November 11, 2005

The Wishing Ring, part 3

Hatched by Dafydd

Foodless Food

By this, the final segment of the Wishing Ring, you're either desperate to know what the heck I mean by "foodless food" -- or else you're so overwhelmed by ennui that you're gnawing your own leg off to escape.

On the assumption that those of you in the latter category will have other things to worry about (such as sudden, catastrophic blood loss), I'll dive right into this last wish of our iconic three.

Throughout most of human history and across most of the world even today, the poor are marked by their thin, gaunt, even skeletal look. They starve. That's the simple fact. Look at the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, if it's not too painful.

But in the civilized corner of the world, and especially in the United States, it's the rich and famous who look like scarecrows. The poor are positively rolly polly; many are actually obese.

This is because only the rich make enough money to afford very tiny portions of food, as Horace Rumpole once put it (courtesy of his author, John Mortimer). Low-fat, low-cal food costs big bucks, as do exercise regimes and personal trainers (and in the case of some stars, hand slappers: they reach for the pork rinds, they get their hands slapped). In fact, America's biggest health problem (sorry) may be obesity, though some medical researchers are backing off of that a bit recently.

The "problem" is that capitalist countries produce so much wealth, including food, that even the poorest can eat three full meals a day... provided he isn't too picky about the amount of fat, sugar, and carbohydrates he consumes. Even begging, let alone a job, generates plenty of income to gorge at fast-food joints three or four times a day. The result, of course, is not pretty; see the tendentious film Super Size Me. But the problem is not limited to the poor: the vast bulk of the middle class is more worried about losing weight than about getting enough to eat.

When diet, exercise, and willpower fail, we can always rely upon technology. Instead of denying ourselves the foods we love... let's imagine a world where we can eat, eat, eat, morning, noon, and night, yet never gain an ounce.

It's not only possible, we already have the most of the tools to create exactly that world: foodless food.

What I mean by the weird phrase is food that is engineered to have a precise mix of protein, carbs, fat, and sugar. A stomach-stuffing, belly-busting feast that nevertheless contains no more calories than a grilled chicken salad and a side of cottage cheese.

It turns out, oddly enough, that digestion has a lot to do with chemistry. There is a whole science about it: food chemistry. Our bodies are set up to digest certain types of food, and our taste buds can only detect certain types of flavors (sweet, sour, bitter, salt, and something I'd never heard of before reading this web page: umami).

But nothing says that the two processes must operate in synch. Food can taste sweet without providing a single calorie via digestion; I call this sugarless sugar, and it's sold under many names: NutraSweet (aspartame), Sweet & Low (saccharine), Sugar Twin (cyclamates), and Splenda (sucralose), depending on what you want to do with it -- add it to cooked food or cook with it, for example. By mixing any of these artificial sweeteners with real sugar (sucrose), you can create any degree of sweetness with any level of actual sugar.

The first artificial fat sold openly in consumer goods was Olean (olestra); others will likely follow. Olestra, developed by Procter & Gamble in 1968 but only marketed recently, is an artificial substance called sucrose polyester, "a synthetic mixture of sugar and vegetable oil, which passes through the human digestive system without being absorbed." In other words, it tastes like fat but cannot be absorbed by the body, making it zero calorie. It's not perfect; some people experience various digestive problems when they eat it. But the solution to this problem is easy: if you eat olestra and get diarrhea, and if this bothers you... then don't eat it!

I know that a number of food chemists are feverishly at work trying to develop an artificial carbohydrate for the millions on variations of the Atkins diet. I expect there will be breakthroughs there, as there always are when real money is at stake. And I fully expect artificial protein within the near future... protein that tastes like meat but passes right through. The only remaining problem then will be assembling all these parts into food that tastes authentic, but is in fact ersatz.

The long and the short is that eventually, probably sooner than we expect, we will have very good artificial substitutes for virtually every type of food taste and texture that exists... which means that any recipe could be made full calorie, zero calorie, or any value in between. You can dial your own nutritional prescription.

In other words, foodless food.

You could have pancakes, bacon, syrup, and hot chocolate for breakfast; a BLT with extra mayo and a side of Freedom Fries™ for lunch; and prime rib, mashed potatoes, split-pea soup, apple cobbler, and a grande mocha-vanilla caramel macchiato cappuccino au lait with double-shots of chocolate and fudge for dinner, and have the whole day’s feast clock in at only 1200 calories, comprising 150g of carbs, 33g of fat, and 75g of protein.

"OK, ab Hugh, it would be nice to lose weight without sacrifice. But how is that 'revolutionary?'"

Detour time: what is an economy anyway? Forget all that stuff you learned in Econ 101... does anybody actually offer a class called Econ 101? Any economic system is a method of allocating resources -- natural resources, goods, and services -- among the members of the community associated with that economic system: how do you divide up the apples?

Unless you believe in the Great Wealth Tree, these resources are both limited and unevenly distributed among the population. An economic system distributes them more evenly by allowing a person with too much of resource X to give it to another person who hasn't enough.

It doesn't matter to this definition whether the transfer is voluntary, in exchange for some other resource Y (money, for example), or is involuntary according to some Socialist diktat: the point is that scarce resources are distributed among the population by the rules of the economic system. In other words, economics is a sophisticated system for resource triage.

Medical triage recognizes the scarcity of medical resources in some circumstances (MASH units in combat areas, for example) and allocates that care among patients by various rules. An economic system does the same to allocate a wider set of resources among a larger population over the long term. But both forms of triage depend upon one irreducible fact: that the resources in question are limited. If they are unlimited and unbounded, then there is no reason to allocate them: everybody uses what he wants in a kind of Kropotkian anarchy.

