What Grows in Silicon Valley: The Emerging Ideology of Food Technology

Christopher Miles & Nancy Smith

This project resulted in a book chapter which is part of an edited collection entitled The Ecopolitics of Consumption edited by Karyn Pilgrim, H. Louise Davis, and Madhu Sina. 

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Niwa, a digital terrarium designed to help people grow food in their homes, is aimed at people who don’t have yards, such as apartment-dwellers who live in cities. It is marketed as a key technology for a “future where anyone can grow their own food.” Niwa promotes efficiency and functionality, and as a consequence of emphasizing the ease of growing food, this system removes people from the process, suggesting an engineering-driven, and ultimately, disembodied engagement with food.

Niwa, a digital terrarium designed to help people grow food in their homes, is aimed at people who don’t have yards, such as apartment-dwellers who live in cities. It is marketed as a key technology for a “future where anyone can grow their own food.” Niwa promotes efficiency and functionality, and as a consequence of emphasizing the ease of growing food, this system removes people from the process, suggesting an engineering-driven, and ultimately, disembodied engagement with food.

Soylent, under the tagline “Free Your Body,” is a food-replacement “open-source drink powder” that claims to contain all of the essential nutrients required to fuel the human body. Soylent is a striking example of the kind of food that results when notions of efficiency and optimization are pushed to their logical limit. 

Soylent, under the tagline “Free Your Body,” is a food-replacement “open-source drink powder” that claims to contain all of the essential nutrients required to fuel the human body. Soylent is a striking example of the kind of food that results when notions of efficiency and optimization are pushed to their logical limit. 

What grows in silicon valley? The emerging ideology of FOOD TECHNOLOGY

*The introduction of this paper is included below, please read the whole paper: here

The subtitle of Soylent creator Ryan Reinhardt’s blog asks “Can Entropy Be Reversed?” What might Soylent, an “open source” drink powder have to do with the second rule of thermodynamics? Upon what table does this seemingly chance encounter take place? Furthermore, what, if anything, are the politics of such a meeting—what is at stake?  The answers to these questions reach across the history of industrialization, the growth of systems theory and cybernetics, molecular biology, information theory, and the development of what Fred Turner has called “cyberculture.” We propose that as the techno-capitalist startup culture of Silicon Valley has in recent years shifted its sights beyond more traditionally “digital” realms of computing and the internet towards areas like food and food production, so too have the ideologies, epistemologies, and even ontologies that found and constitute them begun to render these areas in their own terms. We will consider two specific cases of this phenomenon—Soylent, a nutritionally engineered food product that claims to contain all the elements of a healthy diet, and Niwa, a smartphone-operated digital terrarium marketed as a “solution” to urban food production. We argue that not only are Niwa and Soylent problematic in application, more importantly, they serve as examples of an increasingly influential ideology that has the potential to radically shape our food landscape and our conceptions of the body in its own image. 

Contained within these objects are two separate, but genealogically related answers to the question “what is called ‘food?’” What will follow is an examination of the particular discourse that has shaped Soylent and Niwa—a way of thinking about and viewing bodies, life, and therefore food and agriculture—that has become culturally and institutionally influential. On one hand, Soylent sits squarely in a reductionist epistemology of biology, information, and genetics that has been repeatedly criticized by gender, cultural, and STS scholars, among others. What is especially relevant about Soylent in this discussion, however, is its further situation within digital culture as an “open source,” “hackable,” “crowd-funded” object with a specific vision of what life—as both biological being and politico-historical existence— is, and ought to be. 

On the other hand, Niwa serves as an example of a more network-oriented, cybernetic vision. Here, life itself is less at the core of what Niwa embodies than are techno-political solutions to food chain issues. Niwa, as both object and system, reifies certain neoliberal socio-political assumptions that in turn derive from a vision of both individuals and society drawn from the historical cross-pollination of information theory, cybernetics/systems theory, and cognitive psychology. Here again, Niwa exists as an example of contemporary digital culture. In this instance, it exemplifies trends towards personal consumer goods, and ubiquitous computing that appear to have no small degree of discursive power in contemporary American society.

After outlining the history that Soylent and Niwa share, we will move on to discuss specific attributes and claims of each in detail. We will then conclude with a look at alternative applications of digital technology to food and food chain issues that, for several reasons, appear more promising in both material effect and ontological mooring. In other words, in addition to our critique, we hope to demonstrate that the “digital” is a site of evolving epistemologico-political contest with great possibility to be understood and employed on very different grounds and towards very different ends than its current orthodoxies tend to license.