Friday, 9 May 2014

Art Imitating Life: Soylent

I remember just over a year ago I came across Rob Rhinehart's blog and his article describing his meal replacement drink Soylent. Designed to give you all the nutrients, protein and fibre your body needs, I thought it was an elaborate joke. I mean, really? Why would you seriously name your new nutrition drink 'Soylant', especially when the word is commonly associated in the popular imagination with the mass consumed, human remnant made government issued food from the 1973 film Soylant Green?

"Soylant Green is people!"

But as it came out in the news last week, Rhinehart has raised $3 million dollars and his bringing his drink to the world. Reviled and welcomed at the same time, Soylant is an almost utopian product. Freeing time from busy people, the drink has the potential to feed the malnourished and those unable to chew food themselves.

This custard flavoured drink has all the hallmarks of a sci-fi fantasy come true. I remember when I was a youngster willing the day when I would have to bother with thinking about food any more and would just get it in pill form ala The Jetsons. (I also waited patiently for hover boards, but they never happened...)

Food replacements have been a mainstay in sci-fi, maybe because it both innovative and destructive. Innovative because of the aforementioned utopian ideals and freeing up of people's time, but the nightmarish idea of stepping away from natural produce and putting your trust in other people to provide your basic needs (and as we know in sci-fi, most big corporations have malicious desires).

I let my imagination run away with itself when I starting thinking about Soylant. Myself personally, I love the idea of not having to think about food, not having to buy it, prepare it, cook it, and then clean up after it. I imagine I spend at least three hours a day busying myself about food. Think of all the stuff I could do if I didn't have to worry about solids! But as the few people I've talked to about this with, I'm pretty sure I would miss the food I love. Salads, sweet potatoes, curry, chocolate! Rhinehart has said that you become used to not eating solids, and that consuming Soylant allows you to appreciate the subtle complexity of non-mass produced (salt, sugar and artificially flavoured) food. He gives sushi as an example.

But to say that people don't consume meal replacements regularly would be a fallacy. I take iron tablets, multi vitamins and probiotics everyday to ensure I get the right amount of nutrients. I've been declared with an iron deficiency, but I take the others just to be safe. Often, it is just easier to take a vitamin pill than it is to consume the food that naturally contains it. (For example, I told my brother that eating three brazil nuts a day would give him his days worth of selenium that would keep his skin clear. To my dismay, he just went out and brought some selenium tablets. Why not just eat the nuts? This way he didn't have to go through the rigmarole of eating three nuts a day. I think he missed the point that just eating healthy would clear his skin anyway).

We have things like the disgusting Slimfast (my mum gave me this as a teenager, but felt so bad she would give me toast too), and even Weetabix have come out with a drinkable version of their cereal. Juice cleanses are also very popular at the moment as a meal replacement, but they're a little bit different as they still have fresh food in them, but many also contain powdered 'superfoods' such as maca, baobab and acai (used as a slimming aid in the west, it is used in its native South America to gain weight).

If we're to look at Soylant as a sci-fi creation, we might as well go the whole hog and look at its social implications. If enough people go for this drink (and I think more people would than what you'd think), then farming, manufacturing and supermarkets would suffer. A massive company would be responsible for the welfare for millions (billions!), which is kind of scary. What if fresh food is the reserve of the rich, and the rest of us suck on Soylant? Or, what if Soylant is a rich persons thing and the rest of us is left to eat microwave quarter pounders and Findus lasagne's?

I but I find most curious is that they say consuming Soylant would give you loads of extra free time. While clearing the mental fogginess associated with digestion fatigue would give you more energy, I would wonder what people would do with their free time. While many people complain of having busy jobs, but many people work long hours for small work loads. What if they do replace us all with robots? And would they get rid of lunch breaks if your boss could get away with just giving you a frothy glass of Soylant? Unless they're gonna start putting NZT-48 into these shakes, I think people would rather spend their free time preparing a meal.

For all intents and purposes, Soylant could fall into insignificance just like Space Food Sticks, or it could just change for good the way we eat dinner. The biggest impact would be on the way we communicate with each other. To its logical extreme, if everyone consumed something like Soylant, there would be no need for restaurants, cafes, or even dinner tables. Humans would loose their natural social meet ups, and maybe eventually the need to be social.

A future of people staring blankly into a Google Eye, doing pointless busywork, slurping on their sweet nutrient milkshake...

Still, could be good if you want to go on a diet.


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