The Perfection Paradox

Silent movies are back. Printed books have turned into art to compete with e-books. Self-winding luxury watches with mechanical complications sell for tens of thousands of dollars even though mobile phones keep perfect time. Audiophile turntables play 33 1/3 rpm gramophone records even as high resolution digital downloads are available on any computer, set top box, phone or portable player.

Whole grain breads from local bakeries are the choice of the upper and upper middle classes, while bleached white flour fills the breads of the carbohydrate aisles of supermarkets everywhere. Heirloom vegetables have become the gourmet foods of choice, as mass produced vegetables feed the world with the lowest food prices relative to income in the history of the world. Hand-made pottery, with all of its minor flaws, commands a premium price for its painstaking labor compared to the machine automated uniformity of pots, plates and dishes.

Boutique shops with premium offerings have sprung up in the boarded up properties of downtowns after the optimized supply chains and economies of scale of Wal-mart and big box stores have driven the local department stores, grocers and convenience stores out of business.

In example after example, a category of goods achieves the ideal toward which it has slowly progressed through trial and error, human ingenuity, and breakthroughs both small and large. The result is not at all what people would have predicted in the early days. Instead, it is what I call the Perfection Paradox.

The Perfection Paradox is what happens when a category of products reaches its pinnacle of perfection. Trend setters turn their backs on the very ideals they helped to promote and the masses sought to imitate. Instead, the elite resurrect the old imperfect product as art, as an emblem of good taste requiring refinement to appreciate in all its uniqueness.

Multiple angles help to make sense of the Perfection Paradox, to explain how it happens and why. Technology, economics, tastes and social distinction all interact. In my next blog I'll look at these multiple factors for one example in a little more detail.

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