Monday, June 22, 2009

The Supermarket of Babel

The glut-of-information idea is simply a primitive, misleading, cheap shot of neo-Luddites. There can never be enough information. We ignore so many important things. And on a planet largely illiterate, and ignorant (including widespread ignorance in a large segment of the American people – for instance, who knows what DNA does?), to speak of information glut is simply an insult to intelligence.
Manuel Castells (1)

I said a while ago that I was going to take issue with this pronouncement by the most estimable Professor Castells, and I’m an eventual keeper of promises, not to mention (apparently) a primitive, misleading, cheap-shooting neo-Luddite. So - and this is really the entirety of my argument - here goes: We don’t need more information; we need to be better informed.

I could stop right there, and not write a long, meandering post that contributes to the problem, but that would be far too coherent a position to take. So allow me to expand. Beginning, naturally, with the words that we use. Those who argue that there might be an excess of information in our culture(s) speak generally of either a glut or an overload, two metaphors that converge on the notion that the situation is inimical to the health of our collective mind-body. Neither metaphor actually goes as far as questioning that information in itself is a good, something that in the proper quantities can sustain us, but rather that, just as the fourth consecutive helping of roast chicken no longer constitutes nourishment, so too perhaps the millionth web page you’ve visited this month no longer constitutes a cognitively enriching experience.

I find the food imagery richer than the sensory one, and it is further complicated by the fact that information is so inextricably linked with how appetites are marketed, our actual diets sold to us. One could write this in short-story form, and entitle it The Supermarket of Babel. Imagine a supermarket with an infinite number of aisles, stocked with every grocery product ever made as well as those that are yet to be made, and imagine further that each aisle is infinitely long, and that the mythical tills and cashiers that must of necessity exist are like the gates of heaven, nobody who’s seen them has ever returned, and you could crawl and then walk every day of your life from the moment you’re born till the minute you die, and you wouldn’t be any closer to them than you were at the beginning, condemned as you are to spend your entire life in the cereal aisle, pondering the difference between crispies and pops.

Something like that. Except if one were to write such a story there’s a significant risk it would get shelved under non-fiction. I’m not going to be the first to claim that supermarkets are designed like casinos: there are no clocks, no windows, just a maze of enticements designed to keep you inside and spending for as long as humanly possible. And if the panopticon is the organising principle of the disciplinary society, so is the supermarket vis-à-vis the consumer society. To maximise the time that our credit cards spend outside of our wallets: that is the task of the advertising and marketing industry, whose budget is every bit as bone-chillingly large as that of the military-industrial complex. Even semi-ironic, whimperish anti-consumerist slogans these days get printed on three-dollar T-shirts that retail for $29.99. We don’t stand a chance.

It’s not just competition for our dollar - in the sense of the finite budget dictated by what we need and how much money we possess - but pressure to consume more; not only more than we can afford, obviously (hello, global financial crisis), but also more than is good for us. It is at this juncture that ‘information glut’ ceases to be a metaphor altogether. Marion Nestle, professor of the department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York University, as well as the editor of the US Surgeon General’s 1988 Report on Nutrition and Health, has chronicled in her book Food Politics the role played by the US food industry in misinforming the public about what constitutes good nutrition, in spite of the fact that, as she puts it, ‘dietary recommendations for the prevention of chronic disease have hardly varied for the past half-century’ (2). These recommendations are disarmingly simple: eat a varied diet with an emphasis on plant foods - fruit, vegetables and grains - and avoid excessive intake from any one food group, particularly the ones that are high in fat. What could be easier to remember than that? While in the aftermath of WWII these guidelines meant that the still predominantly undernourished citizens of the United States should eat more, a piece of advice enthusiastically supported by agriculture and food interests, now the public health imperative is that they eat less.

According to our best science, this message truly constitutes, pace Mr. Castells, ‘enough information.’ Any more than that, and the message starts to lose its bite (all these puns are intended, by the way, unless stated otherwise). Hence, according to Nestle, the strategy of the food industry has consisted in lobbying the government not to be quite so direct in telling people to reduce their food intake, but also in fracturing and multiplying that advice, helping promote the virtues of so many alternative dietary regimes that it has become very difficult, by all measurable standards, for people to remember what the basic message has always been. And this is not even getting into the part played by the news media, who are always hungry for new information to share about dieting, also for entirely disinterested reasons you understand, and the more it breaks with the conventional wisdom, the more newsworthy it is. So one morning you might wake up and learn over breakfast that

Now you CATCH obesity ...spreading fat cells are linked to a virus

The Adenovirus Ad36 implicated in human obesity.
Either that, or a ball of crochet with needles stuck in it.

Like Professor Nestle, and the slow food movement and a few other militant souls, Michael Pollan has done some excellent work en route to reaffirming and reclaiming that simplest of messages, which is also a way out of the inhuman Borgesian maze of the world's supermarket. To wit: eat only foods your grandmother would recognise, stay away from those whose ingredients you cannot pronounce. You'll be less informed, yet better informed, and get to the till a whole lot quicker.


