Tagphilosophy

Keeping it small

K

In a recent article, the WSJ looks at the way many things are imported to Japan and then perfected way beyond the original quality.

The author asks Shuzo Kishida, chef and owner of Quintessence, one of Tokyo’s 16 restaurant adorned with three Michelin stars, about why the place is so small and Mr Kishida personally takes care of so many aspects of running the restaurant:

When the maître d’ pours a glass of sweet, crisp French white wine to go with the next offering, I ask him why he wears so many hats in a restaurant that could afford to take on more staff. “If I just manage this place but don’t serve dishes, then what’s the point?” he says. “I want to see exactly how each customer responds to what we put before them.” (…)

Later Kishida joins me for a coffee. Thirty-seven and slightly built, he carries himself in a way that manages to be both authoritative and humble. After we discuss the details of the dishes, I ask him about what the maître d’ told me. “I bought this restaurant myself just a few months ago from the group that owned it since it opened,” he says. “I did that for one reason: to cook how I want in a way that connects me to each customer. I refused to make this place any bigger. I need to personally taste every single dish that leaves my kitchen.”

I love this philosophy. It makes so much sense. Keeping the operation small it allows Mr Kishida to focus on quality over quantity and keep control in ways impossible in larger businesses. In a way, this allows to trade a certain financial margin for more personal freedom and a way to provide just the best experience possible.

It’s a philosophy I subscribe to 100%. It’s also why I wouldn’t want my company to grow substantially. If you want big money, you have to grow big; if you want to deliver the best, there’s something to be said for keeping things smaller, more nimble. And for making sure the person in charge knows in-depth every step in the process.

As a side note, after reading this article I can’t wait to see Bear Pond Espresso. Maybe I can even manage to score an espresso there. A godshot for sure.

Serendipity

S

Serendipity is a great word, a fantastic notion. It’s also a word that gets over-used, or maybe rather: wrongly used. So I enjoyed that Ian Leslie explored the idea of serendipity a bit and gave some background, too – before starting to speculate on the internet’s negative influence on serendipity.

Let’s back up. Serendipity is a notoriously hard to explain word. Many languages, including German, don’t even have a decent translation as far as I can tell. Leslie neatly explains serendipity as a “subtle blend of chance and agency”, and quote Horace Walpole’s explanation taken from a letter in 1754: In the tale of The Three Princes of Serendip, the princes were “always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.” Leslie points out that oftentimes when we refer to serendipity we focus on the chance and neglect the sagacity involved.

Right on.

Then he jumps straight into a sweeping critique of the internet that draws heavily from the Filter Bubble argument – the notion that the web and its filtering/targeting mechanisms increasingly shows us only what is compatible with what we already believe, cutting out dissenting arguments and news outside our immediate fields of interest.

The Filter Bubble argument isn’t weak as such. If you were to exptrapolate from, say, the last 5 years and project a linear development in terms of targeting, filtering and social search, then yes, we might end up reading only what we already know. Luckily, that’s stupid not an advisable thing to do. Instead, it helps to take a step back and look at the bigger picture.

Yes, internet search often gives us very targeted information, cutting out longer searches which would have provided more ample opportunity to happen upons things we were not looking for. However, that’s only half the story (or less).

For one, the way we consume the web isn’t as straight forward as this. Social search and discovery online doesn’t just by way of receiving a link after typing in a dedicated search into the Google search box. Rather, increasingly we follow others who we trust to share interesting things with us. “Interesting”, in this case, implying an active initial choice by ourselves. Do we want to receive input by people who read the same things we read, or those who follow different information flows? Once we settle on a person that way, we receive a diverse, or at least unplanned and at least potentially serendipitous stream of thoughts, ideas, sources.

My main point of disagreement, however, is this: While the author points out that “in the field of observation, chance favours only the prepared mind” (Louis Pasteur), he still claims that the internet has evolved to a point where we don’t face unexpected input anymore, but restrict our usage of the web to what we know, the path well-trodden.

(He goes there by way of a romanticised book-shopping experience: The book jackets [in the book store] shimmer on the table, the spines flirt with you from the shelves. You can pick them up and allow their pages to caress your hands.” Maybe someone should point out to him that apart from small independent book stores those shelves and tables are paid for and stocked by big publishing companies who couldn’t care less about flirting spines and caressing your hands.)

What Leslie entirely fails to grasp here it that the online search/consumption behavior is only one side of the coin of many aspects of how we search out and encounter information. We get some input online, parts in predictable, controlled ways, some slightly more random. We have offline conversations and encounters, too. Quite likely, other media channels pay some part. There’s professional input streams, too, the stuff we read for work and learn about at conferences. There’s more.

And in all these cases, the question is: What happens when a piece of information hits a prepared mind?

No one – not today and not tomorrow – could restrict their information consumption online to a degree where no piece of stray information wouldn’t trigger the mental processes of new information impacting a prepared mind. A slightly faster search won’t change that.