An unsolicited thought about Soylent

July 22, 2014 § Leave a comment

soylent

I ran across a lot of chatter about Soylent today, around the internet and with my friends. I’m curious about the stuff, but I think there is something sort of troubling about the very idea too.

Firstly, I love food a lot. So I mostly consider Soylent an affront to my personal and emotional attachment to experiencing food. I mean, I’m mostly joking, but I’m also sort of serious.

I also understand that Soylent is meant to serve as a supplement for people who find taking time out of their day to prepare, obtain and consume food annoying. The fact that Soylent was created by, is being championed by, and largely funded by the tech community is not coincidence. Tech, in my ways, infantilizes its members. There are many fantasies in tech that culminate with an engineer or coder being some sort of hyper-efficient programmer, only capable of one thing. The fact that major tech companies offer to do your laundry, feed you on site and give you a ride from home to work is not unrelated. There is some ideal at work underneath all of this that when you were young your parents took care of all these needs and now your company (your new parent) can take care of it. It might be a stretch, but a beige, tasteless substance that meets your every nutritional need is not too far from what your mother provides for you after birth.

But even all of that isn’t what bothers me about Soylent. What worries me is that Soylent was able to raise nearly $1 million on Kickstarter. What worries me is that the likes of Andreesen Horowitz are investing money in it. I think this is what takes Soylent from some project to work around a human’s need for food or aesthetic pleasure in experiencing food, to something that becomes a commodity for investment. I don’t think Andreesen Horowitz look at a product like this and glance over its potential application as a complete replacement for food not just for engineers but everyone. I can see a future when governments’ with food aid programs look to Soylent as some sort of solution to hunger and malnutrition crises. It’s not hard to imagine a rationale that flows something like — “well people are dying of hunger around the world, give them Soylent, *claps dusty hands*, my job here is done.”

But that’s not what solving the problem of malnutrition is about. It’s not that we don’t have enough food to feed the world’s hungry, it’s that we’re really bad at distributing food equitably. Even if we see a problem like malnutrition or starvation being solved by something like Soylent – then what? What will these people, who have been saved from the edge of starvation do? Will they have access to education? Will they be given a chance to find a job that pays enough of a salary to survive? Will they have the opportunity to find housing in a place of their choosing? What favor have we done them by keeping them alive with Soylent? More likely, will we walk away feeling like we’ve done our job by giving them Soylent so their basal nutritional needs are met while we could care less about needs that come after that.

I have no intention of painting this picture as the actual or even presumed intentions of the inventors of Soylent. I don’t think they or their investors see this as the problem they’re solving. I don’t have a hard time believing that the inventors of Soylent, their investors and all who are enthusiastic about the product genuinely believe it will be something office workers use as a substitute to walking out and getting an fat laden sandwich for lunch.

But I do believe, as Jacques Ellul believed, that technological progress is irreversible. With the exception of the nuclear weapon, society has never reversed the forward movement of technology. So to go blindly on the path of innovation, to try and disrupt everything, to invent for the sake of invention carries with it another responsibility. I think it is the responsibility of the inventor, of the investor, of the problem solver to consider his/her innovation in a broader social context. And I think this is what ultimately bothers me about Soylent. There is a lack of imagination on the part of the inventors to consider what the idea of food replacement actually means. Food is a huge part of culture. Once cannot simply replace its nutritional functions and walk away scot free.

Addendum: my friend Mike asked on twitter, “should one not solve problems when they exist?” I think this is an apt question and worth an answer longer than 140 characters. In my head, this is how I think about the problem. Say you have both a terrible headache and a brain tumor. The two are likely related. For someone to come in and help you with your headache, maybe even make it go away, is not the same thing as solving the problem. You still have a brain tumor to deal with.

This, crude, analogy is how I think about this larger problem of inequality in the world. Alleviating malnutrition is only part of the problem. It is certainly beyond the scope of Soylent, or any one project, to address global inequality. But my point is that thinking you’re helping by fix the headache, when in fact you probably actually caused the brain tumor, isn’t solving the problem.

Lest I seem to sure of myself, let me clarify that I have no idea what the right answer is. I don’t think it’s bad that people are trying to solve world hunger, but I do think it is bad that it often stops here.

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