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.)