Soylent, Snapchat, and Self Expression: Why Should Technology Simplify Human Life?

The following article is one of many published in a series on “escape.” You can find out more about the project and articles similar to this one here.

I’ll admit it: I’ve been drinking Soylent essentially every morning for the past quarter at UChicago. And doing so has forced me to think about the relationship between our basic human needs – for things like food, friendship, love—and the variety of technologies coming out to appease them – such as Soylent, Facebook, Tinder. Here, by taking Soylent as a toy example (that in some sense betrays the gravity of the conclusions I will be making), I will examine how technological culture operates and some of the dangers that it poses for us. I will then suggest that we can see technological culture as part of a wider phenomenon of escapism.

To start, a little story about what makes a product like Soylent possible. We can think about Soylent as a meal replacement, especially useful for working professionals (or UChicago students) who don’t have the time to prepare meals. Note that the solution is not to cut back on work, but to find creative ways to satisfy their need for food. In other words, work—and related concerns—take priority over preparing meals. Given that these professionals prioritize work, most meal-related activities come to look like inconveniences: troublesome, and perhaps a waste of scarce and valuable time.

Once certain things come to be seen as inconveniences—such as preparing food—there will be demand for a product that can solve these inconveniences. So, there are two pressures that we can put on the kind of product that solves our inconveniences: first, this product needs to fulfill the basic needs that food does; second, it needs to do so without any of the inconveniences that procuring food usually brings.

In other words, we are pushed to develop a concept of what is essential about food that does not incur any of the inconveniences we find with it. In the case of food, this reductive understanding is that food is actually just a collection of nutrients. If we eat food just to digest a collection of nutrients that we need to survive, the thought goes, then there is no need for preparing food if we find a way to just bundle those nutrients together: Soylent.

So, once we come to see certain aspects of satisfying our basic needs as inconvenient, and we develop a reductive understanding of these needs that make these inconveniences seem unnecessary, then we can find a way to package what is essential and just leave out what is inconvenient: we can invent a technology. These three parts of our process—inconvenience, reduction, and invention—will help us see ways in which we can critique technological culture.

First, most things aren’t inconvenient in and of themselves—certain social conditions and contingent personal preferences push us to see them that way. Preparing food is inconvenient to a Wall Street banker, but not to an amateur chef. This is an obvious point, but it tells us that what is inconvenient and troublesome for some can be a rich of value and meaning for others. This fact poses problems for the utopian view that technological interventions can simply be shipped around the globe, because inconvenience is to some degree relative and socially defined, and so these technological interventions are not one-size-fits-all solutions.

Second, a reductive orientation that sees inconvenient aspects of things as inessential and unimportant, and thus as aspects to be eliminated rather than confronted, saps the world of value. This is because what is valuable is, in a large part, what is difficult and inconvenient. Because I can drink Soylent, warm up food, use packaged mixes for salad, and so on, I can get away with seeing food as a way to satisfy my hunger and provide nutrients, instead of as a source of value, in the way that someone who struggled with cooking, found it frustrating, but saw the process through, can now find cooking creative and enjoyable. And, engaging with inconveniences as potential sources of value is a core part of a well lived life. For, what else are our hobbies than inconveniences that we bring upon ourselves, learn to see as sources of meaning, and use as means of self-expression? I am not saying that we shouldn’t avoid difficulty, but that such an attitude in excess precludes experiences that could make our lives more meaningful.   

Finally, inventions don’t just solve inconveniences. They shape us, and in doing so, help create them. Once I started regularly drinking Soylent throughout the weekdays, I also found myself pulling out bottles of Soylent on the weekends, even when I didn’t have classes to rush to, as I started to see preparing food as more inconvenient than I did before I started drinking Soylent. The point is that inventions sometimes perpetuate the conditions for their own necessity, causing a vicious cycle whereby initial inconveniences become even more inconvenient over time.

But we don’t have to travel down this vicious cycle. The real lesson is that inconveniences are a product of both who we are and how the world is, and that there is an interaction between the two. While a pervasive culture of effortlessness suggests that we eliminate inconveniences in the world around us, it prevents us from realizing how doing so can affect and change us by stunting our acquisition of skills and values, and even make certain things more inconvenient for us in the future. We can push back against this suggestion by shaping ourselves—raising our bar for what makes something inconvenient, perhaps even learning to find some of them meaningful.

No doubt the real solution to difficult and inconvenient situations lies somewhere in between these two alternatives of self-shaping and invention. Focusing too much on the former ignores that there are real limits we hit up against. I just don’t have time to make breakfast in the morning. But taking the latter too far can impose its own limits. Making food became even more inconvenient for me, and I began to lose touch with cooking as a valuable activity. Paying conscious attention to the limitations of both these approaches suggests that we need both together, but not one at the expense of the other.

Let me now suggest that invention, in the way I describe it above, is actually a form of escapism. As detailed in the introduction to this collection, we can think of escapism as the tendency to deal with problematic situations by escaping: instead of resolving them, one makes them less problematic. To draw an analogy to the food case above, the solution to working too much such that I don’t have time to make food for myself might seem pretty easy: just work less, or find ways to be more productive, or wake up earlier! But the escapist does not deal with the situation head on in this way, but strives to dissolve its problematic nature, perhaps by shortening the amount of time it takes to procure food, inventing something like Soylent.

The analysis above suggests that escapism has three dangers. First, escapism assumes the situation is problematic, which we should appropriately question. Second, escapism is rarely ever the only option, and confronting problems head on can be a rich and meaningful experience. And third, resorting to escapism breeds more escapism, as we slowly lose the ability to face difficulties directly. But escapism can be appropriate. Sometimes we are faced with situations that we are too limited in our capacities to directly resolve. But we are more capable than we think—and resorting to escapism betrays this strength of ours.

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