Monday, June 30, 2014

Lifehacking: WTF?

Adriaen van Utrecht (1599-1652), Still Life. Via Wikimedia Commons

You heard about Soylent, right? That new thing where you mix a powder with some oil and some water and you shake it up and it replenishes your body with a mix of nutrients so you can .. um, do all the things people want to do when they can't be bothered to eat food?

You know -- like, Ensure for hipsters?

You can read about it in The New Yorker ("The End of Food"). I guess some young guys were trying to do a start-up thing, and their idea wasn't working out, and they were trying to come up with another idea, and they were eating a lot of ramen, corn dogs, and frozen quesadillas, and eventually one of them thought to himself Ah, If Only We Didn't Have To Eat. Food seemed like "a system that’s too complex and too expensive and too fragile."

Soylent can be bought in a package but the formula is online and there are a lot of people DIYing their own. The concept of many enthusiasts is that Soylent replaces any eating you do to survive, so that the remaining eating that you do is "recreational." You might subsist on only Soylent for a few days, then go to Nobu with your friends and "eat" -- and really make an occasion of it. Woo-hoo.

This is an application of the approach to life associated with the "lifehacking" movement: as the New Yorker says, this is "devising tricks to streamline the obligations of daily life, thereby freeing yourself up for whatever you’d rather be doing."

This is interesting because -- well, how can I put this nicely? It seems to me fucking insane?

What is "whatever you'd rather be doing" that is so great and so important that you can't be bothered to eat some food? I mean, we're not talking laundry. We're talking eating. It's fun. It's pleasant. It isn't all that time-consuming. What's so great that you have to get back to it in thirty seconds instead of twenty-minutes?

It's a perfect instantiation of the problem of the previous post -- of The Great Fun Crisis of the Twenty First Century. If you structure everything as either a cost or a benefit, you define out of existence the "just sort of nice and fun in a mild healthy sort of way," so it's irresistible to reduce costs and maximize benefits.

It's like a digitization of an analogue life. Sorry: sitting down to a baked potato or some pasta and a salad, talking with a friend or family member, what are you doing? It's neither the 0 of costs minimized or the 1 of pleasure maximized. So it comes out as irrational.

The New Yorker author, Lizzie Widdicome, after a few days drinking Soylent, finds on waking she's at a loss: she doesn't want to settle down to work yet, so what to do? She goes out for coffee. She sees someone order a bagel at her neighborhood place. She's envious: "Mmm, bagel with butter." But of course, she's not hungry, and she doesn't need the calories -- she's already had her Soylent. She concludes the experience this way:
... I knew that I was better off than the bagel eater: the Soylent was cheaper, and it had provided me with fewer empty calories and much better nutrition. Buttered bagels aren’t even that great; I shouldn’t be eating them. But Soylent makes you realize how many daily indulgences we allow ourselves in the name of sustenance.
I get what she's saying. But what are we, training for the apocalypse? Every moment, maximizing efficiency? It's like, bagels: not a perfect food! BUT: also not a good enough indulgence! Like if you're going to get your pleasure, you have to max it out.

The whole thing makes you wonder what the point is, in the whole meaning-of-life way, like what are we doing all of this for?  Honestly, I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that for most people, the bagel with butter, and similar foods, especially if you eat them with other people, really are the meaning of life.

Enthusiasts of lifehacking clearly feel another call: they have things they need to get back to, STAT.

So: If lifehacking is about getting back to "things we'd rather be doing?" what are those things exactly? Sex? Dancing? Making music? Painting pictures? Taking care of children? Taking care of sick people?

Honestly those are answers I'd sort of understand. But they're almost never the ones that seem to come up. What comes up a lot is work.

I get that some people have to work all the time to make ends meet. And that is a serious social problem. The solution to this problem is not Soylent -- what, so rich people can eat food and poor people can suck it? No, the solution to this problem involves spreading the wealth around, more sensible social organization, investment in infrastructure. As is frequently mentioned, the world is making more food than ever. The problem is in moving it around appropriately.

And that, friends, is not a problem with a "start up" solution.

I get the impression, though, that a lot of people drinking Soylent just want to get back to studying, or coding, or playing video games. Why? Are those things really so great? Or is the problem competition -- that in a competitive society you have to do all the ridiculous time-saving things other people do if you're going to keep up?

Toward the end of the article the main creator of Soylent says admiringly, "Bucky [Buckminster Fuller] has a very important idea of ephemeralization, which is something almost as a ghost -- as pure energy or information."

