Successive Approximations

Avoid Digital Ketchup

Avoid Digital Ketchup

In 2004, Malcolm Gladwell wrote an article which, among other things, explores why there are hundreds of varieties of mustard, but only one type of ketchup. (I first encountered it in the printed collection "What The Dog Saw" which is, I think, Gladwell at his finest. Freed from the burden of an overarching narrative, he can tell interesting stories 30 pages at a time.)

Part of the story is a meditation on the soul of ketchup: what it is, how it functions, and so on. The basic idea he lays out is that ketchup manages to capture all five of the elements of taste: salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami. With respect to flavors, it is a complete sentence; it needs no augmentation.

This has the interesting consequence that kids love ketchup for the very specific reason that it is tasty and it goes on everything. Instead of having to taste a wide variety of strange flavors on their plate at dinner each night, if they cover it in ketchup (with the help of bottles specifically constructed to be used by the children), they never have to learn to like new flavors.

(This is, of course, obviously trading off long-term growth for short-term comfort, which should be avoided as much as possible.)

I happened to be out in public this past week, picking up lunch from a restaurant. My order was delayed, because it was noon and everyone, both online and in-person, was ordering right then. My immediate reaction was to find a spot out of the way and stare at my phone until my order was ready.

But the store was (as much as anything ever is in the age of COVID-19) bustling, with people coming and going, picking up orders. Perhaps there was nothing interesting in what was going on around me, but I had no way to know if I shut it out and stared at my phone.

Meanwhile, what was on my phone was completely separate from this time and place. Anything I would read or watch would still be there hours or days later, whenever I got around to looking. In no way was it urgent. In contrast, whatever was happening around me would only ever happen exactly once, and if I ignored whatever there was to observe from it, there was no way to capture that and learn the lesson later.

And so I found myself thinking about Malcolm Gladwell and ketchup. And how our phones have become the ketchup that we pour over everday life. Nobody is ever truly bored waiting anymore because you always have a portal to infinite limbic stimulation in your pocket. The individual textures and flavors of the places we go and the times that we encounter them are submerged in the consistent, comfortable, addictive flavor of digital ketchup.

What's wrong with ketchup, you ask? Nothing. It's fine. It will never be terrible, but it will also never be excellent. You will never remember a meal or hunger for more because of the excellent ketchup. It is always, consistently, inexorably, fine.

The problem with ketchup is that it will never be more or less than ketchup. If you go to a place and try the local cuisine, some of it will be disappointing, and some of it might be surprisingly good. But if you cover it in ketchup, it will only ever taste like ketchup.

My advice, and my goal for myself: do not cover up the flavor and texture of the world around you with digital ketchup any more than is necessary.

Ben Berry

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