As I browsed through my email today I saw a headline that read, “3D Food Printers Hit Home”. As I scrolled down the screen squinting to see the fine print on my newly purchased iPhone, I learned about how food was now being produced by machines. I wanted to know more. As I landed on the page the link connected to, I first noticed a picture of a GQ-esque looking robotics engineer named Hod Lipson from Cornell University’s Creative Machines Lab. I thought he looked yummy at least.
I must have really missed the memo on this guy. I did a bit more research and found that he is among the engineering glitterati - speaking at TED events, cited by the NYT, the Wall Street Journal, CNN, and so on. He has written over 200 technical articles, a book, etc., and, according to his profile page at Cornell, he will be moving to Columbia in 2015…quite an impressive guy to have as my new neighbor in NYC.
To get a sense of Hod, here’s just a tiny taste of what he had to say about all of this:
“… With 3-D printing we will have exquisite control over what goes into our food. . . . and we don’t need to actually have all the skill involved in actually making everything from scratch.”
Imagine that. Get a capsule of this, and a vile full of that and voila…dinner’s ready! Isn’t life grand.
Now mind you, I may have been a terrific engineer myself long, long ago in a land far, far away called the 20th century, but when it comes to cooking – well – let’s just say that my former husband and stand-up comedian extraordinaire, used to have a shtick in his routine that went something like this:
“I know when dinner’s ready in my house when the fire alarm goes off!”
From Catch-a-Rising-Star to Stand-Up New York, It was a hit every time.
So I should probably be the last person on earth that has anything to say about all of this food printing business.
However, for those of you who know me, you won’t be surprised that I’m taking a shot at it anyway.
Heaven forbid I comment on this topic with some small vestige of human emotion – and it’s far from joy that I feel about the “soon-to-be-in-everyone’s-kitchen-who’s-anyone” counter-top computer that will concoct the household cuisine.
Some have called me “anti-technology” for pointing out that it is our direct experience with the real world, and all the plants and animals in it, that let’s ‘natural’ light into our hearts and minds. It is this intimate relationship with others and nature that inspires us most. It is in this dance, with the world held close, that our appreciation and gratitude for aliveness, sacrifice and the gifts given to us by nature that include those that fill our tummies, shines brightest. Well – that may all be well and good but what might that have to do with Hod’s printer?
Well, Hod actually has something to say about “natural” when it comes to 3D food printers:
“3-D printed foods may also appeal to consumers looking for more natural foods. Because printed food is made on the spot, no preservatives, food stabilizers or additives are required.”
CMC, computer-mediated communication, my area of expertise, has got nothing on computer-mediated cooking! And, lucky for writers like me, the acronym still works.
Computer-mediated communication allows us to connect to many others. But as I've written and spoken about many times: there is a trade-off that affects our humanness. When we are talking to our screens, as I am now writing this blog post, we are not directly engaged with the natural world (with all of its additives and stabilizers) – only the hard plastic keys and the glow of the pixels emanating from the machine.
Does that make the machine bad? Does that make me a bad person for sitting here typing instead of walking outside in the moonlight? No. Of course not. In many ways it provides some amazing scaffolding that allows me to reach higher heights when it comes to bringing some of my ideas into this world.
The machine is not creating anything mind you. The machine is only executing computer code in the form of “commands” that direct electricity to turn on certain bits and bytes that then form what my eyes see as a letter, a word and then a sentence, etc. From what my human mind creates, the machine, following its electrical orders, generates a representation of that creation – nothing more, and often less.
As an intelligent woman, I make a choice to use part of my time to type into the lifeless but useful machine. However, if I am not mindful of the fact that there is a trade-off, that I have a choice, and I do not consciously decide to reconnect to my real live world at some point in the near future, than I become a bit-less human and a bit more like the machine – unaware and uninspired.
So what happens when food, or “nourishments” as Hod likes to say, become the output of the machine instead of words or letters, like the 'stuff' of the blog you are reading now? How might that change our human relationship to each other and our world?
I can remember hearing a news story a number of years ago about kids who thought that vegetables “came from” the supermarket and not from the ground. And I thought that was sad because they would never "K"now the earth through that most enriching sense.
What happens then when kids begin to think that nourishment comes from machines – how will they feel about that? How will you feel eating unidentifiable potions turned into a tasty treat that’s spit out of the printer of what used to be your kitchen? What will anyone remember about it - other than the novelty at first? What will it smell like? Will it waft through the air like coffee in the morning that beckons you to get out of bed and meet the day?
How will it feed your soul?
There’s an old Chinese proverb that most of you are probably familiar with:
“Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach him how to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.”
Little did the ancients know that food might one day be just a computer click away - that an intimate knowledge of where it comes from, how to catch it, how to kill it, and how to prepare it for 'consumption' over our lifetime, might all become irrelevant.