A taste of big data on the global dinner table

For starters 

It is late afternoon in the year 2484. A young zoologist, Emilia, sits on a sofa with an empty white plate on the table in front of her. She pulls a packet of pills from her purse, throws one onto the empty plate and covers it with a small amount of white paste. Both ingredients start to swirl and gain in a volume, quickly leavening into a fluttering slimy mixture. Each second, a different kind of food pops up from the swirling mix and then immediately melts down again: bread, bacon, cheese, parsley, sausage, plum cake … After a while, Emilia adds a dash of beige powder into the dish; the mix stops swirling and transforms into a big cube of orange jelly. Emilia looks at the plate and smiles. A healthy, nutritionally balanced dinner is ready. [1]


A handsome man in his mid-twenties arrives at his office, turns on his laptop, and looks at the screen, which welcomes him with the usual phrase: ‘Hi Rob! Today is Monday, September the 1st, 2014.’ Rob smiles at the screen, pulls a packet of beige powder from his desk drawer, opens the packet, and sprinkles its powdery contents into a plastic pitcher. He adds some water from a plastic bottle, looks contentedly at the muddy beige cocktail, and takes a sip. The same colour, texture, and nutritional value as always – the best and the most balanced ones. The same taste of guaranteed safety. The best lunch.

While Emilia Fernandez is a leading character in the science-fiction series Návštěvníci (The Visitors) (1985), filmed in the former socialist Czechoslovakia, Robert Rhinehart is a twenty-five-year-old American software engineer who was so fed up with the time and money he spent cooking and taking care over what he was eating that he decided to develop a total food substitute: an open-source drink, Soylent, which contains all the essential nutrients the human body needs. The idea of an efficient powder-based food substitute has spread quickly and there are now communities of thousands of so-called Soylent DIY’ers, who mix their own personalised powders according to their dietary preferences. These powder recipes are discussed and shared within the online DIY Soylent forum, which to date contains over 3800 recipes.

Both Emilia and Rob decided to stop devastating their bodies, as well as the planet Earth, by ceasing to eat food – Emilia did so two decades ago (in 2484) to amuse television audiences; Rob started in 2013 and still does so, and has seen his Soylent successfully put into official distribution. His science-fiction idea seems to resonate with the needs of contemporary consumers, as he manages to satisfy their hunger for convenient, effective, eco-friendly – or as it is sometimes called – ‘meaningful’ food (Poti, Duffey, and Popkin 2014). Food that, in fact, shouldn’t be called food anymore.

1. Visitors’ food – a vision of future food from the 1980s science-fiction series The Visitors (1985). (Picture copyright © 1983 Československá televize).

2. Soylent – a ‘food of the future’ already available for online purchase. (Picture copyright © 2015 Soylent™).

Food as a semi-living entity: feasting on data

Rob Rhinehart was driven to start his Soylent business not only by his apathy toward cooking but also by his concern about the sustainability of the contemporary food supply chain (Rhinehart 2013). At a time when food shortages on one side of the world are being outweighed by massive overconsumption on the other, and roughly a third of the food produced for human consumption is wasted (UNFAO 2011: v), Rhinehart is not alone in his concerns. Scarcity of nutritious food on one side of the world and massive overproduction on the other bring to public attention issues of sustainable food production, distribution, consumption, and disposal (Belasco 2008; Choi, Foth, and Hearn 2014; Counihan and Van Esterik 2013; Pollan 2008; Stuart 2009). Along with the growing fragmentation of the global food supply chain and the thickening network of food businesses (Bukeviciute, Dierx, and Ilzkovitz 2009), food has become an object of political negotiations on a national as well as transnational level (Carolan 2011; Roy 2010).


The increasing rate of processed food production, rapid urbanisation, and changing lifestyles have led to a shift in dietary patterns (WHO 2015), which subsequently serves as an incentive for the rise of alternative food movements (e.g., locavorism, freeganism, the slow food movement), transnational food safety programmes (e.g., Safe Foods, LiveWell for LIFE, Biodiversity International), and research and development enterprises focused on improving the sustainability of the food system (e.g., Hampton Creek, Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods, Feedback, or – probably the most extreme so far – Soylent).


