Years ago I read Alvin Toffler’s book, "Future Shock," and I am still amazed at how prophetic it was, particularly the phenomenon Toffler termed overchoice. Consider the options presented in the purchase of a light bulb. Incandescent, fluorescent, or LED? How many lumen hours? How many watts (which in the case of LED bulbs is a whole ‘nuther ball of wax)? Dimmable or not? Indoor or outdoor or both? What size and shape bulb? Presented with so many choices, I did not feel—pun intended—illuminated. Rather, my dimmed, overloaded brain entertained stocking up on candles and matches and retreating to another century.
And don’t get me started on paint colors.
Recently, I decided to paint my sunroom. The color I had in mind was salmon, a subdued, pink-orange. Or, as I described to a friend who totally got what I meant, “a not too orangey-orange.” Simple, or so I thought until I stood in front of hundreds of sample paint colors in the hardware store. Who knew there was a shade of orange called peach cream whip? (Somebody somewhere has the intriguing job of coming up with these names). I took a stash of color strips home, resisting the urge to stop into the grocery for anything peachy or creamy or whipped (no, not that fifty shades of grey) since all I could think about was food (but, curiously, not salmon).
And then another odd occurrence. None of the colors looked the same at home as they did in the store. Or on different walls of the sunroom, for that matter. On top of it all, I still had to decide between flat, eggshell, satin, semi-gloss or … UGH!
It could have been worse. I could have been trying to pick wallpaper, a Kafka-esque experience I hope never to repeat after spending umpteenth hours one day looking at book after book of wallpaper designs until I thought I’d go absolutely bonkers. For nights afterwards I saw flowers, stripes, geometrics, you name it, floating across my eyes when I tried to sleep. And this from someone who once extolled the fabulous wallpaper designs of William Morris in a term paper.
Two understated but memorable scenes in Sofia Coppola’s film, "Lost in Translation," illustrate my point. Bill Murray’s character, in Tokyo for a business trip, receives color samples from his wife in the mail, all of them indistinguishable variations of the color burgundy. In another scene, he and Scarlett Johansson’s character try to choose a meal from a menu in which all the entrees appear identical. The story is (among other things) about accommodating the customs of another culture (which sometimes can be your own). But these two brief glimpses into the confusion of modern life in the face of so much ostensible abundance—overchoice—are, to me, another way we get lost in translation.