Book Review: ‘Technological Eating’

Uniformity & Convenience

‘Technological Eating’, by Magnus Pyke (John Murray £2.50)

Ever since capitalism became, towards the end of the nineteenth century, the dominant world economic system it has fashioned the world in its own image. Local traditions and culture have, in the main, been unable to withstand the onslaught of the money/commodity system. Backed by technological. economic and military superiority the developed nations of Europe and North America have imposed their values and traditions upon ‘primitive’ communities. Mass production methods needing standardisation and uniformity of product and production method have led to a depressing uniformity of world working class lifestyles. Scientific technology has de-tribalised society. Coca-Cola culture has triumphed.

In this short, very readable, book Professor Pyke argues that the areas in which technological developments have had the greatest impact on our everyday lives have been those relating to food—what we eat and how and when we eat it. This aspect of social experience and behaviour has been and will continue to be influenced by evolutions in food technology. “Food plays a central part in social life and the rapid progress of food technology in exercising a more profound influence on the social scene than has so far been recognised”. The book develops this theme showing how in a modern industrial society different parts of the world grow more and more alike.

Having destroyed the tribal communist societies of West Africa in the search for raw materials, in this case palm oil which through the process of hydrogenation could be used for making margarine, capitalism replaced it with the plantation system introducing money values and drawing the local inhabitants into the world economy. Financial empires were built up out of what had formerly been jungle. Refrigeration techniques enabled the United Fruit Company to exploit tropical plants such as the banana on a massive scale “not primarily for the benefit of the citizens of the area but for entirely separate social groups, United States businessmen”.

In the metropolitan countries the same technology, put to the same purpose, brought about the retail revolution which converted the shopkeeper craftsman into a wage worker in a supermarket. This new method of shopping is more impersonal, less of an occasion for social contact and discussion—more like a factory in fact. The author looks forward to the possible eventual superseding of the supermarket by the “Cash and Carry” depot possibly delivering food for the winter to the family deep freezer. The less well off members of society presumably having to rely on the few remaining small “corner shops”.

New products appear on supermarket shelves at the rate of one a week. The successful ones being those which most satisfactorily fulfil an already existing need. Thus breakfast cereals such as cornflakes, developed by Seventh Day Adventists as a “morally neutral” food, transformed breakfast from being a major meal of the day into one which each member of a family can partake individually in their own time.

The whole range of “convenience foods” which can be prepared quickly and with a minimum of fuss, frees a large section of the population (mainly women) to do other things. In the money dominated society of buying and selling this tends to be going out to work to get the money to buy the refrigerators or deep freezers in which to store the frozen convenience foods. This tendency is likely to grow. The changing needs of capital will make mincemeat of old, trusted and respected institutions such as the family.

In perhaps the most provocative chapter in the book—entitled “The Disappearance of Mealtimes”—the author argues that the shared family meal is under great pressure. Already large numbers of children eat the main meal of the day in school dining rooms as their parents eat theirs in office or factory canteens. As parents are forced by social and economic pressures to go out to work, and as food technology increasingly makes it possible for children to eat without having to go home then the fabric of social relationships is bound to change.

    “In a society such as our own in which primary importance is attached to economic cost and money value, there is likely to be a further advance in food technology bringing with it further influences on social organisation.”

Whether this is a good thing or not is a moot point, but what is clear is that, as in the past, if it proves to be profitable we will have it whether we like it or not.

Technology in general and food technology in particular are inextricably intermingled with the philosophy of money value, which permeates western society. While the quality of life may be improved by the ample provision of sophisticated, prepacked foods and the avoidance of drudgery . . . there is also a social price to be paid. The emotional impact of a row of vending machines from which the diverse articles can only be obtained by the introduction of the appropriate coin must be different from that received in the course of a family meal . . . Within an industrial society such as our own, the powerful and persuasive influence of economics—the subject in which human desires are provided with a single index number, their price—is particularly apparent when we come to consider manufactured foods.

Baked beans anyone?

Gwynn Thomas

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