The 1980s and ’90s saw the advent of countless convenience and snack foods, from fruit and chicken nuggets pressed into “fun” shapes to sugar-laden yogurts and foods kids could assemble themselves. Grocery stores increasingly sold meals that resembled fast food. As Moss chronicles in Salt Sugar Fat, these products, many of them portable and/or frozen, helped transform the North American diet. Their flavour profiles, packaging, and advertising and marketing programs were often designed to appeal specifically to children with a sophistication that made the 1960s breakfast cereal explosion look limited and quaint.
And why wouldn’t a child, given the choice, select from typical kids’ menu items? “The sensation of biting into a toasted cheese sandwich or pizza,” Moss observes, “especially when it’s hot and gooey, and with all the aromas … is actually quite powerful from a psychobiology and sensation standpoint.”
Regardless of the processed food industry’s role, putting children on their own restricted, bland diet would never have been possible had parents not gone along with the shift. Observe what happens when you try to challenge other people’s children by feeding them something unfamiliar. It’s often the parents themselves who will push back, giving up before a battle has even begun (“She won’t eat that”). A less challenging food like grilled cheese and fries offers a path of least resistance, guaranteed to succeed — if success is narrowly defined as getting the kid to actually eat it.
A book is of course an ideal place to lay down an ambition, sort out one’s thoughts and gather a constituency. But that’s about it. A book on its own cannot bring about real change because the world as it currently stands isn’t held together simply by ideas: it is made up of laws, practices, institutions, financial arrangements, businesses and governments. In other words, its muscles are made up of institutions and therefore, the only way to bring about real change is to act through competing institutions. Revolutions in consciousness cannot be made lasting and effective until legions of people start to work together in concert for a common aim and, rather than relying on the intermittent pronouncements of mountain-top prophets, begin the unglamorous and deeply boring task of wrestling with issues of law, money, long-term mass communication, advocacy and administration.
In the Republic, Plato confessed to a profound and melancholy understanding (gathered from bitter experience) of the limits of intellectuals, when he remarked that the world would never be set right until, in his words, ‘philosophers became kings, or kings philosophers’. By which he meant that thinkers should stop imagining that ideas can change reality and recognise that only institutions, ‘kingship’ in this context, have any chance of working a proper influence on the world.
The problem with the world today isn’t that we lack good ideas. We have great, sound, beautiful, enlightened ideas to last us a hundred generations. Enough new books! We don’t have to work stuff out. We have to make what we already know very well more effective out there. The urgent question is how to ally the very many good ideas which currently slumber in the recesses of intellectual life with proper organisational tools that actually stand a chance of giving them real impact in the world.
Dave is a DIY kind of guy. But Dave would like to do more than just change his tractor’s oil. He’d like to be able to modify the engine timing. He’d like to harvest the information that his tractor collects to learn more about how his crops grow. He’d like to troubleshoot error codes. Most of all, he’d like to be able to repair his equipment himself—because it’s what he’s been doing all his life.
In the tech industry, we tend to talk about the exploding Maker Movement as if tinkering is something new. In fact, it’s as old as dirt: farmers have been making, building, rebuilding, hacking, and tinkering with their equipment since chickens were feral. I’ve seen farmers do with rusty harvesters and old welders what modern Makers do with Raspberry Pis and breadboards. There’s even a crowdsourced magazine, Farm Show, that’s catalogued thousands of clever farming inventions over the past three decades.
Of course, the world is changing, and that’s especially true in the world of agriculture. Most problems can’t be solved with duct tape and baling wire anymore. Regulations are stricter, agribusiness is more consolidated, resources are more scarce, and equipment is infinitely more complicated and proprietary. Small family farmers like Dave face challenges that even the most industrious Maker would find hard to “hack.”
What used to be done by hand is now managed at scale by giant machine. And that equipment is expensive—equivalent to the price of a small house (Dave’s mid-ranged tractor is worth over $100,000). New, elaborate computer systems afford the kind of precision and predictability that farmers 20 years ago couldn’t have even imagined. But they’ve also introduced new problems.
Sure, you accept that some people think in certain ways that you don’t because they’ve absorbed cultural norms that you didn’t, but what about your own mind? It can seem as if once you’ve recognized your own contributions to racism and privilege you should then be able to proceed with a clean slate, rebooted with the awareness of your own ignorance, but free from it.
The evidence suggests it isn’t that easy. The desire alone doesn’t seem to remove prejudice from your thoughts and actions. In experiments where subjects were asked to identify an image within two seconds and to mark it as either a gun or a tool, subjects were much more likely to mistake tools for guns if they first saw a black face before making the call. If shown a white face beforehand, those same people made the mistake in reverse, mislabeling guns as tools. In another line of research, scientists found that people trying to make fair and unbiased decisions in the justice system are just as susceptible. Those researchers wrote that in court cases “involving a white victim, the more stereotypically black a defendant is perceived to be, the more likely that person is to be sentenced to death.”
The seeds of bigotry and xenophobia were planted in your brain long ago, and though you can consciously desire to be unbiased when it comes to race, religion, age, politics, and all the other social phenomena that glom people together – those things have already molded the synaptic landscape in your head. Undoing that in an effort to reduce prejudice will take time. The good news is that neuroscientists are, right now, working on how that undoing might be accomplished at the individual level.
― Ernest Hemingway
I hope that you’ll read these articles if they catch your eye and that you’ll learn as much as I did. Please email me questions, feedback or raise issues for discussion. Better yet, if you know of something on a related topic, or of interest, please pass it along. And as always, if one of these links comes to mean something to you, recommend it to someone else.