Wansink moved broccoli to the beginning of the line. The first thing hungry students now saw wasn’t fast food. Fruit was taken out of functional containers and put in an attractive wooden bowl. The salad bar went in front of the tills, making it more prominent, something you couldn’t avoid. The ice cream freezer went from invitingly transparent to opaque. Buying sugar-rich desserts was made more complex, requiring additional calculations. Wansink hadn’t actually added anything, the food on offer was the same, but he rearranged the process. The results were clear.
Broccoli consumption increased by 10-15 per cent. Fruit sales from the wooden bowl doubled. Sales of salad tripled. The percentage of students buying ice cream fell from 30 per cent to 14 per cent. In general the composition of meals was far healthier. Arrangement, not any other inducement, led to healthy eating. Wansink studied other instances of how food’s presentation and arrangement affects our relationship with it.
Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.
The future we have come to inhabit is Huxley’s. The question is not whether or not curation is needed. It’s how we build a system that financially accommodates the new diversity of activity.
In 1860 a young doctor called James Crichton Browne spoke to the Royal Medical Society of Edinburgh in language we would recognise today: ‘We live in an age of electricity, of railways, of gas, and of velocity in thought and action. In the course of one brief month more impressions are conveyed to our brains than reached those of our ancestors in the course of years, and our mentalising machines are called upon for a greater amount of fabric than was required of our grandfathers in the course of a lifetime.’ The roots of information overload run deep.
Creation, argued Koestler, comes from syntheses of existing ideas; from looking at things in new and different ways. Think about creativity in art. The Renaissance wasn’t about the completely new, it was, as the name implied, a rebirth – it changed the world not through unblemished originality but by reinterpreting the art and learning of the ancients. Likewise Picasso’s art, that paragon of modernism, drew inspiration from so-called ‘primitive’ works. Koestler argued that scientific discoveries work in the same way, often using metaphors or ordinary things to make breakthroughs. Think about the water pump which inspired William Harvey’s ideas about the circulation of blood, or the strings in string theory. As Newton said: ‘if I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.’
The Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges wrote a story about the Library of Babel. His library was composed of a near-infinite labyrinth of hexagonal rooms, which contained every possible combination of a 416-page book, randomly sorted. Yes, somewhere in the library was every useful and brilliant possible book. But in reality the library was endless and entirely useless. Without curation, or aggregation, or filtering, the Internet would be such a Borgesian nightmare.