To the editor:
Some issues back, Andrew Wasson spent a lot of time figuring out who designed Pizza Hut’s iconic roof, and why. Other than the fine story of the restaurant’s early history, my favorite part of the article his research produced was the final paragraph and its evaluation of the tedious roof research process.
In it, he asks, “As the inquiries become more and more narrow the obvious question is at what point is it pointless?” His answer is that you can only decide pointlessness vs. utility by making all the possible inquiries that arise during a project like his.
We don’t always have the time or inclination to make all possible inquiries. There, the mercurial role of curiosity comes into play. As inquiries become more and more narrow, you accrue more and more information, and you have to dismiss more and more of it if you want to solve the original problem. But if you’re a curious person, how can you maintain that dichotomy? If you’re obsessed with figuring out why school buses are orange, are you really going to be able to ignore a book about why fire engines aren’t?
Speaking for myself, obscure interests have me on the lookout for anything related to them. I’m not just interested in the music of Gastr Del Sol, I’m interested in all the related projects, whether David Grubbs and Jim O’Rourke still talk, and what exactly Markus Popp contributed to the last Gastr album. So I can’t imagine a rigid, spearlike curiosity that could have a guy obsessing about who designed Pizza Hut’s roof but indifferent to the history of Pizza Hut.
There’s an obvious solution to this paradox, and although it’s rigid and spearlike, it’s not curious. It’s the student, employee, or anyone else who sometimes researches out of obligation. This person wants to figure out who designed the roof and be done with it.
Fortunately, the awkward task of the student, intern, or research associate – retrieving an obscure bit of data – is an uncommonly vertical kind of research. Modern, wiki-style presentations of information are far more horizontal; an article on p links to v, n, r, and t, and has information on p1 and p2. Unless p’s a real big deal, it’s not going to have p26 and p27. Wikis – and the internet in general – reduce the effort required to find the next book or knock on the next door..
I make that obvious claim because Wasson’s interest in the Pizza Hut roof makes a neat point about mass production. He writes, “the more obscure the target, the more difficult the task of tracing back the path.” In fact, this is truest of common, ubiquitous targets like Yum! Brands, of which Pizza Hut is a subsidiary. The cooks and delivery guys found in any Pizza Hut are unlikely to know the origins of the roof above them. Accordingly, Wasson did not cite an interview with a local Pizza hut employee in his article. On the other hand, occupants of singular buildings tend to be more knowledgable of their enclosures. Anyone living in a Frank Lloyd Wright home will probably tell you all about it. Many unique homes house their builders, and you might only need to knock on the door to meet the roof’s designer.
That kind of thing’s on the decline, though. Information’s getting more accessible, and research is getting less memorable. I haven’t made many memorable internet searches, but I can often source what I regurgitate something from a book I read or a person I interviewed. The journey’s fun! For better and worse, those curious about the origin of Pizza Hut’s classic roof are now unlikely to interview ’60s pizza parlor tycoons, but may find Wasson’s article (currently Google #26 for “pizza hut roof design) and satisfy their curiosity that easily.