In search of the perfect potato

"Where do potatoes come from?", asked my 6 year old niece, in the way that 6 year olds do. Oooh, I thought, I know this one. "The supermarket", replied her dad. And that was the end of the conversation, except in my head.

Actually, potatoes came from the Andes where they have been cultivated as a food source for thousands of years. European invaders brought potatoes back from South American, first to Spain and then Britain, and eventually the rest of Europe. Charles C. Mann, author and journalist, describes the effect potatoes had on Europe. He says potatoes provided more calories per acre than grains, could be grown on a large scale, and were easier to transport from farms to cities to feed the workers in the factories and the sailors on the boats, making them to perfect fuel for nations set on expansion. With potatoes on their plates, the European population exploded from 140 million in 1750 to 400 million by 1900. The steam engine, electric light and telephone were invented, among many many more technologies. And manufacturing output was greatly increased. It’s not a stretch to say that without the humble potato the industrial revolution would have never happened.

Producing potatoes has a lot in common with producing other physical objects, throughout the industrial revolution and today. We think about this production process as a pipeline with inputs at one end, a process of change, and outputs at the other end. A factory takes in car parts, assembles them, and out rolls cars. The process is efficient because the parts are interchangeable. One steering wheel is just as a good as another. It doesn’t matter which seat the car has, as long as it has one.

Potatoes are the same. When you buy potatoes from the supermarket you don’t care which potato you get. Every potato is unique but they are all similar enough for what you want to do with them as to make them interchangeable. It doesn’t matter whether you are making chips or shepherds pie, the pipeline gives you potatoes that can be used for either.

From the industrial revolution onwards, this was the dominant way of thinking about the creation of value; everything of value comes out of some pipeline that took raw resources and transformed them into something useful to you.

And then along came computers, the internet, data, and algorithms.

There are no platforms for potatoes. No silicon valley tech start-up is working on how to match each individual potato with it’s perfect steak or ideal chef. Because potatoes are standardised and interchangeable they don’t need platforms, pipelines work just fine.

Platforms are different to pipelines. They don’t like things to be standardised and interchangeable, they rely on the uniqueness of things they handle, and the promise of perfectly matching unique things with other unique things.

Dating apps are supposed to work this way. They match the individual traits and characteristics that make you special with your perfect potential partner’s characteristics. Ebay, Uber, Google Search, AirBnB, and many others, all platforms that enable you to find that potentially perfect thing to buy, car to ride in, website to read, place to stay.

The future of creating platforms relies on taking things that we once thought should be dealt with as a potato in a pipeline and dealing with it as we’d hope to find our perfect potential partner. To do so effectively will be to create alternative and additional value in society.

If someone stole your potatoes you might call the police. In the crime incidents pipeline, incidents are dealt with as if they are standardised and interchangeable. All crimes are responded to in this same way because the goal of the pipeline is to quickly and efficiently get the incident out the other end. So, the next available officer is assigned to your incident, they get to the scene of the crime and, if you’re lucky, they catch the potato pilferer red la soda -handed.

But if incidents of crime were dealt with by a platform, one that aimed at matching the uniqueness of the incident to the uniqueness of police officers, we might see different outcomes. The platform would consider real-time data about officers, such as how far away they are, how quickly they are likely to respond, how many incidents they’ve dealt with today, how difficult those incidents might have been and how they might have affected the officer, etc., etc., etc. It would contain historic data about the skills and experience the officers have built up over time, whether they’ve been successful at dealing with potato related incidents in the past. And the platform would consider data it has about the incident, the location, any patterns from other potato thefts. It would use all this available information to make the best match between officer and incident, because to a platform the best outcome results from the best match.

But if, after all that, your stolen potatoes weren’t returned you’ll just have to get some new potatoes.

James Plunkett, the author interested in how we might govern a digital economy, writes how the digital platform is becoming society’s dominant institutional form. He’s right. More and more platforms are replacing pipelines and becoming a part of our lives. How they affect us in ways we aren’t even aware of will shape our lives more and more. When you want a police officer right now, you might not agree with the platform’s decision to assign one who will take longer to get there because they dealt with a similar case yesterday, but you won’t even know that. Plunkett has also written about how platforms might come to mediate the relationship between the individual and the group in society, and in the case of the perfect potato pilferer, it’s easy to see how a shift in the matching algorithm could sway the decision in your favour, in the officer’s favour, or in what the platform decides is in society’s favour, all in search of the perfect match.

But we’re all in search of the perfect match too. The perfect car, perfect place, perfect partner, perfect meal… perfect potato.

The promise platforms offer might just be too alluring to resist.