Sunday, October 16, 2016

Freedom from Food

There are plenty of superpowers that would make a nice addition to my current lifestyle. I would be delighted to wake up one morning with the ability to fly, to become invisible, or even to turn matter into gold, provided my Midas touch came with a reliable on-off switch. But the superpower that I really want – the one I actually daydream about, wasting time that I don’t have – is the ability to create an extra day or two for myself each week. As the clock strikes midnight between Monday and Tuesday, a private portal would open up: an extra day, just for me. While everyone else sleeps, I write, read, send emails, and maybe even clean the oven, before going to bed and waking up on Tuesday, rested and refreshed just like everyone else, but with everything done.

The odds are reasonable that you might share this fantasy, in the abstract if not in the details. Each year, Gallup asks people in the US whether they feel pressed for time, and, each year for the past two decades, half of the population says that they generally do not have enough time to do what they want. The results – stress, sleep deprivation, and even obesity – are equally well-documented. What if all of those people could have an extra 90 minutes every day, to use as we see fit? Rob Rhinehart, a 25-year-old engineer and entrepreneur based in Studio City, California, believes that his new product, Soylent, can offer exactly that.

‘According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, people spend about 90 minutes a day on food,’ Rhinehart explained. That figure is an average that includes grocery shopping, food preparation, consumption, and doing the dishes. By opting out of food, and replacing it with Soylent – named after the soy lentil burgers in the sci-fi novel Make Room! Make Room! (1966) by Harry Harrison, rather than its much better-known film adaptation Soylent Green (1973) which came up with the cannibalistic plotline – Rhinehart told me that he’s saved ‘easily an hour a day, plus’.

Rhinehart came up with the idea for a nutritionally complete liquid food substitute in December 2012, spurred by dissatisfaction at his expensive, time-consuming and nutritionally dubious diet of fast food, frozen quesadillas, and pasta. In February 2013, he wrote a blog post entitled ‘How I Stopped Eating Food’, in which he reported feeling like the ‘six-million-dollar man’ after just 30 days of replacing food with a ‘thick, odourless, beige liquid’ made up of ‘every substance the body needs to survive, plus a few extras shown to be beneficial’.

The response was overwhelming. Readers of Hacker News, a website popular with programmers and tech entrepreneurs, were the first to latch on to Rhinehart’s Soylent post, encouraging him to share the recipe online. When he did, it quickly spawned an animated Reddit thread in which DIY Soylent adopters reviewed recipes, discussed magnesium sourcing, and compared bowel movements. Within three months, Rhinehart decided that demand was sufficient for him to quit his tech start-up and form his own company in order to supply Soylent to the masses. By the time Soylent 1.0 started shipping in May 2014, the company had already accumulated a backlog of more than 20,000 pre-orders, adding up to more than $2 million dollars in sales and – at a conservative estimate – a collective saving of 2,875 years.

What, one wonders, are people doing with all this extra time? Will we see a new Renaissance: a Soylent-fuelled flowering of novels, art or, at the very least, apps? It is perhaps too early to tell, but early signs are mixed. (...)

It is, of course, perfectly reasonable to ask whether the answer to the problems that Soylent and its convenience-food precursors solve could actually be tackled more effectively by addressing the core problem, not the symptom. If women bear an unequal share of food-related labour, perhaps tackling gender inequality might result in similar benefits with fewer trade-offs than the TV dinner. Similarly, if confusing packaging claims, clickbait scare stories, and manipulative grocery store layouts contribute to an overwhelming sense that the act of feeding yourself and your family involves a stressful, complex, and far too fatiguing set of choices, then perhaps we need to rethink the contemporary food environment rather than opt out altogether.

With that question in mind, let’s examine the trade-offs associated with replacing food with Soylent more closely.

Among its detractors’ most common complaints is the argument that food – and, specifically, the rituals around its preparation and consumption – is essential to culture and community. The family meal, in particular, is currently talked up as a cure to almost everything that ails us. Social scientists and politicians largely agree that sitting down to eat together every evening reduces child delinquency, substance abuse and the risk of obesity, improves health and mental well-being, and even holds the key to academic achievement.

Soylent’s Rhinehart, on the other hand, no longer even owns a kitchen table and chairs, and tells me he’s looking forward to creating a customised version of Soylent for kids for when he has offspring of his own. When I asked whether he found himself holding on to any last vestiges of mealtime rituals, he laughed.

‘The concept of the meal is kind of gone,’ he replied. ‘As soon as I feel a little hunger, I just down some Soylent.’ In fact, he added, with a note of pride, ‘people are surprised at how fast I drink it. I can do 20 ounces in just a few seconds at this point. So I’ve even kind of optimised down the seconds I devote to drinking it.’

The end of the meal is not a source of concern for Rhinehart at all – and perhaps rightly so. After all, as he pointed out to me, regular meals ‘were an invention in the first place’. As the historian Abigail Carroll wrote in her book Three Squares (2013), the US family dinner, despite its sacred role in contemporary culture, is only 150 years old. She notes that, like Rhinehart, the majority of 17th-century Virginia households had no table. Bowls and utensils were also in short supply before the 19th century, meaning that family members often ate in sequence rather than together. Meanwhile, Carroll ascribes the rise of the family dinner to the Industrial Revolution. Once the urban 9-to-5 replaced the agricultural schedule, she explains, ‘evening became the only significant portion of the workday when siblings and parents could reconnect, dinner became special, and it still is’.

by Nicola Twilley, Aeon | Read more:
Image:Tom Bieber/Getty