The Downside of the Age of Convenience

The analogy is imperfect. Still consider.

Alain Ducasse (19), Pierre Gagnaire (14), Martin Berasategui (12), Yannick Alleno (10), Anne-Sophie Pic (8) are all assembled and told to do their very best.

The numbers aren’t their ages. It is the number of Michelin stars these chefs have been awarded. Arguably they are the top five chefs in the world.

So they get to work. Perhaps some of them go all in: hors-d’oeuvres, amuse-bouche, soup, appetizer, salad, fish, main course, palate cleaner, second main course, cheese course, dessert, and mignardise. That alone might make someone feel like Mr. Creosote.

But these people are absolute masters of their art. What they create is phenomenal.

Say you decide to go to Anne-Sophie Pic au Beau-Rivage Palace in Lausanne. This isn’t a simple matter. It takes effort on your part. But the Michelin Guide tells you: “Diners can be reassured that the demanding inventive streak that has ever linked the Pic name to high-flying Gallic gastronomy continues to thrive here. A culinary masterclass throbbing with flavour.”

Where else are you going to go so as to get a meal that is “throbbing with flavour”?

You get there. You eat. You know that it is true. Each of the courses is something that is special. It seems almost impossible that each is different yet each is something that is consistently exceptional in its own way. Each part contributes to the whole. While each course is individually wonderful, the chef creates a comprehensive gastronomic experience. And when the napkin is finally folded, you have an indelible memory.

But let’s say that Ducasse, Gagnaire, Berasategui, Alleno, and Pic create full meals and they are assembled on long banquet tables. The effort that is required to get into any of their restaurants is eliminated. It is simply there. You arrive. You select a plate here and a plate there. While each of the plates is magnificently executed, it may be that you’re not taken with that fish dish so you take another. Or you eat the cheese before you select a soup.

All of this means:

  • There is no effort on your part
  • The comprehensive work of each chef is disaggregated
  • The experience, while being arguably unique, is about as special as an evening at the Bacchanal Buffet in Caesar’s Place when the Rotary Convention is in town

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As Benedict Evans describes what he does:

“I’ve spent 20 years analysing mobile, media and technology, and worked in equity research, strategy, consulting and venture capital. I’m now an independent analyst.”

With outfits like Andreessen Horowitz and Mosaic Ventures on his resume, it is clear that Evans is deeply immersed in the digital aspects of media and technology.

In a newsletter, he recently wrote this:

“My friend came back from an experimental music gig recently with an audio cassette. There’s something of a trend for these, apparently, just as there is for vinyl (though without the claims about sound quality). The inconvenience is part of the point – they’re hard to digitise, which restricts circulation and means the creator retains a degree of control (this reminds me of a hip denim shop in Tokyo that called itself ‘Not Found’ so that you couldn’t Google it – you had to be in the know). They’re also a way to package up a set of tracks in a way that’s otherwise awkward without a tool like Soundcloud. And a little of it is really a pose, of course. But what’s interesting to me is that they’re something that you can actually give someone.”

“The inconvenience is part of the point.” “[T]he creator retains a degree of control.”

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In 1991 the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany developed the MP3 format. In 1999 there was Napster. The first iPod was sold in 2001. Spotify was established in 2006.

The best-selling albums are, in order (and date of release):

  1. Thriller. Michael Jackson. (1982)
  2. Back in Black. AC/DC. (1980)
  3. The Bodyguard. Whitney Houston and various artists. (1992)
  4. Dark Side of the Moon. Pink Floyd. (1973)
  5. Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975). The Eagles. (1976).

According to the U.S. Census Bureau (2020) figures, 22.2% of the population is 18 or under. Which means the oldest was born in 2002. They haven’t lived in a world without digital music. Dark Side of the Moon came out 29 years before they were born. They have lived through the entire existence of the iPod.

Also according to the Census Bureau figures, 16.8% are 65 or older. Which means the oldest (again, with 2020 as baseline) was born in 1955. Which means they were 18 when Dark Side of the Moon was released. That cohort undoubtedly made that “concept album” the success that it is.

Consider: when you were 18—regardless of whether you are in the 22.2%, the 16.8% or the 39% in the middle—you had to make some choices about what you would spend your money on. Albums or tapes were just one choice among many. So a person in 1973 who decided to spend some $9.98 on a record really made a decision. While this seems almost impossible, according to the inflation-adjusting calculators I’ve looked at, $10 in 1973 is about $75 today. Quite a decision for an 18-year-old.

But sometimes when you are 18 and there is something that means a lot to you, you want to give it to someone.

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Musically, this is the Age of the Buffet. Musicians make music knowing full well that the works are going to be streamed, not physically owned. For $10 someone can get a month of Spotify. Not much of a decision or sacrifice. There is no “inconvenience.” Nothing “awkward.” It is seamless. Simple.

To be sure, those who dine at Restaurant Le Meurice or Alleno Paris are doing so at some cost and commitment. There is a deep appreciation and understanding of the talents and efforts of the chefs, and even if there isn’t that, there is undoubtedly a memory that lives much longer than meals at innumerable other establishments. (I once had the opportunity to dine at two-Michelin star Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago, and while I am not in the least bit a gastronome and was puzzled about the tiny courses that were put in front of me, it is a meal I will not forget.)

Will the 22.% ever have their Thriller?

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