator, Picture Editor and Speech Recognition tools. I am not denying that some of us are aware of these and are using them as well, but for an average user, Word is simply a text editor. When you have specialized tools for each of them available elsewhere, and 90% of the users never use MS-Word for anything other than typing and editing simple text, why do we need all these 'additional' functionalities bundled into a simple word processor? Because, we feel good with all these stuff around us. What if... just in case!

The fun is that Microsoft tried to introduce a word processor which does just word processing, called MS-Write. Now, no prizes for guessing the was a complete failure in the market. Nobody wanted a word processor that does nothing else.. like we all need a mobile phone that can scratch our back, make tea and watch the baby, if possible. 'Differentiation' and 'feature enhancement' being a key ingredients of development these days, I don't see chances of our misery decreasing any time soon. An interesting solution proposed by Barry in his presentation, is to transfer some of the options the 'haves' got with them to the 'have-nots'. This is a mutually beneficial transaction where the quality of life increases for both the parties - the 'haves' by virtue of lesser options to worry about and the 'have-nots' by having at least some options. But can we do this? Only if understand the problem of plenty.

If you still don't get it, try this. Now a days marriage is like going to a restaurant; the moment you see what's on your neighbor's plate, you wish you had ordered for that. It is also like buying a mobile phone, you always feel you could have waited a little longer to buy a model with more advanced features, like the one your colleague just bought!

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