Choice and Happiness in Modern Times
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Choice and Happiness in Modern Times

In the 1936 film, Modern Times, the character Little Tramp played by Charlie Chaplin goes to work in a factory that has taken the spirit of industrial mechanization to its extreme. He is instructed to stand at a particular spot on a fast-paced assembly line and screw bolts onto the pieces of machinery that pass him at an ever increasing rate. His hands become so accustomed to the prescribed movement that even after he has left the factory, he continues to twist and turn all sorts of things in everyday life, including the noses or buttons of people around him, much to their consternation.

The film is replete with examples of how the ‘mechanical’ quality of the industrialized life was proving to be a source of dissatisfaction for many.

However, over the course of the next few decades the consequence of this way of industrialized life shaped our current ideas regarding prosperity, happiness and choice.

Post World War II, manufacturers could produce far more goods than people needed and there came innovations in style and advertising, transforming the act of purchasing from a practical one to self-expression. You no longer bought a box of cereal for breakfast; you were making a statement about who you were and your choice was a reflection of your personality. This change was further stoked by a simultaneous expansion of mass media. Suddenly every act of choice came to be seen as conscious decision about blending in with the crowd or standing apart.

Even cultural forces in the late ‘50s and ‘60s talked about the idea of individual identity against mainstream culture, some controversially so like the Beatles and the beat pack – Allan Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and others. Although much of the potency of the movement had subsided by the end of ‘70s, it left us with a message that would survive: individuality over conformity. And thanks to globalizing forces of mass media, these ideas were bundled and exported along with products like Coca-Cola and Levi’s which came to symbolise them.

Fast forward to the early ‘80s, specifically to New York City and the little office of Howard Moskowitz. A slight man, with a PhD in Psychophysics from Harvard, who Malcolm Gladwell of The New Yorker describes as “a man of uncommon exuberance and persuasiveness: if he had been your freshman statistics professor, you would today be a statistician”, Moskowitz started his business in the ‘70s. One of his earliest clients was Pepsi who came to him to find the perfect amount of sweetener for a can of Diet Pepsi. Moskowitz set to work and had his Eureka moment! As Gladwell writes, “all the data [from his focus group tests] were a mess – there wasn’t a pattern – and one day, sitting in a diner, Moskowitz realized why. They had been asking the wrong question. There was no such thing as the perfect Diet Pepsi. They should have been looking for the perfect Diet Pepsis.”

Moskowitz’s theory of pluralism in perfection wasn’t far removed from the idea of individualism over conformity which had by then become the basis for the American consumerism. But it found few takers at that time. Moskowitz pursued the idea and one of the earliest to buy into it was Campbell soup, for their line of Prego spaghetti sauce.

Moskowitz wrote a computer program that would divide the customers into three segments. The program would look at the characteristics of each likes and dislikes of each of these segments and match them up with Prego’s product line. It was while doing this that they realised the existence of a new segment of customers who liked their spaghetti sauce with a lot of stuff in it – a segment that was completely untapped because their existence had been unknown. In 1989-90, Prego came up with the extra chunky variety spaghetti sauce, which then went on to become an enormous success.

The success of Prego brought other brands to Moskowitz’s idea. Today, the whole idea of different flavours and tastes for different people seems innocuous, or to a certain degree, obvious. But back then, it was a huge breakthrough in marketing. It also meant customers suddenly had more choice than they could have ever imagined.

Until Moskowtiz came along, marketers, food manufacturers and brand managers all strongly believed in the idea of a perfect sauce or a perfect cola. The success of Moskowitz’s theory clearly demonstrated that there are no universals in taste. That one person’s taste isn’t better, above or below another’s – a thought that doesn’t seem far removed from the message of the counterculture movement that began in the early ‘60s, of individuality over conformity, or as we say these days: “doing your own thing.”

This message of individuality over conformity or standard has taken a new meaning in today’s world. Every activity of ours is considered to be an act of choice. It sometimes appears, as author Sheena Iyengar describes in The Art of Choosing,  as if “choice is the only tool we have for achieving fulfillment in life, allowing us to be masters our worlds”.

Too much choice, at the same time could mean unnecessary obfuscation for some. Growing up in the early ‘90s in India, I never really understood my grandfather’s contempt for readymade clothes and his preference towards tailor-made clothes. “Why would I wear clothes stitched to suit someone else’s size?” he’d ask. It made no sense to me, partly because ready-made clothing seemed to have enough choice and partly because I was too young to really understand what he saying. I didn’t know then that I would revisit this conversation in the future.

When we decided to re-look at our Teabox monthly subscription program, we felt that in the age of personalized gifts, personalized clothes, custom-designed cars, customized accessories, what if technology can help personalize tea selections for every tea drinker?

Our new subscription program, if you really look at it, can be likened to a much more powerful and evolved version of the program Moskowitz presented to Campbell soup for their Prego brand. Instead of dividing the customers into a limited number of segments and matching up the product line to them, we asked if our technology could be made to adhere literally to the idea of, ‘to each their own’. In a nutshell we asked ourselves if we could build a system that could recommend or select teas customized to individual tastes. We all agreed that it would be a great tool to have, and then we went ahead and built it.

The new subscription program uses a really simple quiz to understand the underlying tastes of every user, and then via a complex set of algorithms selects teas that are mostly likely to be appreciated by the user. We started with the basic premise that Moskowitz had already laid out for us, that there really is no perfect tea but there are perfect teas.

We also understood, much like how Moskowitz famously prophesied, that the mind knows not what the tongue wants. And hence, none of our quiz questions are designed to directly take a user’s input about their choice of tea. Instead, it tries to infer their tastes on a broader level, by asking questions about favorite ice-cream flavors and preferred scents. These inputs are used by our prediction engine to answer the complex question of ‘which tea will I really enjoy’.

The ideas of individuality have, as you can see, existed for long. What we have managed to achieve is a construct of modern realities and sophisticated technology, a derivation of a thought that preceded us and even Moskowitz; a degree of personalization that my grandfather could take for granted but is what we are actively seeking in modern times.

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