Due to the growing media information overload on the imbalance of the food system and related health and ecological risks, first world consumers are becoming more cautious about their diet. Many people today crave ‘better’ and more efficient food options, both health- and environment-wise. We want to know what is in our food, where it comes from, and how it gets to our plates. We are curious about the exact statistics, obsessively counting not only grams and kilojoules but also E-numbers and food miles. [2]


Many different motivations underlie this food maths: some people want to be healthy; some pursue beauty ideals and sculpt their bodies through strict diets; some search for spectacular gastronomic pleasures, investing time and money in indulgent delicacies and exquisite ‘modernist’ meals; [3] while others crave sustainable food alternatives, seeking to resculpt the whole food system. No matter where our food needs come from, to satisfy them we always rely on different sources of data: where to buy food and how to cook it, eat it, or dispose of it.

Along with our acclimatisation to the world of web 2.0 and various social media platforms, there are many ways in which we can choose how to satiate our hunger for food data. Apart from the DIY Soylent forum, today there exist a great variety of ‘foodie’ websites, discussion forums, and smartphone apps that connect consumers over food, helping them to make ‘better’ food choices – whatever the word ‘better’ might mean in this context. These include interactive online cookbooks (YummlyCookstr), crowdsourced restaurant guides (Kids LiveWell), barcode scanners (FoodswitchFooducate), diet trackers (MyPlateMy Diet Coach), and online shopping list generators (ShopWell).

Consumers keen on sustainable diets can also take advantage of various services promoting local organic alternatives to supermarket produce (FarmingoCity SproutFlavour Crusader) or become members of online organic food co-ops (La MontañitaTPSS) and collaborative food sharing networks (Share Your Meal, Foodsharing.deLeftover Swap). There are also even more radical services, such as the Buycott app, that help users avoid purchasing goods distributed by particular food producers. Food activists also run various geolocation services that map public places with accessible free food: dumpster-diving maps allow users to share the GPS location of supermarket rubbish containers filled with food leftovers (Dumpster Diving MeetupDumpster Map), while urban foraging maps (MundraubFalling FruitUrban Edibles) enable users to share the location of public fruit trees, vegetables, and herbs.

Soylent consumers, then, go a step further, while utilising their own metabolic data (nutritional profile) as the main criteria of their search for customised food options. Thus, they fall into the scope of self-tracking communities, such as Quantified Self or Measured Me. Self-trackers conduct various autoethnographical experiments and enthusiastically measure their bodily responses to their food intake, which they later share, analyse, and discuss with the whole community. Even more radical are the communities of nutrigenomic dieters, who tailor their diets according to the data extracted from their personal DNA profiles. To do so, they subscribe to direct-to-consumer genomics services (DTC), such as 23andMe or My Gene Diet, which use DNA testing to discover personal nutritional needs and provide their customers with exact information about their genetic make-up. With this kind of data, nutrigenomic dieters can use a follow-up service (PrometheaseNutraHacker), create DNA-customised meal plans, and discuss food plans in discussion forums. Nutrigenomic services that connect genomic data with food data claim to offer the highest level of dietetic precision, allowing consumers to fuel their bodies with precisely customised nutrients.

3. The Foodswitch app helps shoppers search for better food products: once a product’s barcode is scanned, the app shows a list of available and possibly healthier alternatives. (Picture copyright © 2013 University of Auckland, New Zealand).



4. Leftover Swap – the app enables a physical exchange of food leftovers and helps users to avoid unnecessary food wastage. (Picture copyright © 2013 Greased Watermelon LLC).

All these online services connecting globally dispersed consumers create a new form of technologically enhanced commensality, which reaches beyond the scope of the traditional dinner table. Eating and food preparation have always been inherently sociable activities (Grimes and Harper 2008), and the notion of food as ‘the greatest common denominator’ (West 2013) is today shifted to the 2.0 level, connecting diners over social media and tablet screens. It is no longer the food itself but rather the data about food that is being shared at this extended dinner table. The act of eating comes only after that, being justified by sufficient data-based evidence, which makes it informed and hence supposedly ‘better’. As our quotidian interactions with food became an online experience, food consumption has merged with the consumption of technologies, and our stomachs have been transformed into an organic form of human–computer interface (HCI). The online global village (McLuhan 1962) made up of geographically dispersed food-tech tribes gets together again, this time around the virtual dinner table.

