December 2nd, 2014
Too Much Tech
There are times when it becomes apparent that our shared language is lagging behind the things we need to say. Take, for instance, the following topics and the theme that unites them. There will be a test.
Our first exhibit comes from a company that calls itself Molecule-R and sells a product christened Aroma R-evolution. (You can see that this is not an outfit adverse to neologisms.) Actually, all their products are R-evolutions of some kind, and this one is the Aromafork, which is to say, a smell-emitting fork. The idea is to send the scent of one food into your nose while you are eating another kind of food, thus “tricking” your mind… or, as their glossy promo video puts it, “imagine eating vegetables while smelling bubble gum.”
Would it be churlish to say that I’d prefer not to?
Molecule-R’s raison d’etre is the popularization and commercialization of molecular gastronomy, which is kind of funny because molecular gastronomy’s raison d’être is to be exclusive and impossible to mass produce. Aside from the fact that Molecule-R’s entire line of products feel faintly like a late 1990s flashback, the kind of thing that would have signified conspicuous consumption on an episode of “Sex and the City,” the Aromafork doesn’t quite work because it gets wrong some of the basic physiology of taste.
A whole different kind of molecular gastronomy can be found in the military, where the US Army has become keenly interested in 3D printing of food for its soldiers. The current ration, the MRE (Meal, Ready to Eat), though relatively palatable and available in 24 different “menus,” suffers from the problem that the soldiers tend to trade and share their food, thus short-circuiting the carefully engineered nutritional balance of each discrete meal. This is of concern to the military, because they believe their soldiers perform better when fed exactly what the military thinks they should be fed. The proposed solution to this is to wire each soldier with sensors which will detect the nutritional needs of each individual, data which will drive the “food printer” to create a tailored ration.
Can you imagine the pitch meeting that caused the Army brass to bite? I definitely tip my hat, because it must have been one hell of show, probably involving highly alcoholic beverages to wash down the printed food, because even a moment’s reflection yields a myriad of doubts.
Let’s start with the 3D printer itself, a bigger, more energy-hungry, more twitchy cousin of the ink jet in your office. What’s your relationship with ink jets? Do you consider them reliable, tough and trouble-free? Or do you view them as devices merely waiting to die, while churning through expensive consumables? Ever notice how running out of one color causes the whole thing to stop working properly? What happens when you’ve got full tanks of phenylalanine, valine, threonine, tryptophan, methionine, leucine, isoleucine, and histidine, but the quartermaster accidentally sent the lysine with the Airborne? And how’s the whole thing going to perform when it’s air-dropped into a desert and put to work in the dust/mud/snow? There won’t be a wall to plug it into, so there will have to be a generator. And then the generator will have to be maintained and kept running via a supply chain.
And what about taking food orders? Remember all those biometric sensors on each soldier? What kind of automation and communication is going to be required to feed each soldier’s data into the machine? Now, instead of simply sending a palette of MRE’s with the battalion, now each fresh-printed meal must to be gotten to the right soldier. Will Privates, Second Class moonlight as waitstaff? And what the hell powers the sensors anyway, and will the soldiers be happy to both wire themselves up, and then carry the weight of the batteries to drive the whole thing?
As I said, one hell of a pitch. And one that cleverly avoided talking about the insoluble problem that isn’t really a problem — soldiers will always share food because its the most human thing you can do in the most inhuman of circumstances.
Meanwhile, in the nation voted most likely to become most populous as it aspires to the last century’s definition of modernity, air pollution is cutting crop yields — by half. It’s India, of course, and the combination of ozone from all those aspirational automobiles and black carbon from the rural cookstoves those cars are aspiring against is smothering crop yield. Chinese scientists studying this effect in their own backyard have discovered that severe air pollution slows photosynthesis in food crops, pithily describing the effects as “somewhat similar to a nuclear winter.”
It’s important to note that what’s going on in China and India is about short term pollutants, meaning that this impact on food production has absolutely nothing to do with the increasing temperatures driven climate change which — wait for it — slow photosynthesis in our food crops.
From the downsides of actual tangible technology to the nadir of startup culture Tech, we have the story of Austen Heinz and Gilad Gome, a couple of startup asshats who, it is increasingly apparent, are thinly differentiated from the rest of the white, male and entitled corpus of the Tech industry. Heinz and Gome know each other because they are collaborating on a biotech project called Petomics, which is intended to make dog and cat feces smell like bananas. Consider this your warning.
Picking a starting point to the saga is challenging, but suffice it to say that in less than ten minutes, the Heinz and Gome buffooned themselves beyond recognition in parallel with insulting over half of the world’s population and taking credit for an invention that is not theirs while also distorting its true nature and purpose so utterly that the actual inventor vomited. Twice.
In short, they revealed the existence of Sweet Peach Probiotics — which inventor Audrey Hutchinson intends as a product to help women manage their own reproductive health — and instead pitched it as (A) theirs and (B) a product which could cure yeast infections and also make said cured vagina smell like peaches. This non-problem in need of a solution is apparently an idee fixe for Gome, who previously suggested that a microbiome bio-hack could produce a rose-scented vagina with a diet cola taste.
I suggest you read the whole misbegotten tale in both the Guardian and Inc, the latter of which focuses on the actual creator’s incredulous discovery of the Heinz and Gome show and, more importantly, includes further examples of their thought processes.
This, I think, is the real malfunction, how men with a certain degree of technological intelligence tend to self-select into a lifestyle in which they are primarily socialized by other men like themselves and by the machines which fascinate them. It produces a lot of money from a lot of startups, but it also fosters an entire cadre of young men with the social and emotional intelligence of cretins.
And lastly, another far bigger train wreck in a considerably less glamorous corner of California. The Golden State is in the grip of a drought so severe that the mountain spine of the Sierra Nevadas has actually risen by one-half inch — because it’s not weighed down by all that water. This sort of thing would be tough for any state with 38 million people, but it is particularly so when that state is also the agricultural heart of the nation. Tom Philpott reports on the discovery that California’s farmers have responded to the drought by mining groundwater like there’s no tomorrow — which indeed there won’t be for farming if they keep it up, because it’s increasingly looking like California and all of the southwest are looking down the barrel of a decade-long drought (80% chance) or perhaps a 3-year megadrought (20-50%) or maybe even a drought “worse than anything seen in the last 2000 years” (5-10% chance.)
Meanwhile, California’s relatively modest fracking industry has been busy looking for places to dump the permanently toxified wastewater that fracking produces. Turns out that they pumped 3 billion gallons of used frack water into those same dwindling aquifers that supply drinking and agricultural water before they were stopped. The elegant read on this comes from ProPublica, which really lays out the complete gordian knot of water in California which demonstrates that there are times when all the technology in the world only serves to make the problem worse.
So, to return to the question we began with, what word encompasses all this — I suggest we combine the Greek-rooted “technology” with the Greek “pathos,” meaning suffering, or disease, to produce “technopathy.”
Yeah, that’ll do.