I'm going to rest my case now, for it is almost too easy to argue that there is in fact an information glut in those terms, and it's not very new or interesting, nor does it properly account for the crux of the issue; namely, that information isn't the same thing as knowledge. I'll have to come back to this - my usual strategy of deferral - but soon, this time, I promise. Next week though, and begging for the patience of my New Zealand readers, I'm going to write about Matariki, so if anybody has personal anecdotes about the celebrations that they want to share, do please get in touch. In the meantime I want to encourage anybody in Wellington who hasn’t been to see the Starlab at Te Papa in the past to really try to go this year - it’s a rather wonderful event. Check the Matariki Festival museum programme for times.

(1) John Gerstner, ‘The other side of cyberspace. Interview with professor Manuel Castells,’ Communication World 16.4 (March 1999) p. 11.

(2) Marion Nestle,
Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 2002), p. 29.

Bat-Bean-Beam Gets Results
First in a likely one-part series

Owen Hatherley of Sit Down, Man, You’re a Bloody Tragedy fame has written a review of the Ruins of Fascism exhibition for the UK magazine Frieze. Dougal told me about the event in the context of this post and I in turn informed Owen. So since I neither found out about the exhibition nor wrote the review, I’m going to go ahead and take all the credit. And steal an image on my way out:

Dan Dubowitz, Colonia Marina della Federazione Fascista di Novara Rimini 3 (2008)

It’s a fine review, but it contains a mistake that my readers ought to be able to spot. Five points to the first one to do so in the comments below.

(And what do points mean? Prizes.)


Philip said...

Is it that Gianni Alemanno was greeted by Roman salutes, not Nazi ones?

Word Verification: bralinni, the shrapnel resulting from a violent colonnade of brutalistic futures.

Giovanni said...

Indeed! Five points to the gentleman from London.

owen hatherley said...

In my defence, this was because the Roman/Nazi distinction is minimal, but to explain it would have been laborious, and possibly brought me over the word count. Sorry, but that's just how it is at the coal face of aesthetic hackery.

Giovanni said...

Are you telling me Britons don't know what a Fascist or a Roman salute is? That seems bizarre. Do they know we came up with the stuff? We never get the credit for our most successful exports.

But it wasn't a substantive criticism, it's just that in the context of this blog and what I've been writing about the Italian Fascist revival the distinction is significant, and I had every hope a reader would be quick to spot it.

Paul said...

I found this post crunchy and nutritious, although I was momentarily confused by the nutritionist sharing a name (minus an accent) with a global food corporation.

Eat food
Mostly plants
Not too much

.. is how Pollan puts it. He also advises keeping to the sides of the supermarket - where the food is displayed - rather than the aisles, where the junk resides.

HORansome said...

I, too, like this post but I worry about the analogy with food, because it seems Pollan's dictim (as I shall henceforth demand it be known by), when rephrased to be about Knowledge (says the philosopher) goes:

"Consume only information your grandmother would recognise, stay away from information whose principal components you cannot easily expound."

That seems like a recipe for, well, not being well-informed (my grandmother wouldn't have recognised Epistemology as being distinct from Ontology, for example).

I'm not sure that you mean the analogy to be so strict so I'm not accusing you of anything; I just find the analogy a bit weird, really. But I do like the nightmarish suggestion that we're all stuck in the cereal aisle. Suddenly my life makes sense after all.

Giovanni said...

I meant no analogy there, but strictly that nutrition is an area in which arguably we don't need more information, but less - Pollan's formulation (thanks Paul) obviously aims for as few words as possible for precisely that reason. Which is not to say that this applies across the board, of course, there are a lot of areas in which we know too little, but I think that even Castells' DNA example is weak - it's not that people ignore what DNA is because the information isn't there, and the solution is not to increase the information in the system. That's not how education works.

Castells simply confuses information with knowledge, which is one of those 20th century ideas that people in the future are going to find befuddling.

He also advises keeping to the sides of the supermarket - where the food is displayed - rather than the aisles, where the junk resides.

I have very strong memories of my first time at a Pak N Save,in Hamilton in 1997, after I had been in the country a couple of days at the most. It was vast, labyrinthine, stocked with so many products I didn't know, and in such ludicrously large andn loud packaging; in my jet lagged and culturally shocked state, I sheepishly followed Justine and her family, trusting that they'd know how to leave.

Going back to my local supermarket in Milan a couple of years later, I found that the trolleys suddenly looked like toys and the place was minuscule. And so easy to flee.

Lyndon said...

There was an old Bill Bailey routine where he gives a quick definition of existential angst in terms of the unbearable responsibility of making choice for which you are responsible out of effectively infinite possibilities.

"I get that," he says, "In the biscuit aisle."

James said...

Franz Kafka for The Supermarket of Babel, but if he's busy, James Joyce in list-writing mode, and if that's not possible how about David Foster Wallace.

Giovanni said...

If it were Kafka, I fear there'd be some elaborate branding of the customers by means of the pricing gun.

Philip said...

Or some jolly interesting insects in the salad. But it wouldn't matter all that much, because the more the consumers tried to get in - even to the extent of begging the very rubber bits on the automatic doors - the more they would be informed that, although the supermarket is intended only for them, they cannot be admitted at the moment. All a bit of a trial, really.