Back to foodless food (I'll bet you thought that, like Grandpa telling a story, I had forgotten where I started). Sugarless sugar and fatless fat are the first baby steps in what I will call designer food: food specifically designed and created for a particular person, using a profile he himself has designed (in consultation with medical knowledge) for his particular needs. It will necessarily force consumers to get over their irrational fears of genetically modified food: greed and vanity are two of the most powerful and positive drives in the human psyche; and in the end, I'm sure they'll overcome our natural desire to live like a bunch of grim and grisly Puritans, depriving ourselves of such frivolities as "pleasure."

Eventually, we will be forced by greed and vanity to drop the idea that there is something sacred about comestibles; we'll start treating them as any other product, to be fiddled with and altered at will, subject only to the laws of product safety that govern goods such as minivans and semiautomatic pistols. With this religious prohibition against genetic food gone (it will die hard), normal market forces will create food that is better, healthier, and cheaper... and eventually, food will become so cheap that anyone will be able to afford the best-tasting and healthiest food in any quantity, designed personally for him. Food, even gourmet food, will no longer be a scarcity.

Therefore, we will no longer need triage to "distribute" food. The effect of this will be electrifying in itself: since (supra) the economy affects only those things that are scarce -- there is no fee for breathing air -- when food is no longer scarce in any sense of the word, then food will, by definition, no longer be a part of the economy.

Put it this way: why would you pay gourmet prices to get an incredible meal at a restaurant when you can get an equally incredible meal, just as much to your taste and just as healthy, but at a fraction the cost, through And why pay even Amazon if your home cooking computer can create the same food for you for free?

Foodless food may be the first step of what some thinkers, capitalist and Marxian alike, call the "post-economic society" (science-fiction writer John Barnes falls in the latter camp and is responsible for first explaining this concept to me a number of years ago; hat tip to John). A post-economic society (PES) is one in which all the necessities of life and even many of the luxuries become, due to technological advance, so cheap and plentiful that they literally are no longer a part of the economy, as above. A PES can be both completely capitalist and fully socialist at the same time: one definition of socialism is the belief that it's the government's responsibility to supply all the necessities of life to all citizens; but if all the necessities of life can be made available to all the citizens at a tax cost of $5/year per person total, then taxes would in essence be zero... and you would still be free to engage in capitalist activity with no tax drag on the economy.

You have to understand that government control is measured not so much by its scope as its extent to each person: technically, it's "government control of the press" if Congress were to require, as its only requirement, that every publication in the United States include a little smiley-face on page 4. The scope of this silly example is universal. But the extent of the control is so trivial that it's a joke; only the most theoretical purist would say such a tiny requirement damaged freedom of the press.

So a government can be fully socialist -- every citizen is entitled to all the necessities of life for free; but if the cost is so trivial that you do not even notice it, then for all intents and purposes, the cost is nonexistent... and you have pure capitalism and pure socialism existing happily together in the same PES.

But technology will not stop with designer food; it will proceed apace. Eventually, technology will swallow up every kind of scarcity -- except the artificial scarcity: novels by Dafydd ab Hugh are scarce simply because I'm the only one who can produce them, not because novels themselves are in short supply (would that they were! then my own books would sell better). As more and more scarcities vanish, our idea of what constitutes a "necessity" will expand -- why shouldn't it? -- until the only thing in a PES that is not free for the taking is a service that one person performs for another. And even those can typically be done by machines; there is no reason a machine cannot learn to cook, to practice medicine, and to try legal cases.

In the final stage of a total PES, the only commodity for sale will be status: you status will be enhanced if you have a human butler, instead of a buttle-bot. If you employ a human chef while all your friends just have chef-o-matics, they will envy you. It is irrelevant if your butler and chef are any better than machines; they can even be worse! The status is that you have them at all.

Which means that anyone who can do something idiosyncratic (a painter, writer, composer, aide de camp, major domo, prostitute, performer, or other personalized service) will make "millions" of whatever money is used. But the only thing he can spend it on is more idiosyncratic, personalized service from someone else. The butler will have a juggler on retainer. The prostitute will have a personal secretary!

And that will be the greatest revolution of all: every concept of law, economy, war and territory, national sovereignty, and social control will crumble... and there is no way of predicting what type of society will spawn in its place. Nobody knows what a PES looks like, because none has ever existed on this planet. But surely it will be utterly unlike any society that has gone before... truly the "end of history," at least as we know it.

And all for the want of a cheesecake calorie!

In this absurdly long and drawn out series, the Wishing Ring, an agony in three fits, I have pointed out three fast approaching inventions, each of which has the capability of changing our entire universe: E-paper, high-temperature ceramic engines, and the mother of all inventions, foodless food. Besides the obvious reason for the series -- to waste time dreaming about the future when I should be building my own web page -- there is a higher calling, which I call ab Hugh's First Law of Prediction:

Any speculation about the future of society that does not take into account the unstoppable advance of technology is not worth the paper it's printed on.

(And ab Hugh's Internet Corollary: any such online speculation that ignores technology is not worth the paper it's not printed on.)

So the next time you hear some idiot talk about what Social Security will be doing forty years from now, whether he works for CBS or the Bush administration, ask yourself whether the technological advances in the next four decades will render the whole discussion moot.

Then kick back, have a beer, and blog, ranger, blog!

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, November 11, 2005, at the time of 11:48 PM

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The following hissed in response by: SDN

Folks, what Daffyd is describing here is, literally, the "Star Trek" economy. It's what you would have if you had replicators and could turn energy into matter. Of course, that depends on what the "raw materials" are to make this foodless food. If the raw material is scarce, then this advance will simply shift the ground. And ultimately, until we can turn energy (sunlight) into matter, someone is going to have to produce it.

The above hissed in response by: SDN [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 12, 2005 9:13 AM

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