Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The plurality of perfections

In a 2004 article from the New Yorker (recently featured in the book What the Dog Saw), Malcolm Gladwell mentioned a story about Howard Moskowitz, an American market researcher, who received the task of figuring out the perfect amount of sweetener for Diet Pepsi. Pepsi knew that anything below 8% was not sweet enough and anything over 12% was too sweet. So Moskowitz logically set up experiments to give people batches of 8%, 8.25%, 8.5%, and on and on up to 12%. Instead of showing a concentration that people liked the most, the data were a mess - there wasn't a pattern at all. Then he realized people have different definitions of what's perfect. Rather than search for human universals, they should provide variations. "There was no such thing as the perfect Diet Pepsi. They should have been looking for the perfect Diet Pepsis."

The plural nature of perfection implies variations, and opposes hasty simplification. Sometimes I heard comments like "this will be perfect for China." What does that even mean? Extravaganza? Labor-intensive constructions? Or Feng-shui? (Stereotype is such a curious combination of generalization and specification.) Situation varies, so does "what fits in there." Rem's Maison à Bordeaux was perfect for a man who was confined to a wheelchair. But after he died in 2001, the moving platform became a constant reminder of his absence. His daughter couldn't live there any more.

The idea of plural perfections embraces difference, and facilitates co-existence. At the end it can lead to a colorful world of rich heterogeneity. This can be big as religion, politics, race, and gender, or small as how you want your coffee. There's not necessarily one best way to do things. Why can't we just listen and stop fighting? Why can't we try to understand different opinions instead of biasedly dismiss them right away? Why do we force everybody to like what we like and suppress all the other voices? Yes, you are right. But that doesn't mean others are all wrong.

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