Saturday, February 03, 2007

If Samsara really is nirvana, why does my coffee taste so terrible?

In business school, they teach how a quality products start at the top of the market, and then slowly expand the brand and production, until mass market people are paying near-luxury prices for degraded versions of the product. Think about Jean-Pierre Leaud proudly wearing a Cardin tie in the sixties, and then spend some time looking at the Pierre Cardin ties next time you are at Sam's Club. Think about Seiko watches. Then walk past your Starbucks, and smilingly remind yourself that you were willing to drink Starbucks fifteen years ago, but that you were right to insist that it has been undrinkable for the last decade.

Starbucks offers a window into how our culture has changed. Back in the old days, when people accrued social status by respecting and opining about culture rather than food, there was tremendous confusion about which cultural products were the equivalent of Starbucks swill. People would flock to things that they had been told to like, would leave satisfied but not ecstatic, and the confusion in the marketplace was politely attributed to differences in taste rather than deficiencies of understanding.

In our brave new world, people derive alpha status from participating in sensual experiences that are rated as "world-class". But, unlike spiritual culture, sensual culture is based on biology and the organism, with the result that its gross outlines are more easily mathematically quantified, and disputes can be resolved in a precise manner: the number of taste buds on a person's tongue can be measured, a comestible can be broken down into its chemical compounds. People are as easily manipulated as ever, but rather than waiting decades for a critical consensus to emerge on what is basically crap -- fellow-travellers in the foodie movement are exposed as suffering from culinary colorblindness, right in the middle of their fad. When people regret the decline of status of classical music, they should remind themselves that the packed audiences of yesteryear were the starbucksdrinkers of today, and there is something nice about having an audience that there is something nice about being part of an audience that chooses an activity because they like it, rather than because they are feel it is civilizationally appropriate.

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