I 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 a 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 I also think it’s more complicated than Sax suggests. It also seems like Sax’s definition of engineering doesn’t leave 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?