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Free Thoughts #5: The Apple Pie Problem

Let’s say you’ve got yourself a little diner in the States.

You want to offer pie to your customers, but you’re running a low budget operation, so you can only offer one particular type of pie. To figure out what kind of pie you should sell, you ask some of your regular customers what their favourite pie is, but you get a whole bunch of different answers: pumpkin, key lime, pecan, lemon meringue, tart cherry served heated up with a scoop of vanilla icecream on the side, etc.

That leaves you without much to go on, so instead you ask these same customers to fill out a little survey ranking ten different pies in descending order of preference. You find, looking at the data, that although no one actually picked it as their favourite, apple pie ends up being the one that averages out to being the least objectionable and most consistently “okay” with people. So you decide to serve apple pie, and thanks to your maths and research, it ends up selling better than any other pie you may have chosen instead… even though it isn’t any of your regular’s actual favourite.

I’m pretty sure this is exactly why apple remains the flavour that McDonald’s consistently sells while the other couple flavours they offer rotates throughout the year.

What this tells us is that there is a very clear distinction between what people really want and what people are okay with settling for in the absence of being able to get exactly what they want. It also demonstrates an important distinction between preference of an individual and “preference” of a group.

This distinction is very important in understanding how late-capitalist mono-culture works. It’s part of why we’ve got a situation where people routinely walk away from Blockbuster films feeling unsatisfied, never really loving those films, but they’re still the ones that make the most money. It’s why creative gambles are rarely taken in any majour, mainstream media. It’s why mono-culture is able to make enormous profits, and thrive, even while producing inarguably mediocre product.

It’s not that we, as human beings, are really that crass and tasteless and dull. It’s just that what a group will most happily settle for is different from what an individual actually wants and desires.

Of course there are niche markets. Of course there are creators who care about making quality art and media and entertainment. Of course there are consumers who put in the effort to hunt down what they’re really going to enjoy. Yeah. But the mainstream, the mono-culture, isn’t the specialty variety pie shop. The mainstream is McDonald’s, and it wants to sell as many pies as it can relative to investment and risk.

This understanding of how human preference works can be important for understanding other issues too. It can be helpful in understanding how cultural normativities work as well.

For instance, the beauty standards against which we compare (and shame) ourselves. Is that image we see ourselves as failing to live up to actually what people actually see as beautiful? Or is it simply the apple pie, the least-objectionable averaged-out mediocre film that people will settle for seeing and not complain about too much?

Do we need to shame ourselves just for being a nice slice of sweet potato pie with a dollop of whipped cream, that maybe a diner isn’t willing to take a gamble on selling, but someone, somewhere, will be absolutely thrilled to find being served?

Beauty standards aren’t the only things that might work like this. Maybe talents, too. Personalities. The lives we lead, the experiences we’ve had. Aspirations, goals, desires, dreams. Human beings.

We can spend a lot of time feeling kind of shitty about ourselves for not living what mono-culture positions as the normal, ideal life, or being possessed of a normal body or normal identity or whatever. But maybe that isn’t a life that anyone really leads, and maybe it isn’t what any of us would ever really be happy with anyway.

The thing about our lives, though… we don’t have to settle. We don’t have to arrive at the decisions we make about who we are and what we want from our lives by group consensus. We’re the ones constructing them, and we’re the ones taking the risks, and we’re ultimately the ones on whose behalf our lives are being led.

If you’re baking in your own kitchen, why not make your favourite kind of pie?

I’m kind of in the mood for pecan.