Death of Default

A simple man's guide to coffee

The Palm Springs of Washington… While Miranda Cosgrove didn’t share this view, I appreciated the analogy. Yakima’s a little desert town, a quick weekend escape from a West Coast metropolis. When my girlfriend and I visited the other weekend, we enjoyed hikes on the rolling hills, a farm-based brewery, and the glacier-fed river that cut through town. I especially enjoyed my experience at a local espresso stand.

Washington’s filled with these coffee stands—usually small trailers or converted shipping containers beside busy roads, sometimes staffed by bikini-clad women. The workers at this stand were clothed, but it didn’t suppress the onslaught of weirdos vying for service. These weirdos wanted their unique, personalized cup o’ joe: An iced caramel macchiato latte or hot white chocolate mocha with whipped cream, extra sugar, and three pumps of Himalayan peppermint (is that a thing?). When I came to the window, the baristas were amused by my order: A 12oz Americano. Not iced. No sugar. No cream. No caramel. No problems. Just a “straight-up” coffee, to echo their sentiment.

As rolled away with my $1.75 cup of boring; I realized that maybe I was the weird one. Coffee is meant to be highly customized, a pleasure to indulge the individual in whatever way, shape, or form that individual desires. What kind of freak orders a black coffee? Am I the pretentious jerk that’s “too good” for these fanciful extras? Was I trying to make a statement by ordering a “minimalist” morning beverage? Coffee, as an industry, prides itself on personalization, and my unintended act of rebellion was a slap in the Starbuck mermaid’s face. As the baristas joked to themselves that they could pump out hot, black Americanos all day, I couldn’t help but smirk at the irony. The Americano is so basic, but American coffee is characterized by nit-pickiness, extras, and customizations.

How did it get this way?

Here’s my armchair philosopher’s take. Technology advances, more luxuries become available to the average person, society becomes entitled to these luxuries, and the luxuries become table-stakes for products & services. Jane Doe (remember our arcade-loving friend?) has more and more options available to her. Every business wants to offer her a highly personalized experience. Chipotle has her build her own burrito. Care/Of sends her an individually wrapped daily pill-pack with her literal name on it. Netflix curates the perfect suggestion algorithm of quirky and irreverent TV shows with a strong female lead for her viewing pleasure. With each personalization vector, complexity grows. Like a frog in boiling water, each small configuration adds to the complexity. And suddenly the world is flooded with options and consumers fall prey to analysis paralysis. Jane’s attention shifts from creation to consumption—thinking about all the small choices she has to optimize her most basic desires. She becomes a slave to small decisions, worn out by hundreds of meaningless choices. She loses the energy to spend on things that really matter—like what to believe in, who to partner with, why she exists…

“Well, this sucks!” You say, “I just wanted my iced latte, dude, why are you such a Debbie Downer?”

That’s not my intention, and it’s certainly not the reason I ordered a plain coffee. Improvement is great, and it’s exciting that our society can support such luxuries. I’m just expressing my unoriginal opinion that more choices aren’t necessarily better. For easily overwhelmed people like me, more choices can actually be worse. My antidote? Default settings.

With so many choices, it’s easy to trigger the death of default. By keeping defaults alive, we retain the ability to “opt-out” of personalization. Default settings are everywhere—computer backgrounds, employee benefit designations, new car packages. Why can’t we define them for food and beverages? A universal definition of what “coffee” means could save baristas and simpletons like me time and hassle. It could even make nit-picky people realize how ridiculous their orders are. What would a default coffee configuration look like?

I’m going to use a YAML file to illustrate this. In software, YAML was originally an acronym for “Yet Another Markup Language”—basically a human-readable standard for configuration. For an app to run, it could require dependencies and defaults specified in a YAML file. For my mind to run and meet the functional requirements of my life, I require this default coffee config:

That’s what “coffee” is: Hot, black, and “regular” sized at 12oz. 8 oz is just a tease and 16oz emits jitters. This default seems right to me, but I’m sure it looks different for others. If we polled enough people, we could arrive at an average set of preferences to create an appropriate default. And I’d be fine with that, even if the default was 16oz, iced, and loaded with extra crap. Because at least we’d have a default.

It’s fun (at least for me) to think about what other cultural conventions could be turned into default configurations. Morning routines? Friday night festivities? Exercise rituals for different ages and body types? So many things to set to default and reduce decision fatigue… C’mon, folks, we need to each do our part in relinquishing our personalities and conforming with machines! C’mon now!

The irony of this post is not lost on me. Assuming I get coffee once a month for the rest of my life (80-28 = 52 years) and have to specify “hot, black, 12oz” (3 words) each time, a default coffee config would save me 156 words. This post was 916 words 😂

I’ll just start my own coffee brand.