Like the whole post-human thing, I am always mystified by this. What is it you're so eager to do that doesn't involve bodies, senses, being in the world, laughter, or romance? Is Minecraft really that fun?


Christopher Grisdale said...

I thought to myself: I should do this next year, then I'll have fewer study interruptions. And yeah, you're right, competition is the reason. I couldn't really do it, though. It those pleasures between 0-1 that leave me most satisfied, in another kind of way.

Tim said...

It doesn't address the "lifehacking" question more generally, but I think the Soylent idea has some continuities with the idea of food as fuel that grows out of the exercise/work-out subculture. One sort of answer to the question "What the hell are you doing that's more significant to you than taking some time to chew and taste a bit of imperfect food?" is "Promoting muscle repair after my lifting session" or "Finishing this ultra-marathon without bonking". But your post reveals that this idea lends itself to two dramatically different extensions.

On one hand, I've enjoyed and been edified by the idea of food as mere fuel, precisely because (i) I keep it in its place, reserved for physical challenges that I set for myself now and then; and (ii) it's heightened my sense of myself as embodied. Learning how to plan carefully what nutrition goes in, with the aim of facilitating some demanding physical project rather than for the pleasure of the inputting process, has helped me appreciate vividly the links between strength, endurance, emotion, reasoning and volition. Embodiment unifies these things, and the phenomenology of their unity is striking, or has been for me, when I strictly control the fuel in order to drive my body to relative physical extremes. (Extremes-for-me, so to speak.) Misjudging and running out of fuel in those situations is a particularly stark way of coming to appreciate what the embodied unity of physical, emotional and cognitive capacities really implies!

But the context you provide about the intended uses of Soylent, and the quote you cite from its inventor, takes things in exactly the other direction: into disembodiment, with the body and its limitations as inessential complications and inconveniences for the things our minds want to be doing. It makes me wonder to what extent this opposition (if I've got it roughly correct) exists invisibly in the talk and practices growing up around food and its relation to fitness and athleticism.

Patricia Marino said...

Chris, you are not alone. Somehow just doing the thing you feel like doing is so satisfying, even if it's just a bagel with butter not-0 not-1 sort of thing.

Patricia Marino said...

Tim - thanks for this thought-provoking comment. I have, on occasion, seen people at my gym mixing powders and found myself thinking "OK, if that person is into serious weightlifting/bodybuilding/whatever and that's their thing, good for them! But if not, and that's a thing they're consuming instead of, say, lunch, that feels depressing. So it's definitely contextual in some way. Interesting.

Anonymous said...

Let me just say I have no idea what soylent is made out of but I hope it doesn't actually have soy in it.I think it could be useful to people in very busy work situations where people would otherwise just not eat. I have been in a couple jobs and so has my husband where that was the case. We ended up not eating and did not perform as well and in his case with a physical job he ended up in poor health. However protein/meal replacement shakes can help with this. My husband and I both play computer games and sometimes you can't really get up for extended periods of time.I think we all know that real food is the best thing for you but I think there is a time and a place for both.

Linda Palmer said...

Hey Marino! Kinda delayed on this comment but have to respond... you wrote "I mean, we're not talking laundry." For some of us, food actually is more chore than pleasure - most of the time. I mean, it's boring. The socializing part I get (though booze and coffee serve that pretty well :) ) Maybe the slight low blood sugar thing I got going makes it more annoying, but what else do you have to do three times a day every day, for the rest of your life....? plus all the associated prep and/or expense to make it possible. Dunno, it is just really not that interesting to me.... So I'd love to just eat something really good and delicious say once a week instead. It's a daily task to deal with prep (not to mention groceries) or else standing in line at some joint like Chipotle or the crappy food service thingy on campus or whereever. Maybe if you live in Paris with a fantastic bakery around every corner it's different. But usually it's mediocre food, unless it's expensive either in time or money or both (my own food is all right, the sushi joint next to Chipotle is very good and I'd happily eat that every day, but...) And in my part of the world none of this can be done without driving. So, yeah, I don't like to cook that much - it's ok, I don't like to shop, and eating I'd happily do without most days if it were possible. It's just not all that interesting to me. Can't you extend your understanding to us? (...That said, I feel funny about complaining about having to eat...! pretty fortunate never to have to worry about not having enough.)

Linda Palmer said...

...On the other hand I got a lot of pleasure the other day out of cooking the half-handful of laughably tiny potatoes I harvested from my first effort at potato growing. They tasted fantastic too! The entertainment value there was definitely higher than the nutritional. (Also, love the phrase "Ensure for hipsters" - perfect)