Tuesday, December 17, 2013

A Fine Selection

I sat at lunch today on the patio of a nearby burger place. As I waited for lunch, another group of three, dressed like business partners, walked out of the restaurant into the parking lot.

One person said to the other, "You picked a good place for lunch".

Another said, "Yes, you did a good job" and the recipient gave some small thanks.

Now, both parties were correct in that this place has a pretty good hamburger. Hardly earth-shattering, but more than sufficient for a business lunch and at a good price as well.

What I could not shake off was that they were thanking their co-worker for suggesting one of a dozen possible places to acquire lunch as if she had in some way added value to the meal. She obviously had no hand in the creation of the burgers, fries or soda, and had she paid for all three meals I suspect other stock phrases would have been employed. At some point back at the office someone had said, "let's all go to lunch. Where should we go?" And she had said, "Let's go over here." and her choice was agreed to by all, and for making that suggestion she is rewarded with mild verbal praise.

Perhaps there was a non-obvious power dynamic going on, and the selector was either of higher standing or a customer, and thus worthy of sucking up to, but I suspect it was simpler than that.

She was being praised, not for her skill at creating anything, but for her skill at selecting which group of creators was her favorite. If I was some highbrow type, we could say that she was being rewarded for her skill at curation.

Certainly there is a case to be made that curation is a valuable skill in the modern economy, and [Jason Kottke](http://www.cbc.ca/spark/2009/04/full-interview-jason-kottke-and-curating-the-web/) has on occasion made it quite well. And yet, what an imperious talent to cultivate, either in yourself or in others! And to those around her, did they accept the suggestion merely to avoid the all to common debate about where to get lunch (and how much wealth and privilege informs that debate?) or because they genuinely were unsure which of the local restaurants were the best and were deferring to their host? The former seems most likely in this case, but the latter is both common and baffling.

The people who complain about the abundance of choice, for whom recommendations, top 10 lists, and favored curators are their primary source of entertainment astound me. Some of them are simply afraid of new things, but quite often they will claim they just don't have time to go exploring through the great morass of human creative achievement. These are the people who don't understand why Wikipedia has a "random page" button, or why Steam allows greenlit and early access indie games. The people who post comments on Hulu to the effect of "this sucks. Hulu shouldn't have this series. I feel like I wasted my life."

I think part of this is that I am bad at understanding the motivations and inner lives of other people, but I also think part of it is that they have fallen into the habit of min-maxing every aspect of their life, as if spending time with a sub-par entertainment will prevent their "entertained" score from being high enough when they face the final boss fight.

I think the secret to happiness is low expectations.

1 comment:

  1. I dunno, I always thought there was a bit of a public goods problem in searching for new restaurants. (Which I'd wager probably happened in your example - it would be weird if the group rotated between four restaurants and they were complimenting her on just picking one of the four). I have one friend who often reads up on trendy new places to eat, and I'm always most appreciative of the places he finds. In some cosmic balance, I have several more friends who are congenital moochers and free ride off the places I find, and would be content to eat at the same two crap places if I didn't occasionally find new ones myself.

    For such a common and repeated interaction, the question of restaurant selection is surprisingly fraught.