#foodporn in the mechanical age of reproduction

infosthetics

I’m having problems with the diss, naturally. And sometimes when you take a look at if from a different angle that can really help, like talking it out with someone. The thing is, much like trying to listen and understand what my father or brother do in their marketing or engineering jobs, there’s something in our respective occupational vernaculars that is sedative. You all know what I’m talking about. Whether it’s simply my knee-jerk reaction to a man telling me something (for fear of being mansplained to) or my basic inability to emotionally connect with the terms BATNA and services engineering, I don’t know, but now I’m getting a taste of my own medicine. I open my mouth, and everyone locks down their snooze button, even me! And to make matters worse, to torture myself I signed up for the 3 Minute Thesis Competition two weeks from now.

But blogs are all optional reads, and a pretend audience is as good as any right now, so let’s talk about this:

One of the largest challenges that I need to overcome is making a solid connection between media and food. Specifically, I need to address the significance behind my studying how individuals and larger companies use new media forms to produce, distribute and consume information about food. Seems easy right? No.

What you all have to ask first is, why do I care?

Well, my answers to that could be myriad, but from a practical perspective I could just say the way you  mediate your food world or fooditize your media world in turn influences the way you think about food and produce, distribute and consume food. The virtual feeds the physical and vice versa. Even more anthropological I could say: you are human, you eat every day, and part of what makes you human is that you do things to food that make them more accessible to you and your gut. Food made your brain grow and allowed you to think all complex-like, giving you analytical function and emotion and behavioral responses that are beyond any other species we know about. Now, because of that evolution or perhaps due to it or in tandem with it (something I should be able to explain better), you are social, one of the most social creatures on the face of the planet. For example, you (along with dolphins and bonobos) have sex for fun – showing this preference for sociality and intimacy. And you also look for meaning in your life. So, again, what’s important to humans? Food, water, shelter – social life. What is a prominent and emergent part of human life that integrates these two? The networks of new media and food that stretch across the globe.

Ok, now we have an anthropological reason for studying, because we care about humans and what they find meaningful, but, in case you (like marketing father or engineering brother) need yet one more reason, the industries behind these networks are also dependent upon knowing how the human mind digests this information so let’s just throw in that social informatics, marketing, journalism, sustainable development, telecommunications etc. all have a stake in this game of understanding connections between people, their media and their food.

If we look at two of these key areas, food and social life, there’s a lot going on there, and ESPECIALLY now that we have Web 2.0, where people spend hours of their lives communicating, being social, and unsurprisingly, talking about food. Then there’s lots of facts I get to throw out there, like how the Food Network and its online network has grown to 90% of American households, and how many blogs, podcasts and recipe forums pop up annually, and how social media boasts millions of photos tagged #food and #foodporn – this all despite the fact that the internet enables us neither to smell, nor touch, nor taste any of the food we see before us!

#foodporn

What’s the deal? How does this maintain our interest? Well, on the one hand, we have grown to (perhaps sparked way back with DesCartes and his whole dividing up our senses thing) depend on our senses of sight and hearing. We feel they are elevated, they’re certainly the basis of current media production (though this may change drastically in the upcoming decades), and they are the social tools from which we have learned to build our stories. In many ways, these other senses stimulate memory in visceral ways that turn out to be much more emotional, but the audiovisual story is how we have learned to translate these experiences into meaning that we can share across the internet through modern technology. This, however, is a skill, a strategy for making connection that works especially well in a Web 2.0 era (those who have read Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things may recall his breakdown of the terms strategy and tactics…but that’s the snooze-inducing stuff). Basically I mean that we like food a lot, but we are really good at television, podcasts and text-based social media and not at smellovision, tastecasts or touch-mojis (yet).

Now what do we do about food? Well, we learn to integrate it into the world that we’re familiar with – the televisual world. We learn to tell stories about it. Because, while tasting, smelling and touching are important to us, we’re not quite sure how to link those together and communicate that, except by other means. So we comment about it on the internet, we watch it being made and described on TV and we use apps and other platforms to rate it, review it and generally engage with it. We also seek ways to use our preferred senses, to integrate the other sense that make food so special. And this is where storytelling comes in. Storytelling, with its appeal to memory and emotion and history, has the capacity to ignite our emotional core like taste, touch and smell do, but in ways we find easier to transfer into social meaning.

Storytelling’s place in history is legend. From Odysseus, to the Grimm Fairy Tales to Arabian Nights, the variety of human experiences have spread across the world through the vehicle of narrative. However, what was once the occupation of griots and more recently of professional writers and journalists, is now becoming the occupation of a diverse population of amateurs. The era of new media, or media produced, distributed and consumed via computerized devices, has made participation in these new processes of storytelling easier for many, albeit not all, people. But those of us who do access can easily put out all sorts of stories without the gatekeepers of editors, printers or peer friggin reviewers. And often those stories are remixed and appended with comments or fragmented, “quoted” and repurposed on other blogs  (Manovich says some stuff like this). And so we customize our story world in way that best fits our life experience, much in the way a Grimm Fairy Tale can have dozens of iterations across the geographies through which they traveled only on an even more individual scale. There is no master narrative! (ok, that doesn’t work quite but wanted to throw it in there).

This phenomenon, I argue, is a partial response to a lacuna that seems to grow like the manure lagoons outside an Iowa feedlot – outward not downward. Across the technoscape/mediascape/foodscape we have continuous access to immediate yet fragmented flows of new media, and despite the fact that our iphones are more natural to use than our actual fingers as writing tools, we seek  something to remind us that we are not cyborgs (despite this being an arguable fact). This common sentiment is often echoed as a search for authenticity in a world that has succumb to the “mechanical age of reproduction”.

So where do we find this authenticity in the new media world and how do we maintain it?

Well…I guess that’s sort of the crux of my dissertation…

…is the food being co-opted (for its relationship to authenticity) as a way to legitimize new media storytelling?

…is storytelling (for its relationship with the authentic) being co-opted by big business to sell consumer food?

 

 

One Response to “#foodporn in the mechanical age of reproduction”

  1. Maddie says:

    Leigh, you are so talented! I know this was a few months back, and you are invariably farther along with these or different ideas now, but I really just loved some of the following sentences and wanted to tell you:

    “Basically I mean that we like food a lot, but we are really good at television, podcasts and text-based social media and not at smellovision, tastecasts or touch-mojis (yet).” – touch-mojis!!!

    “Storytelling, with its appeal to memory and emotion and history, has the capacity to ignite our emotional core like taste, touch and smell do, but in ways we find easier to transfer into social meaning.” – I can tell that this is a central part of your argument and a clear statement of it.

    “This phenomenon, I argue, is a partial response to a lacuna that seems to grow like the manure lagoons outside an Iowa feedlot – outward not downward.” – I’m not big on the word “lacuna,” but the simile is amazing! So so evocative and disgustingly delightful.

    “There is no master narrative! (ok, that doesn’t work quite but wanted to throw it in there).” – I don’t know how much this will play into your actual dissertation – like how post-modern you are going to go with it, theory-wise. But I liked most of all that you wrote it down here, even just to try it out.

    This seems like a really great exercise and I am really proud of you and all the hard intellectual work and fieldwork you have done on this project! Keep at it!!

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