September 1st, 2017
You Can’t Always Get What You Want
If you happened to be in Tokyo’s Toyosu District on the right day last June, you might have come across a pop-up restaurant named “The Restaurant of Order Mistakes.” All pop-ups need a good gimmick and this one was no exception — all the waitstaff are dementia patients. Take a seat inside, peruse the menu and before long a smiling gray-haired lady in a waiter’s apron will take your order. Whether you get what you ordered is an open question.
Before you get to thinking that this is a conceptual art installation or a fantastically cruel joke on just about everyone involved, context is helpful. Japan is aging faster than any other nation and Japanese ministries anticipate that in a few decades, 40% of the population will be over the age of 65. So the notion of Aunt Yuki forgetting things is not really an abstraction and that surely has something to do with the restaurant’s success and its planned return this September.
As a social experiment, this is touchingly brilliant. I’ve had the lamentable experience of watching a grandparent sink beneath the waves of dementia and of all the things I recall, the most poignant was his deepening sense of uncertainty. My grandfather had been too clever by half for his whole life, but in his twilight the discovery that his reflexive charm and knowhow was no longer always on tap created a kind of stasis, an inability to act even when there was a reasonable chance that he might know the right thing to do.
I have to imagine that it’s the same way for the waitstaff at the Restaurant of Order Mistakes. Or at least that’s how it is when they’re not on duty, because when they clock in, that burden of uncertainty doesn’t just vanish, it becomes desirable. (At least one customer expressed some disappointment at getting exactly what she ordered.) In Japan, where such an emphasis rests on politeness, failing to deliver on the guest’s request is doubly onerous. But at the Restaurant of Order Mistakes, the waitresses are set free, their failings welcomed.
But there’s also something interesting, if more elusive, going on with the customers. In the etiquette of dining out, the incorrect order exists in a category all of its own — a mortifying error that annoys the customer, humiliates the server and causes chaos in the kitchen. It’s bad all the way around, and it violates the basic tenet of restaurant hospitality, giving the customer what they want. But just because you or I want something, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s what we really need.
The phone-and-app era is an era of service, the likes of which we haven’t seen since Victorian England, or more precisely, the British Raj. Whether it’s picking up laundry or trolling for anonymous hookups (or taking clothes back to the laundry after anonymous hookups) everything is at your capacitant fingertips. Leaving aside the question of whether it’s a good idea for the servants to exist in a purely transactional relation with their employers, let’s consider the downside to being the one on the receiving end of the service.
Convenience is the ubiquitous word — ease of use, ease of consumption, and let’s not forget ease of transferring funds. But I’d suggest that when you hear “convenience” you think of a different word: frictionless. Now, friction is generally thought of as undesirable, but not enough friction is a problem, too. Look to the soles of your shoes if you need a reminder.
In the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan was trying to make sense of the social effects of new technologies. Regardless of the nature of any actual given technology, he thought, they all had the same psychological effect on the user — they amplified and extended innate senses and abilities. Flash forward to now and we see that the phone-plus-app has this in spades. Anemically flick at a sheet of glass and people appear, ready to do your bidding. Flick again and achieve godlike omniscience about the location of traffic jams. Whatever your interest, it can be amplified with the psychological result that we are overwhelmed by the coolness of our immense powers and that, it’s safe to say, is where the thought train comes to a dead halt. McLuhan called this state “narcissistic hypnosis” and if you’ve seen a person lost in their smartphone, then you’ve seen it in action.
But it would be wrong to think of narcissistic hypnosis, even as it achieves its apotheosis with the smartphone, as new. It was there at the arrival of our very first world-changing technology, the control of fire. After all, and which of us, staring into the flames, can deny their hypnotic power? But the intersection of mind and tech was troublesome then, too, because that first narcissistic hypnosis made us believe that we were fundamentally different from the rest of nature. That combination — the need to command energy and our belief that we are separate from nature — is what fuels the slow-motion carbon disaster unfolding everywhere.
In between fire and smartphone, and starting with the coming of agriculture and cities, there was very long era of technological innovation disguised as a social institution — slavery. In a world powered by muscle – which was the whole world until the Dutch harnessed wind to large-scale industry 400 years ago – slavery is what “amplified and extended” human power. Though we’ve spent a couple hundred years attempting to rid the world of slavery, the global hangover refuses to end. If we pause for a moment to look back on a great empire based entirely on the muscle of slaves — ancient Rome — we might notice that our word “service” derives from the Roman word for “slavery.” An interesting notion, when viewed from the belly of the Service Economy.
It makes me consider how service and hospitality often joined in the same breath, despite being fundamentally different things. Service lies rooted in the desires of the one giving the orders, while hospitality emerges from an offering. One is about control and precision, and the other is a gift, which may or may not be wanted, and that brings us back to the Restaurant of Order Mistakes and the food that you didn’t order.
With good chefs working the kitchen, the wrong item is a conceptual crisis, not a gustatory one. It’s a challenge to the diner’s notion of a restaurant, and to the larger culture of control and desire-fulfillment. The genius of the Restaurant of Order Mistakes lies not in the wavering memory of its waitstaff, but in shifting mindset of its customers. Setting aside faith in control opens the door for new possibilities, inviting serendipity, dumb luck and blind chance. It a culture that aspires to frictionlessness, this is heretical thinking, and bound to rub some people the wrong way. But then again, friction is how we make fire.