Word Verification: mishints, deformed hints of mint.

Giovanni said...

Seeing as you mention the salads, I'm not sure I envisage the supermarket dwellers being allowed to eat any of the food on display. Which reminds me: something I've always asked myself about the Lbrary of Babel is - how and what did they eat? I know it's a silly question, but.

Taramoc said...

I love the idea of the Supermarket of Babel. It's a great visual and conceptual hyperbole. I can't stop thinking that the outside would probably look like the endless malls in Wall-E.

As per Borges’ tale, I seem to remember that he hints at an underground economy in the place, with different roles for the inhabitants, so I wouldn’t be surprised if carts were rolled around with food for sale, like in the FFSS trains back in the days. I should read it again though, to make sure.

Regarding the "eat only what your grandmother would recognize", I understand where you guys are coming from, but I can't help disagreeing, at least on a certain level.

Since I moved to Canada, I experienced a lot of different type of cuisines, given the accessibility of ethnic restaurants in a more immigration oriented culture. I can safely say that my grandmother wouldn't recognize most if not all what it's served in an Indian or Thai restaurant, but I really enjoy them.

It may seem trivial, but I'm pretty sure a lot of the food was delivered from the countries of origin (or with similar climate), with the well known environmental impact. So, what's the solution? Sticking to the local produce even if it means missing out on a lot of great "out of our climate" dishes? Or cultivate locally the plants used by faraway cuisines, risking invasion of indigenous species (I can talk about the effect of a type of Rucola in south California in the early 1900s as a proof of that, and you all know what happened with rabbits in Australia)? Or simply keep doing what we are doing, not worrying about the environment?

Before you jump on me, I'm not talking about Shark Fins or Tortoise Soups. I can definitively do without eating endangered species.

Giovanni said...

Italian cuisine is the result of the sedimentation of different ethnic and cultural influences, so our grandmothers must have been open to eating new stuff and foreign foods. We obviously didn't have problems integrating the tomato or the potato into our cuisine, for instance. But I think what Pollan means is to stick to dishes that have a recognisable relationship between the ingredients, the cooking process and the finished product, as opposed to ones that have been industrially designed and processed beyond all recognition.

You could explain a curry laksa to my nonna, and she could learn to make it from scratch. A chicken nugget perhaps not so much.

(Speaking of rabbits, it's always been a mystery to me why New Zealanders don't eat them. They're pests *and* they're delicious.)

Stephen Parkes said...

Obvious (although apparently unintentional) comparisons to Gursky aside, that supermarket aisles photo is excellent.

Giovanni said...

It is indeed an excellent photo. Am I the only one who sees googly eyes in the two packets of (I'd say) instant noodle front and centre? It turns the whole tableux into a supermarket monster.

Stephen Parkes said...

Yeah I see them too now. Freaky.

(That ain't instant noodles, btw. If you look at the photo original size, that's the pet products area. The "pupils" are actually pictures of cats on the package for some kind of absorbent stuff for a litter box. That whole foreground centre section is cat food or cat crap-related.)

On a separate note, that image also reminded me of this video:

objectdart said...

so, so many comments to follow-up on.

1. rabbits are extremely delicious, but we're always told they're full of parasites. and they're just plain expensive.

2. my first visit to an ikea in melbourne was like your trip to packnsave. it was populated by scandavians, took an age to get through, channelled me to crap i didn't want to buy, and ended with a checkout counter and airconditioning that sounded like jets warming down. i thought i had actually been warped to sweden somehow.

3. i was discussing this infobesity argument with a legal colleague on friday. what i'm seeing is that there has always been too much information for everyone to digest individually, and the law is a good analogy. sometimes you need experts, with "superior knowledge" (it's also why lawyers act all superior). it's why information is spread unevenly across society, with each partaking as per their ability and means. the difference these days is that some are developing a keen awareness of how to better sift the useful information, because we are no longer limited to what is immediately to hand. we can import information from across the world as we like, and when we like it.

objectdart said...

also: transmittable obesity? Helliconia Winter anyone?

Giovanni said...

Aldiss, boy... that takes me back. My memory has been wiped clean, will have to revisit.

I didn't venture into infobesity, which of course is the metaphorical extension of the idea of the glut, but if you're interested in that line of thinking you might enjoy this quote from Martin Larsson, then former general manager of Toshiba's European storage device division, circa 2004:

Britain has become a nation of information hoarders with a ferocious appetite for data. As storage capabilities increase and the features and functionalities of mobile devices expand to support movie files and entire libraries of multi-media content, we will all become virtually obese.

objectdart said...

that obesity comment makes me think of an old bloke who used to live next to my grandparents in auckland.

his house was stacked floor to ceiling with newspapers, as if he was storing them for the betterment of mankind. or, as though his own passing of days was marked only through his proof of existence.

i find myself doing the same with old email.

harvestbird said...

My eyes made wide and

this glut of labels

Our electronic

my grandad's thrift un-

Giovanni said...

Ah, but just you wait for the marvellous new line items that will start enriching your grocery bill over the next year or so...

rob said...

Happy birthday!
4 great new banners is also good news: you will have to make it to 5!