The Aggregate: Cellular Agriculture // Tech Gets Domestic
“Aggregate is a unique word. As a noun, it indicates different elements brought together in the same place. As a verb, it seeks to collect and assemble disparate pieces to create a more cohesive whole. This column seeks to do both of those things; breaking down some important stories in print journalism each week and presenting them in more bite-sized pieces.”
Can Lab-Grown Meat Really Save the World?
Slate – Christy Spackman, “The Problem With Lab-Grown Meat”
This article comes to us from the Future Tense series at Slate, which is a collection of work that “explores how emerging technologies will change the way we live.” In this piece, Christy Spackman prompts readers to take a meaningful look at their relationship with food, especially in a modern context. Spackman is looking particularly at lab-grown meat, also referred to as cellular agriculture. As consumers are continually introduced to things like the Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat – two plant-based meat alternatives – they are also taught to place yet another degree of separation between the food on their plates and the plant, animal, or petrie dish from which said food originated. It is in this disassociation that problematic disparities are perpetuated, and America’s food ways once again become a stark indicator of the haves and have-nots when it comes to food as a crucial component of overall well-being. While cellular agriculture definitely has its benefits, there is an underbelly to this issue that is still worth examining.
“Advocates for lab-grown meat say that beyond helping fight climate change, it will also improve animal welfare and shake up our food production system. But there is a problem with cellular agriculture—another name for lab-grown meat—that the cheerleaders don’t seem to be talking about. In key ways, lab-grown meat is built on the same foundational logics of our current industrial food system.”
The intention here is not to undermine the work being done by the scientists behind cellular agriculture, but rather to shift the focus to the consumer-facing side of the food industry. A certain level of responsibility falls on consumers to understand the food supply chain and make educated choices when it comes to effectively leveraging their purchasing power. But beyond even those responsibilities, consumers must consider their relationship with food in the context of society.
“To think through this, we need to look not at the food system itself, but rather at what it does: Provide energy to power working human bodies. Thinking of food this way came to the forefront of U.S. nutritional thought in the late 1890s, when Wilbur Atwater and E.B. Rosa figured out how to measure the energetic potential stored up in food […] Food could be quantified, measured, and formulated specifically to improve human well-being.”
Spackman refers to these kinds of products as “functional foods,” and notes that they inevitably “come at a higher price tag.” While there might be solid financial reasoning behind the price hikes, the lack of affordability of these healthier foods perpetuates the same kind of food crises already created by America’s grocery stores. Food deserts – urban areas where access to fresh, quality food is scarce or unaffordable for residents – are some of the most obvious and harmful examples of places where the food supply chain is horribly mangled or entirely broken. The economics of food distribution and the impact on the health of entire communities become inseparable in these environments, which exist disproportionately in low-income and minority communities.
“Unable to access the techniques, ingredients, and technologies that allow the creation of such foods, a large swath of humanity is excluded from the ability to produce the types of foods that are advertised as allowing them and their children to be healthier and live longer. This move not only perpetuates an already unequal access to health care and services, it promotes the erasure of traditional food ways in favor of an industrialized diet high in processed foods.”
Yet, another reality of a consumer-driven market is the ever-present emphasis on convenience. The average person spends a fraction of the time cooking and prepping food that their elders did even just a few generations prior, and they most likely spend even less time thinking about where said food came from. There is a sort of cultural disconnect between the food we eat and the plants and animals these foods consist of, and this disconnect is reinforced every day in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Consumers buy “pork” instead of “pig,” “beef” instead of “cow,” and prepackaged and frozen foods allow a meal to appear nearly ready to eat before it has even left the shelf at the store. Unfortunately, in many ways, cellular agriculture only heightens this disconnect between the consumer and the consumed.
“It’s too early in the cellular agriculture game to see where the all pieces will land, but one thing is clear. A massive move to lab-grown meat will continue disrupting the metabolic intimacy located in a first-hand experiential understanding of where food comes from, what resources are required, and what hands are asked to (or even able to) do the labor of producing it.”
