Engineering “the human, highly tactile, and pleasurable world we want to live in”

3862bca1dcff9cd666e9294ec97fad84808016d7I would make this provocative piece by David Sax, “The Real Soylent Sickness,” from The New Yorker blog, required reading if we had time. Maybe you’ve heard that Soylent bars have been recalled because people were reportedly becoming ill after eating them. As Sax notes, it’s not news that packaged food can carry foodborne illness. However, Sax argues, there is a fundamental problem with Soylent. He sees the product as emblematic of how engineers miss the mark when it comes to the way we eat, and, even more broadly, what we enjoy about life.

Sax rues the post-WWII rise of food that was laboratory-devised and factory-produced, like Wonder Bread and Hostess Cupcakes. He points out that a product like Soylent cuts against a trend toward healthier, fresher, “clean” eating, which includes the cultural embrace of organic ingredients. Soylent, he writes, despite its claims of futuristic eating, is actually a throw-back:

What Soylent and the latest batch of food-tech startups are aiming for takes us back to the days of astronaut ice cream. Remember that stuff? It was developed as part of the space program in the nineteen-sixties, and you bought it in the sort of science stores that were toy stores for nerds. It was sweet. It came in ice-cream flavors. But it wasn’t ice cream, it was a simulation of ice cream, and no one in their right mind would chose it over the cold, creamy stuff on a hot day. Not even an astronaut.

I remember astronaut ice cream, and yes, it wasn’t delicious. But it was really fun to eat, because it made you think of what astronauts did and how they lived in space. It was a little, daily way to connect to the almost inconceivable innovation of space travel. I wouldn’t–and don’t–choose space ice cream over the real thing, but this could be more complicated than Sax suggests. I wonder if Sax’s definition of engineering leaves room for the innovations that allow us to eat organically and safely. As I know from Paul de Kruif’s classic book Microbe Hunters, pasteurization changed the world–and not in the way Silicon Valley pitch-makers say that phrase. It really changed the world!

Do you agree with Sax’s argument? Why or why not? How could, or should, engineering innovations adjust to, imagine, or reimagine the human experience?


5 thoughts on “Engineering “the human, highly tactile, and pleasurable world we want to live in””

  1. As someone who’s seen the old sci-fi movie “Soylent Green”, I’m surprised the bars made it as far as they did.

    I think Sax’s argument is valid, if a little over-simplified. I agree that the engineering of food has generally moved away from health and naturality, and towards efficiency. However, I don’t feel that this is fundamentally bad. I think it is very important to create food as efficiently as possible, and that while “clean” eating is good, engineered foods are often just as nutritious and healthy as their more natural counterparts.


  2. I mostly agree with Sax’s argument. Those engineers were trying to make something that met people’s desire for convenience. However, I don’t think tasteless food is a necessary way to do this. Sometimes I think that new things are engineered just for the sake of a company being innovative and making money, and not because there is an actual need for it.


  3. What people who bash certain areas of technological progress (self-driving cars, smartphones, soylent) don’t seem to realize is that these developments aren’t fundamentally different from other, equally revolutionary breakthroughs humanity has been making for millennia. Agriculture was the revolutionary technology of its time and it completely obliterated the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, yet nobody seems to mourn the loss of that particular episode of our history. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be wary of new technologies. However, it is important to realize that the new social networking app all the kids are using these days is in fact on the same spectrum of technological innovation as agriculture and seat belts. It won’t destroy the very essence of our humanity just because it’s new.


  4. These are really thoughtful comments, guys. Brian, I saw a piece somewhere arguing that climate change began with the invention of agriculture. That’s such a compelling claim, I think, because at the bottom of the claim that the current technological revolution is ruining humanity (or whatever) is a certain kind of orientation on the present time as the most important time ever–even if that means it’s the worst time ever.


  5. I agree with Sax’s argument in that products only succeed if they were to “improve rather than replace”. When I think of eating for the sole purpose of survival and nutrients, I think of the life that must accompany that. Eating is such a sacred part of human life and culture that it is hard to think of food consumption as such a mundane activity. A product such as Soylent seems to “replace” the pleasurable sense of a meal with a utilitarian bar of oppression. On an ethical standpoint, engineers have the duty to create products or systems the improve humanity. Soylent doesn’t seems to improve humanity unless it will be used for emergency food rations.


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