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On Chips and Microchips

What digital technology can teach us about our food problems.
(Photo: HandmadePictures/Shutterstock)

(Photo: HandmadePictures/Shutterstock)

This past year, 2015, may go down as the year we admitted that our relationship with digital media was getting a little dysfunctional. Several recent books—notably Sven Birkerts’ Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age and Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age—persuasively argue that an unhealthy immersion in online culture is blurring our focus. Meaningful tasks such as reading serious books or having face-to-face conversations have gotten more challenging. Fretful articles appearing in places such as the Chronicle of Higher Education have covered the emotional fallout (among Millennials in particular). We’re anxious, in turns out, from too much digital investment, and while few us are taking a digital detox, the idea is starting to sound pretty nice.

These studies—which became a media staple in 2015—sketch a dire portrait of chronic digital distraction, maybe at times too dire. But they effectively highlight notable aspects of our social media habits that, because of digital culture’s comprehensive claim on our lives, we may be too distracted to recognize as detrimental to our well-being. Although the connection is by no means obvious, the digital trap—whether overstated or not—illuminates the intractable struggle we have with another vexed consumer behavior: eating unhealthy food.

The parallel begins with an elemental point: Modernized humans dedicate much of their lives to avoiding discomfort. The quest to live as stress free as possible is such a fundamental desire that it almost seems self-justifying. Not surprisingly, fast food and digital applications speak persuasively to this primal urge, promising as they do to ease us through the day with miraculous short cuts and life hacks that never cease to wow us with their novelty. An app that directs us exactly where to drive, not unlike a pizza with cheese jammed into the crust, offer enough convenience and novelty—granted in very different ways—to keep us in thrall to the charms of modernity.

Whether it’s with the distraction of a Facebook friend’s perfect vacation or a soft drink, the effect is the same—our mind goes elsewhere. Boredom dissipates.

But these solutions, by their very nature, bypass experiences that may foster a deeper kind of satisfaction. When we eat fast food, for example, we avoid the pressure and inconvenience of food preparation, but food prep—even for the simplest meals—has advantages that nourish our bodies, social relationships, and connections to the food system. Likewise, while texting offers the clarity of a pragmatic exchange, it denies the subtle sensuality and tonal variations in phone or face-to-face conversations—qualities shown to enhance personal exchange, not to mention the relationships that ensue.

Human innovation is a spectacular thing, of course, but oftentimes it's too spectacular. Excessiveness seems to define virtual reality, which, when you think about it, is a phenomenon that subjects human identity to the idiosyncratic designs of a software engineer. Whenever we enter the portal of Facebook or Instagram or Tumblr we cede our individualism (and a lot of our freedom) to a lot of prescribed conventions. These conventions address our immediate desires for connection so effectively that our critical powers of resistance can be numbed into submission by the technology’s immediate gratification. Of course, more often than not the trade-off seems worth it. But when it doesn’t, when we want to cut back on digital time, take a little digital detox, we lack the tools to do so. The innovation turns out to be spectacular to the point of pseudo-addiction. A digital diet, as a result, is hard to stick to.

This difficulty may explain a great deal of our current culinary anxiety. Several insightful books, including Michael Moss’ Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us and Douglas Lisle’s The Pleasure Trap: Mastering the Hidden Force That Undermines Health and Happiness, document how a similar allure plays out with respect to industrial food. The dopamine that washes our brain when a text dings on our smartphone mirrors our neurological response to the temptations of salty, calorically dense food. In the former case, the desire for instant recognition is gratified; in the latter, our evolutionary urge for a burst of energy is fulfilled. In both cases, we are—to a large degree—at the mercy of impulses that require almost otherworldly discipline to control.

A final aspect of this parallel involves the flip side of novelty: boredom. Boredom is tough to endure, but it’s a critical prelude to discovery—even self-discovery. When boredom lurks we instinctively push it away. We do this by reaching for the smartphone as effectively as reaching for junk food. In both instances, the underlying goal is to patch over the tedium of the moment. Whether it’s with the distraction of a Facebook friend’s perfect vacation or a soft drink, the effect is the same—our mind goes elsewhere. Boredom dissipates.

These consumer choices are fine in moderation, of course, but when they become reliable antidotes to the inevitable dullness that afflicts much of modern life, they prevent us from becoming our best selves. They deny us access to our deepest feelings (the best explanation of this evasion comes from Louis CK) while fostering the chronic eating habits that result in heart disease and diabetes.

As popular awareness of digital media’s drawbacks start to parallel popular awareness of industrial food’s drawbacks, we have an opportunity to place the whole idea of our “food problem” in broader context, one that helps us better appreciate what’s at stake when we seek relevant reforms. Recognizing that the traps set by the engineers of industrial food are fundamentally no different than the traps set by software designers—as well as the irony that humans are brainy enough to build chips and microchips while lacking the emotional intelligence to resist the insidious allure of their own creations—reminds us of something critical: Eating well, like managing social media, isn’t a simply a matter of making choices; it’s a matter of understanding how those choices came to be in the first place.