Fat David by Scholz & Friends, Hamburg, Germany
Lately I've been unusually cranky: It may be the frustrations of a difficult marketplace where economic adversity forces one to tolerate the otherwise intolerable. It may be the extra hours of summer sunlight here in the Pacific Northwest, which brings about an initial euphoria that can descend into mania. But with a gnawing conviction, I've come to believe that this crankiness is the physiological manifestation of an uneasy realization: there is too much opinion in the world and precious little fact. For the past two months I've found my idle thoughts converging on three disjointed but persistent topics: food, information and society. With time these three topics have paired themselves off into a set of relatively stable couplings: Food and Information, Information and Production, and Production and Society.
Cheap Tasty and Vacant
A few months back I was at a conference in Portland where one of the speakers made reference to Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food, reframing the title as In Defense of Product. I was so taken by the idea that I walked out of the conference, crossed the street to Powel's and bought a copy. I wont go into a lengthy explanation of that book here, but for those who haven't read it, Pollan's book builds upon his eater's manifesto: Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants. Within this straightforward statement resides an insight relevant to any contemporary consumer dynamic: scale your consumption to a level that's sustainable. I explored the potential implications of this manifesto for product designers in a recent post entitled Featurism is Fat: Lessons on consumerism from the organic food movement. What's particularly intriguing in Pollan's book is the back-story he builds around nutritional science. Throughout the book Pollan describes how the mass marketing of foods in terms of nutritional value helped industrial agriculture productize produce, ultimately reaching its zenith in an American diet that is chemically rich but nutritionally vacant.
And it's there, in the systemic productization of an organic thing, that the first pairing crops up: Food and Information. Information, like food, serves the dual purpose of providing nourishment and reinforcing cultural values. No one would argue the role food plays in this regard, but Information, acting as it does as subjective and objective chronicler, serves the same function. Pollan argues that industrial agriculture seized upon 'nutritional equivalents' because it offered a production-ready method by which foods could be delivered over great distances. Manufactured foods, whether packaged or farmed, stayed tastier for longer, traveled well and cost significantly less. But this ever available, ever cheapening food supply came at a cost--you had to alter those foods to mainstream them. One could argue a similar mainstreaming is happening with information. The information economy and its ever-accelerating delivery system have rendered the consumption of content much more than a metaphor. All around us tastier, sweeter and starchier content awaits--ready to be ingested faster and more readily than ever before. Raising the question, if nutritional tampering set in motion a growing inventory of health issues, where will content snacking lead us?
High Carb Thinking
Contemporary culture's seemingly inexhaustible appetite for content brings us to the second coupling: Information and Production. Fueled by social media sites and ever-cheaper devices, information production has continued unabated over the course of the present recession. To be sure, the widening array of voices that feed this dynamic and its democratizing effect are fantastic achievements, but undermining these accomplishments are the less admirable effects of a 24/7 media culture run rampant. Simply put, there's too much bad stuff out there; too many points of view and way too much noise. In our ever compressed lives, where tweets and posts compete tirelessly for our attention, this hallmark of contemporary life threatens to invite a pan-global case of attention deficit disorder the likes of which no Ritalin prescription could combat.
Cheap and plentiful, the contemporary information economy mirrors the food economy in yet another way: over production. Both markets, having stabilized supply, now offer us product at little to no price. In the US years of industrial agriculture famously reduced cost to the point where--until very recently - the average person in North America spent less than 10% of their disposable income feeding themselves; A fact that would have been unthinkable in our grandparent's generation. With information the corollary is a marketplace where abundance exerts an 'inexorable downward pressure on the prices of all things made of ideas'. If you believe Chris Anderson, this newfound abundance stands poised to deliver us a new era of opportunity. But couldn't this abundance just as easily lead us toward waste and indifference? A circumstance diametrically at odds with the challenges presently facing the world we inhabit. Just because something is free doesn't mean it comes at no cost. Food comes cheap in America, but by some estimates we waste roughly 29 million tons of food each year, the disposal of which costs the economy approximately $100 billion annually. Adding insult to injury, rather than feeding the hungry, this food typically ends up in landfill where it generates methane gas further contributing to global warming. There is it seems, always a cost.
And so it goes with information. In collecting thoughts for this post I came across a recent On the Media interview with John McIntyre, former copy editor at the Baltimore Sun. Reflecting on an apparent surge in newspaper errors, McIntyre observed: "They [newspapers] are desperate to have enough reporters to generate enough material, and have decided [to] sacrifice quality and accuracy in order to produce enough material." Referring to new media specifically, McIntyre noted: "Readers on the Internet don't expect things to be accurate or very well done and, therefore… are used to tolerating a much higher volume of errors…you can sacrifice the quality on the Web and it doesn't mean that much." Whether it's the electrical power needed to exchange our 'free' content or the societal cost of an ill informed public, our low-to-no cost information diet is making us sick.
This brings us to the third and final coupling: Production and Society. In a society where we regularly ingest ideas and concepts prepared by anonymous and unaffiliated parties, what becomes the implicit contract between producer and consumer? What assures us that that bottle of milk on the shelf isn't Plaster of Paris? That Google bombing didn't lead you to that page at the top of you browser? Written in 2007, Andrew Keen's controversial The Cult of the Amateur, warned against a potential crisis of trust brought about by our attraction to all things amateur--specifically the growing appeal of "superficial observation over deep analysis." The web's inherent preference for popularity threatens to engorge us with 'opinion' while objective facts and the desire for them increasingly assume a rarefied air bordering on pretention. This fact should worry us, for it prescribes a market where facts subject to the rules of scarcity – one where access and availability take on age-old patterns of elitism and privilege.
In the US, where politicians have made generous careers out of playing the culture card, you can be sure that any attempt to safeguard 'quality' information will prove easy fodder for further divisiveness. But contemplating these ideas I cannot help but feel that reflective thought is in jeopardy. The temptation of easy ideas that reinforce our individual preferences is far too great to let it go unchallenged; The satisfaction of indulgently broadcasting our every thought and action too compelling. But as our better selves already know, what is easy to do rarely proves the best course of action; What is readily available, often not the best we can get. In his inauguration speech Obama challenged us to move beyond our 'collective failure to make hard choices.' The growing sweep of fast content that envelops us requires no less; especially in a time when we face such great domestic, geo-political and environmental challenges.
Just as the organic food movement heralded a coming crisis in the industrial agriculture model, a subtle but persistent slow thought movement seems to be taking shape. In a piece for the Guardian posted in early July author Nick Laird made a tentative case for a slow language movement, citing his growing inability to 'engage with syntax of any complexity and subtlety.' I don't know where this unfolding discourse will lead, but as I edit my Twitter 'following/follower' list down to the bone, judiciously limit LinkedIn requests, defensively review friend requests on FaceBook and offensively turn off my iPhone--I know that to find it and to hear it, I'll need to work for it. And that thought brings with it all the impending satisfaction of a good meal.