Just pick one: Musing about toothpaste in Calcutta and its effect on enterprise information

For the first twenty-three years of my life, I’d never known a home other than Calcutta. I’d visited other cities, sure, but never actually lived anywhere else. And I’d never left the country.

So when I came to the UK nearly twenty-seven years ago, I came unprepared for many things; there were many situations and environments where I felt out of place and needed to adjust myself. The culture shock I experienced wasn’t big and immediate and in-your-face, it felt more like a disjointed series of very small events over a long time. Maybe I’ll write about them one day.

But in the meantime, here’s a for-example. One place I felt distinctly uncomfortable was the supermarket. I could not conceive of a whole aisle containing things to do with something like dental care. When I was young, buying toothpaste was simple. You walked to the local shop and asked for toothpaste, and the shopkeeper gave you toothpaste, usually Colgate, maybe Macleans. [You could also have asked for vajradanti twigs, or “sweet” tooth powder, usually Colgate, or “salty” tooth powder, usually Monkey Brand. The last named was truly something else, seemed to be a mixture of salt and charcoal and sand….]

That was it for most of my life in Calcutta. Maybe towards the end, with Signal entering the fray, it was possible to ask for toothpaste with go-faster stripes; every child my age probably remembers taking apart a tube surreptitiously in order to see how the stripes worked. Binaca was probably around from the start, just never got popular in my household; see the power of product placement in those days? He who had the distribution took the market. And I’d nearly left before “swadeshi” hybrid approaches like Vicco Vajradanti came along, merging the herbs of the east with the packaged tube delivery of the west. [My thanks to Maddy for reminding me of the little charms that came with the toothpaste, that took me back a while].

For most of my life, therefore, I’d just been asking for toothpaste, almost never mentioning a brand or any sort of feature or function. So when I walked into a supermarket I felt way way out of my comfort zone. So much so that at least once I went home with denture polish….

At first I didn’t realise that the discomfort was anything to do with too much choice. Or that I could even have too much choice. Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to choose. I was fascinated by the theme from an early stage, and then something else happened. I had the privilege of being able to read James Montier regularly while we were both at Dresdner. Incidentally, as Sean (also there at the same time) reminded me, James now has a blog. And, for those who are interested, his latest book started shipping this weekend, I hope to have my copy tomorrow.

Incidentally, a few years ago, Barry Schwartz wrote a book on The Paradox of Choice which gives you an easily comprehensible introduction to the subject.

What does any or all of this have to do with enterprises and information? It’s simple, really. Have a look at what happened when I wondered about something yesterday. In a post headlined None of The Above, I asked two questions. One was this: How many people would be able to give a one-song answer when asked “What is your favourite song of all time”? And the second was this: “What’s yours?”

In effect I was asking two related questions. The first was to do with our ability to respond with a single answer in a given context, and the second was the answer itself.

I’ve had a few comments back now, and they are revealing, they help underscore what I was thinking. Ali Choudhury actually came back with an answer to both questions by answering the second one with just one song. Now all I have to do is listen to it, I must confess I’d not really heard much of Stan Bush. Hazel just about kept to the rules, choosing one under duress as it were wanting to choose more. Stephen, after telling me “in all fairness, I think on a longer time-scale than you do”, and after pointing out a whole series of other things, also came up with a one-song answer. Andrew, Benoit and Ric all felt the tension of having to choose just one, and in fact Benoit, unusually, nearly agreed with my choice. Unusual for me, not him. And later, Davezilla also kept to the rules, offering precisely one, and thereby giving me something else to try out. I’d not really heard much of the Virgin Prunes before.
Where the enterprise meets information, we have four very powerful things happening:

Complexity increases as a result, particularly as we see more and more people and devices getting connected. There is therefore a natural instinct coming into play, a wish to go “rule of one”. To simplify, to make the chessboard a little less crowded. To exchange queens.

And we’re finding this hard to do. We find all kinds of strange arguments as to why we can’t just pick one. And after a while, I’m beginning to think that the problem is a lot less to do with what we pick. And a lot more to do with our inability to pick something in the first place.

This is a theme I will be expanding in days to come, once I’ve finished the Facebook series (now on Part 9), the Wikipedia series (now on Part 2) and the Opensource series (as yet unpublished). In the meantime, comments welcome as usual.

4 thoughts on “Just pick one: Musing about toothpaste in Calcutta and its effect on enterprise information”

  1. JP, do write about your India –> Europe “culture shock” experience. I only lived in India for a year, but did find the whole “maladjustment” process I was going through fascinating to write about.

    I’d love to read “the other side of the story”. I really enjoyed your toothpaste story, for starters.

  2. Funnily enough, my early memories of England are the opposite of yours. I’m English (as are both my parents) but I spent my early years in America (my father worked for an American company). As a small child visiting England during the late sixties/early seventies my memories were of the lack of choice. In particular virtually no choice in breakfast cereals, only four flavours of ice-cream and only three channels on the TV (these things make an impact on a small child).

    I also find the whole subject of choice fascinating. Choice is linked to freedom, one’s value system, one’s knowledge/experience/education/capabilities and one’s relationships with others. The nature of the relationships between these things is one of the fundamental questions we spend our lives answering.

    We grow and improve our lives by lessening the externally imposed choices (by improving our education, wealth, government, abilities etc) and by increasing the internally imposed choices (by honing our value system, taking on responsibilities and focusing on what we believe to be important). Potential is realized (and freedom gained) by making a choice. Having a choice imposed can be oppression (as Blake said “One law for lion and ox is oppression”).

    But, ironically, allowing a choice to be made for you can be liberating. Partly because you gain new experiences (let your loved one choose the activity/holiday destination etc, let the sommelier choose the wine), but also partly because choice can be a burden and removing or limiting the choice lessens the burden (I invariably prefer a restaurant with a small set menu to one with a large list of items). Of course you have to trust the person(s) to whom you defer the choice.

Let me know what you think

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