This food data obsession and the craving for accurate information on the content of our food have brought about the era of ‘nutritionism’ (Scrinis 2008; Caldwell 2014) and new kinds of food disorders such as ‘orthorexia nervosa’. Defined in 1997 as a fixation on righteous eating (Bratman 1997), orthorexia nervosa has proliferated along with the expansion of the information age (Castells 2003) and the overload of public discourse with data on nutrition and dieting. Koert van Mensvoort (2009) suggests that ‘While anorexia [nervosa] is typically associated with our visual culture and its unreachable beauty ideals, orthorexia seems closely related with our information age and the easy access to facts and figures.’ The ubiquity of available information simply creates a paradox of ‘nutritional over-knowledge’: the more information about food we have, the more we want to have; however, the more we know about our food and the strategies behind its production and distribution, the less we are eventually able to consume. It almost seems that the ‘best’ orthorexic diet would be purely digital, de-materialised, and data-based, involving consumption of ‘good’ intangible data and avoiding the genuinely ‘bad’ food that may cause harm to both the body and the planet. Food in the information age is thus transformed into a strange form of hybrid materiality, a half tangible, half data-based ‘semi-living entity’ (Catts and Zurr 2004/5), which brings us together over virtual as well as real dinner tables. The quality of our meals becomes assessed on the basis of its nutritional effectivity, and hence on quantifiable evidence. Food becomes data and data become food; and, if we are what we eat, we are becoming semi-living creatures.

However, rather than talk about symptoms of the orthorexic diet, it is more interesting to look at actual causes. As suggested above, there are a whole range of reasons that may cause orthorexic cravings for accurate dietetic information. These can be defined as the various failures, lapses, and strategic profit-driven tactics of the food industry, such as genetically modified crops, antibiotic-stuffed meat, potato chips not made of potatoes (Mensvoort, 2008), Tesco apples with the carbon footprint of a globetrotter, or brimming supermarket rubbish bins.

‘Disordered’ consumers suffering from orthorexia may thus largely comprise people who just do not want to be ignorant about the discrepancies occurring in the global food supply chain. It is rather the food industry, driven by transnational economic flows of capital, that suffers from a disorder here. It is the messy food system that creates and feeds this new consumer religion of righteous nutritionism and stands as a leitmotif of all those food apps, barcode scanners, diet trackers, dumpster-diving maps, and DIY Soylent forums. From this perspective, the users of these services should be seen as active agents of change responding to the current state of the food market, rather than deranged and disordered data-junkies. The real effectivity of their actions is obviously debatable, as it is predefined by their lower position on the micro–macro socio-political scale. It may be naive to think that hundreds of consumers connecting through dumpster-diving maps to get their food from supermarket rubbish bins could change the anonymous money machine that propels the global food industry; nevertheless, it would be ridiculous to think that they can’t change anything. 


What is the role of art and design in this context and how can we, as artists/designers, reflect on the socio-political issues that are likely to be the precursors of hybrid semi-living food? What valuable inputs can we bring to the discussion about the contemporary global food system, which consists of semi-living commodities? What kind of knowledge can our enquiry reveal that can’t be revealed by other forms of enquiry?

Our work is usually practice-oriented, experiential, and participatory and aims actively to engage the audience. Food-related issues translated into critical artistic language are likely to be intelligible even to non-expert audiences (as compared with the language employed by food scientists and nutritional experts, or the delusory advertising gibberish of food corporations’ PR managers). We can speak, act, and engage our audience; or, to quote Julian Klein (2010), we are ‘granted the authority to formulate and address such basal and yet complex issues in their specific ways, […] to gain specific knowledge that could not be delivered otherwise.’ Our appropriations of contemporary food issues can involve audiences directly and convey critical insights into the routine of quotidian food consumption.


Let’s now look at how this vision renders itself within food art/design practice.

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5. Nutrigenomic dieters design their diets according to their own genetic codes. (Picture copyright © 2015 Cult Of Nutrition • Food And Marketing Thoughts).

6. Orthorexia nervosa is one of the latest eating disorders that relates to consumers’ obsessive need to consume only the ‘right’ food. (Picture copyright © 2015 Gigaom, Inc.).