Saturday, October 3, 2009

Keeping the lid on

This week, I’m moving from the sublime to the ridiculous, or so it may seem. But somehow, in here, there’s an underlying question which is no less puzzling to me than the “deeper” or more “philosophical” ones I’ve been playing with in my last few posts. So this week, I’m going to riff on coffee cup lids.

I bought a cup of coffee, this afternoon. The coffee was much too hot to drink when I got it. I put the cup in the cup holder of my car, and drove around for a while. The lid of the coffee cup had a hole in it, to sip coffee through. In the moving car, the coffee sloshed through the hole. By the time I got around to drinking my coffee, there was coffee all over my car, the side of the cup was wet, and it was impossible to drink without dripping coffee all over myself. So I waited until I got home, and transferred the coffee to another cup. By then, it was cold.

I first started buying coffee “to go”, I guess, in the mid-1960’s. In those days, nobody had heard of lids with sippy holes in them. A lid was just a lid. If it was a “good” lid (tight, and not too flimsy), it would keep the coffee in the cup until you got to where you were going. A tiny amount might escape from the pinhole in the top which was there to let steam out, but this was insignificant – it was only an issue, really, when the server placed the napkins on top of the cup before handing it to you, because the napkin would end up with a wet, brown spot on it. (This is still a problem!).

In those days, there was no built-in provision, at all, for drinking your coffee through the lid. The implied assumption of the lid makers was that you would keep the lid on until you got where you were going, take the lid off, and drink the coffee. Inveterate travelling coffee drinkers, like myself, learned to tear a little triangle out of the lid to sip through. This was sometimes a little difficult to do, if the lid was a really good one (i.e., tough, thick plastic. Carrying a pocket knife, as I always did, and do, helped.)

So somewhere around the mid-1970’s, I guess, someone came up with the idea of putting a perforated section in the lid, which would tear easily. At first, they would just tear out (like the old, self-made triangles), and you would throw the little piece away. Later, somebody got environmentally conscious, and the piece would stay attached – you would just fold it back, and tuck it under another part of the lid. Now to an old-timer like myself (I was in my 20’s!), this all seemed a bit effete. And I did have a legitimate beef that sometimes the tear-out that was provided was smaller than I wanted, and I had to tear it wider to drink comfortably. Still, both these changes were genuinely good ideas, and represented real improvements in the functional utility of the coffee cup lid.

Then, I don’t remember when – the 80’s? 90’s? – someone decided we should get rid of the tear off, and just put a permanent hole in the lid to sip through. Unlike lids with the old tear-back openings, these new lids would never be coffee-tight, which meant (and means!) that the coffee would start spilling out from the moment you bought it. It burns your fingers. It spots your clothes. It messes up your car. Yet, somehow, this new, and it seems to me, unambiguously inferior lid design has become ubiquitous, almost completely displacing the older, and better designs. How is something like this possible?

Does any coffee drinker actually like these lids better? Is the act of tearing back a little perforated section really so difficult for some people (or, actually, for most people) that dealing with sloshing, dripping, spilling coffee seems a small price to pay? I know at least somebody agrees with me, because I visited a coffee shop, once, where there they had small plastic lip-shaped stickers which they stuck over the holes, which you could then prize off when you were ready to drink the coffee. (Boy! I hoped that trick would catch on. Unfortunately, it has not.)

I suspect most people just don’t think about it. They just take whatever lid they’re offered, and deal with the consequences without much reflection. (They’re not persistent wonderers, I guess.)

Still, this really raises, in my mind, a question about progress. The universe, taken in the large, is not teleological, as Aristotle thought it was. It does not have a purpose, or a preferred direction toward which it tends. (At least not in the way that most humans would understand the meaning of “purpose”.) Life also, writ large, as for example in the process of natural selection, is not teleological. Natural selection “improves” the degree to which species are adapted because less well adapted organisms are differentially less successful in passing on their genes than more well adapted species, not because of some pre-ordained goal inherent in natural selection, itself. (I think the word for this false semblance of teleology is “teleonomy”.)

But individual organisms are teleological beings. We have goals, short and long term, toward which we direct our efforts, and in general, those goals involve improving our lives, according to our own lights. Human beings strive socially to carry out their goals, and human culture, which preserves the record of past successes and failures, and encodes values (mainstream and marginal), including goal-concepts, collectively agreed upon or dissident, ought to sustain some degree of telos, as well. Human cultural evolution, aka human history, ought to show some degree of something we could call progress.

So how can a really bad idea end up almost totally supplanting a good one? I wish I knew!


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  2. Have you seen these?
    We got one of these a while ago. It's awesome- has an adjustable lid that can either close completely, or open a little (in steps) allowing a little coffee into the recessed lid through a series of holes. Then you can sip the coffee, but it won't spill much at all.