I was thinking back to an article I read in the New Yorker last summer, about a techno-geek in the Bay Area who decided that eating was a waste of time. He was referring to the whole shebang: hunting and gathering, agriculture, grocery shopping, kitchens and their attendant equipment, dining areas, and, of course, all the time devoted to preparing and consuming food. So he developed a product he named “Soylent”. For those who aren’t familiar with this early seventies sci-fi classic, Soylent Green is set in the near future (actually, now, in 2014, very near in the future) where the world is terribly overcrowded and fresh meat and produce are a rarity as precious as diamonds. People subsist on wafers known as “Soylent Green”. No one knows what’s in the wafers, until Charlton Heston makes a startling discovery: Soylent Green is people.
This real-life Soylent, I presume, isn’t made from people. I don’t know what’s in it, I presume a mixture of essential amino acids, vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, and carbohydrates. When I was a nutrition major in college, around the era of the movie, we referred to such compounds as “total parenteral nutrition”. They were given intravenously to seriously ill people who could not take in food by mouth. I certainly don’t know anyone who took it voluntarily. Whatever this new Soylent isis, people do appear to be able to subsist on it, with occasional breaks for what the developer terms “recreational eating”. It’s popularity has spread to small but enthusiastic group, largely college students and tech employees.
I have nothing against Soylent per se. It sounds like a useful nutritional supplement, better than the old TPN, for those seriously ill people. And if a perfectly healthy person wants to drink this yucky shake–the polar opposite of organic– instead of all the tasty treats available in this world, I suppose they aren’t doing anyone else any harm. But I do find their absolutist utilitarian mindset, a mindset I’ve seen echoed (albeit to a somewhat lesser degree) in the high tech industry, quite perturbing.
The main objection Soylent’s adherents have to old fashioned food is that its a “waste of time”. And what do they do with all the extra time they’ve gained? They “work”, of course. What are they working on that’s so much more important than cooking or eating? They don’t say and I don’t know. What I do know is that the major work of humans since caveman times has been the gathering and preparation of food. Food is integral to all human cultures and religions, and a major component of most rituals and celebrations. In fact, studies have shown that in pre-industrial cultures, people, despite their lack of modern “labor-saving” conveniences, actually have more leisure time. Once they have gathered and prepared food they consider their work for the day to be done.
The developer of Soylent also believes clothing to be a waste of time. To this end he wears two identical outfits until they wear out, then replaces them. If food and clothing–two essentials–are a waste of time, I shudder to think how he views literature or music or art or any of the other ways we experience and express ourselves, and that lend our lives beauty and meaning. Personally, I love to eat. I view all my meals as “recreational eating”, from the coffee and smoked salmon rollup I enjoyed this morning, to the Sunday night dinners with my extended family, to the lunch of tasty leftover salad and tuna I am anticipating as soon as I finish this post. The developer of Soylent anticipates a future where drones will deliver Soylent to his front door and he can “refuel”. Sounds like fodder for a dystopian fantasy for me, if creative writing wasn’t a waste of time.
What’s concerning to me is that this mindset is so popular amongst workers drawn to the tech industry (Google, Facebook, etal) who are gaining more economic power with each passing year and becoming the drivers of our culture. We might want to think more deeply and critically of the vision of culture, indeed of the meaning of life, that they are holding up to us as an ideal.