The problem of plenty

These days we are rarely without a camera, yet how often do we hold an actual photograph? We flip through streams of jpegs, on Tumblr, Instagram and the rest, we ‘like,’ reblog and create virtual slideshows. We get daily dispatches from friends on alpine treks, course-by-course accounts of elaborate meals, and inspect carefully curated interiors. It’s so easy to create an evocative filter that we’ve become suspicious of what we’re looking at. It was not always thus. In the 1950’s photography could rightly be a provocative act. Being photographed was an event not a default setting

Michael Williams writing for  A Continuous Lean

That little piece sums up a lot that has changed in our society. We were not rich, so I only have a few dozen photos of my childhood and my parents. It was because not everyone had cameras and every time you need family photos, you needed a professional. But the ones I have, I cherish them so much. I have memories attached to those photos. 

When I was a kid, getting a landline phone was a momentous event, so much so that I have this notion of appointment calling. It doesn’t matter where I am, every Sunday, I call my parents at a certain time between dinner and when they go to sleep. It is not that I can’t call them every day – I got FaceTime for that – but instead that appointment makes the joy of a three-to-five minute call exceptional. 

Growing up with constraints, I have developed a deeper appreciation of things, moments, experiences and memories. Today, however, those notions are being challenged by modern society whose hallmark is “plenty” and “plenty of choices.” Getting on a plane was such a huge event, but it was expensive, so you always remembered that event. Today, $60 is all it takes you to get you to Los Angeles from San Francisco. We simply have plenty of everything — all the time. And perhaps because of that we have lost the specialness associated “events.”



  1. Tobin Schwaiger-Hastanan says:

    September 4th, 2012 at 11:05 am Reply

    To me the problem of plenty is about the accessibility to what was once priced beyond an impulsive buy. Financially planning to take a trip some place exposed how you valued your buys. When the accessibility to things becomes cheaper (in time & money) we end up valuing it less.

    These days the specialness of something is directly related to the time (not money) I need to commit to something. I highly value you time with my friends & family. When I see photos on instagram with those moments I don’t find specialness in instagram & the photos themselves, but I feel specialness of my experience that I can remember through similar services.

  2. Guy Kopsombut says:

    September 1st, 2012 at 5:14 pm Reply

    I wonder where the balance is then between technological progress and constraints. Are we to stop advances so that we may observe life in a more meaningful manner?

    Maybe it’s an issue of discipline. When growing up, you were restricted by your family’s means. Now as you have progressed in life, you are able to afford a plethora of new opportunities. It’s easy, when one is able to, to indulge in a better lifestyle.

    Maybe if life has given us more choices, it is up to use to put the constraints on ourselves. I always think back to “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost. It is up to us to make the conscious decision “to stop without a farmhouse near” every once in a while.

  3. Matt says:

    August 31st, 2012 at 9:42 am Reply

    We haven’t lost events, they’ve just changed. Someone 80-100 years ago could have written the same about the first time they got in a horseless carriage, or experienced electrical light.

    1. Om Malik says:

      August 31st, 2012 at 10:06 am Reply


      I think that is not what I am saying – I think the lack of constraints is removing specialness of moments or events. We have divided life into many millisecond events and there is only so many memories we can associate with them.

  4. Dennis D. McDonald (@ddmcd) says:

    August 31st, 2012 at 9:40 am Reply

    I’m not sure if it’s the events themselves or how we choos to remember them that has changed. I have video from when my son was 3 minutes old. He’s 29 now. I never look at the video.

  5. Darrell Brogdon (@DarrellBrogdon) says:

    August 31st, 2012 at 8:42 am Reply

    We should try to turn more things back into “events”. Its the opposite of what I often see as introducing false scarcity to increase profits (hi Comcast!). Turning something into an event means that you openly acknowledge the plentifulness but you enhance it with the attributes of an event in order to make it feel more special. More personal.

    Abundance breeds mundane but novelty creates a memory.

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