This “metabolic intimacy” is the crux of Spackman’s argument. Understanding the food supply chain becomes increasingly difficult as the average person continues to become further removed from the production process. This lack of understanding has the potential to heighten existing disparities in the food supply chain, and potentially create new issues that have not yet been predicted. A shift away from the agricultural-industrial complex has the potential be a huge step in the right direction for the health of people and the planet, but only if it is done carefully with the proper infrastructure and cultural foundation of knowledge and ethics.
Hey, Alexa. Why Can’t You Do My Laundry?
The Atlantic – Amanda Mull, “Tech Is No Match for Human Grossness”
This article comes from the health section of The Atlantic, where Amanda Mull brings readers to an interesting niche into which few technology companies have ventured into: cleaning. In an age where technology seemingly knows no limits, it is worth pondering why so many daily chores and household tasks still fall into our wildly inefficient, mortal hands. To every parent’s dismay, engineers have yet to invent a robot that will put their kids’ dishes in the dishwasher, or put their dirty clothes in a hamper. The triviality of chores make them a perfect candidate for improvement through technology. This then begs the question: Why? Why have so few tech companies ventured into the domestic sphere? Why can artificial intelligence drive a car, but not separate darks from delicates in order to do laundry?
“In theory, technology should be able to relieve the burden of household labor by making it more efficient, and increased productivity is one of Silicon Valley’s most common promises. But so far, people (and usually women) are still left with a ton of work. Jeff Bezos wants to put his wealth into space exploration because he says he can’t find anything else to fix, but maybe that’s because he hasn’t recently tried to use a vacuum.”
A vacuum, or a sponge, or a mop… anyway. The day-to-day maintenance that goes into keeping a clean space, which has created an interesting challenge for modern technology. It is ironic that something as simple as doing dishes or laundry can only be so automated – no matter how fancy your washer and dryer are, you’re still going to have to move the clothes between the two and fold them when they’re done. Machines in the domestic sphere remain painfully reminiscent of 1950s prototypes, when domesticity and housekeeping were commercialized during the Cold War (Tupperware party, anyone?). Manufacturers can put as many fancy buttons and charge you as much as they’d like for their latest appliance, but at the end of the day, it’s still just a toaster. There are, however, a few companies who have taken interest in lightening the load for those charged with housekeeping responsibilities.
“A new crop of start-ups promises to make laundry a little less burdensome with textiles that resist getting dirty. But their products still have limitations that portend something different: Living a human life is generally kind of gross, and the work required to keep filth at bay probably can’t be eliminated.”
Human existence has an irregularity and unpredictability to it that, often times, technology seeks to correct. However, domestic life/chores/self-care are some of the few things that perhaps do not require correction or automation… Or maybe they do, and Jeff Bezos should be forced to wash all the dishes in the Amazon Headquarters break room by hand until he sees that maybe there are some terrestrial issues that can’t be solved with extracted moon water. Space exploration aside, the companies that have already identified some of these issues and have began to tackle them include anti-bacterial bedding manufacturers, who weave metal (primarily silver) into a small percentage of their textiles in order to utilize the antimicrobial properties of silver. Sounds great, right? Although, wait until you see the price tag. Therefore, the lack of accessibility for the average consumer is yet another issue companies in this sector have run into again and again.
“Ultimately, what these silver-textile companies are up against is one of efficiency’s basic conceptual limits. Doing something faster or slightly less often doesn’t much affect the fundamental reality that there are many things about being a person, such as cooking and vacuuming and washing your sheets, that must be tended to eventually and repeatedly. Maintaining bodies and living spaces is a necessity that probably can’t be obviated, a fact with which [companies like] Silvon is still contending.”
The argument whether we are better off that technology in the domestic sphere has only become so invasive is an argument for another day, but it is still worth considering why technology takes such a strong hold in some areas and not in others. It is about access? Profitability? Productivity? These are all great questions to ask yourself, and perhaps the next time you are stuck folding a giant pile of laundry you will…
Thanks so much for reading, and we’ll see you again next week.