In “A Talking Head Dreams of a Perfect City,” David Byrne describes what he loves in different cities.
There’s an old joke that you know you’re in heaven if the cooks are Italian and the engineering is German. If it’s the other way around you’re in hell. In an attempt to conjure up a perfect city, I imagine a place that is a mash-up of the best qualities of a host of cities. The permutations are endless. Maybe I’d take the nightlife of New York in a setting like Sydney’s with bars like those in Barcelona and cuisine from Singapore served in outdoor restaurants like those in Mexico City. Or I could layer the sense of humor in Spain over the civic accommodation and elegance of Kyoto. Of course, it’s not really possible to cherry pick like this — mainly because a city’s qualities cannot thrive out of context. A place’s cuisine and architecture and language are all somehow interwoven. But one can dream.
Byrne’s article is fascinating, but so is this inital warning about singling out individual elements — the idea that cherry picking is a pipe dream. Qualities cannot thrive out of context. Everything is interwoven.
The soul of a carrot
A related example (popularized by Michael Pollan): the soul of a carrot. Scientists keep trying to isolate the part of a carrot that makes it healthy. They have identified 15 carotenes in the carrot, yet the resulting carotene pills don’t produce the health benefits you get from munching on actual carrots. Pollan explains why the reductive reasoning of food scientists is problematic:
We know carrots are good for you, right? People have been eating them for a long time and the assumption was that what was good in cancer preventing in the carrot was the beta carotene. What makes it orange. So we extracted that and we made these supplement pills and we gave them to people and low and behold in certain populations like people who drink a lot would get sicker, were more likely to get cancer on beta carotene and the scientists kind of scratched their head. There is a couple of explanations. We don’t know. But one may be that the beta carotene is not the key ingredient. You know there are 50 other carotenes in carrots.
Food is incredibly complex. It’s a wilderness, you know, we don’t know what’s going on deep in the soul of a carrot. And we shouldn’t kid ourselves to think we can reduce it to these chemicals. It also may be some synergies between different thing. Beta carotene is also found in the company of chlorophyll, maybe it’s that combination that contributes to health. The point is we don’t, as eaters, need to know what makes carrots work. We can eat carrots, they taste good, they’re good for you. It’s that simple.
Isolating the healthy part of the carrot is harder than it looks. There are hidden combinations at work. There’s a soul there that we don’t completely understand.
The sum is often greater than the parts
In today’s isolate then cut-and-paste world, it can be tempting to go around trying to single out just the best parts of things. Think of the “show three comps” method of delivering designs to a client. Inevitably the same thing happens: The client picks a few elements from design #1, a couple from #2, and a few others from #3. Then the designer(s) try to frankenstein these pieces together into a “perfect” hybrid — which turns out to be quite imperfect. All that cherry picking destroys any sense of cohesiveness. The end product looks like a collage instead of something unified.
When you cherry pick, you lose integrity. You lose the below-the-surface aspects of what makes something great. You cut the invisible strings that hold the whole thing together. You wind up with a mash-up instead of something that’s got soul.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t strive to improve, refine, and combine ideas. Just keep in mind the price you’re paying along the way.