The way we eat and think of food today is bound to change. The increasing demand for food, especially meat and dairy, combined with the damaging effects of climate change on agriculture (Cho, 2018), has the potential to push the food industry in new directions, and consumers to reconsider their choices. Within this context, technology companies, the new actors on the food industry stage, are putting forward a solution which regards food as being archaic and inefficient, and the practices around food preparation as time-wasters. Their solution, materialized in products dubbed as ‘complete foods’ or ‘meal replacements’, which allegedly contain all the essential nutrients for the human body, is backed up by huge financial support from venture capital, and presented as the future of food. However, besides that fact that it does not offer a real solution to the problems we are facing, this interpretation of food does not reflect its historical importance. The cultural role of food, gender representation, or collective values associated with sharing food, are largely disregarded. Instead, the emphasis is on the continuous quest to improve food products, within the value system of techno-solutionism.
In his book To Save Everything, Click Here, Evgeny Morozov critically describes this value system, explaining that “this never-ending quest to ameliorate [...] is short sighted and only perfunctorily interested in the activity for which improvement is sought” (Morozov, 2013). This critique applies to the development of meal replacements, the materialization of techno-solutionism in food, which are promoted as an universal response to anything from time management, nutritional dilemmas, food waste and sustainability. Throughout this work, I looked at the development and implications of the meal replacement phenomenon, and, through the lens of food, provided an outlook on tech industry’s influence on Western culture.
The title of this work comes from a brochure developed by a popular brand of meal replacements. It is part of a disclaimer provided by the manufacturers, which describes the recommended way to include their product into one’s diet. In order for the body to not regard this process as a shock to the system, a gradual introduction is recommended. Otherwise, the replacement of solid meals with liquid might cause the body to resist this process, and express its needs in an audible form. For me, this disclaimer can be applied on a larger scale, when referring to the reinterpretation of the role of food within the tech culture associated with Silicon Valley. How does the human body keep up with technological innovations, and how does it resist when faced with such challenges?
I became fascinated with this topic while investigating the way in which food has become part of technology discourse today. As someone who is deeply passionate about food, both flavour and culture, I was determined to document and trace the development of these ideas, in order to form a critical analysis of the notion that food needs reinventing, as well as the methods which are being employed in this direction. While I believe it is imperative to rethink current ways of food production and consumption, from the harmful effects of industrial agriculture on the climate and food waste, to the damage of processed food on our bodies, I argue that the answers to these issues don’t lie in the hyper-processed complete foods, nor in the gadgets and services that have consumers completely dependent on corporations for every meal, all while claiming to solve the problems listed above.
To understand the way the role of food is being transformed by technology companies, I follow a path through the history of cooking and gender roles in food preparation, the role technology has in food culture and the way Silicon Valley, an important actor in the world of technology, is appropriating food traditions and knowledge in creating new consumer products for the privileged. My research is inspired by the book In the Age of the Smart Machine by Shoshana Zuboff. In it, she described her privileged position to experience and investigate the world of labour on the verge of it being revolutionized by computerization (Zuboff, 1988). She looks at the changing relationship of workers to their own bodies, the abstraction of their work and the way this dramatic change influenced the relationships between individuals. It is fascinating to look at the meal replacement phenomenon, and the repositioning of food within society as potentially similar, while wondering what the future of food could look like in the context of ever increasing abstraction and commodification of food and the labour of cooking.