Michael Pollan likes to talk about food. In fact, he’s written six books on the subject. Some of his highly reviewed books include Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food, and Food Rules. Amazingly, Netflix caught on to Pollan’s popularity and turned his latest book — Cooked — into a series.
Cooked is about the transformation from raw to cooked foods. This simple difference is what Pollan thinks distinguishes man from the rest of the animal kingdom. He’s got a point: we love our cooked food. The flavors ignite. Further, when we cook food we chew less and do more than eat all day.
In the first episode of the Netflix series, Pollan explains how hunting, farming, and scavenging have all been outsourced. We’ve simplified the process of eating on every level. Corporate giants have vertically integrated food prep and delivery with surprising efficiency. From frozen meals to prepackaged sandwiches, everything has been prepared for us. For example, the turkey has been raised, fed, slaughtered, plucked, deboned, frozen, thawed, sliced, seasoned, and placed. We don’t see the life and death — we’ve outsourced everything.
The reasons for the decline in food production and cooking are multifaceted. It seems work and productivity have motivated us to pursue this path. Imagine the busy lawyer or medical doctor having a catered lunch because they are “too busy” to prepare and eat. We accept this in society — hell, we encourage it. We accept there’s a certain class of people who cannot “afford” to spend the time making food. And we accept that people should specialize until they merely focus on their vocational tasks.
As the episode unfolded, my appreciation of food outsourcing shifted more globally. I thought about what else gets outsourced. Our society has taken almost everything off of our plates so that we can focus more time on other activities. We continue to specialize well beyond food.
The decline of manufacturing in America can largely be seen as an effort to reduce costs, time, and environmental burden on the countries that now produce. We’ve outsourced the “negatives” and taken the cost savings. Comically, we criticize China for using so many coal-fired power plants and then click buy on our new computer, coffee maker, smartphone, etc. — all made in China.
We’ve outsourced reading longer books and research to journalists and even computer algorithms. Now, people read books for us and distill what we need to know — what’s most important. Consequently, this means we get a synthesized perspective of a book. It’s like playing the telephone game through articles, but most of the time we read that review to understand the book.
Even budgeting and financial management are thrown to others. We use Mint.com or other financial software to manage and update us about spending. There’s no need to balance a checkbook anymore — I’m not sure if I’d even know how. We trust financial advisers and/or digital facsimiles to manage everything for us. We’ve got better, more important things to focus on!
More and more, we watch sports and reality TV shows instead of playing outside and engaging in our own relationships. The drama of a royal, elite families and others’ lives encapsulates our attention, as those nearest us seem to wane. Many watch the throw, shot, or pass, but I’m not sure how many are making that throw, shot, or pass themselves anymore.
Even in academic circles, professors and graduate students are using other people to do their statistical analysis. Academics can even outsource their statistical analysis to India for further review and completion. Afterwards, with a nice, clean result in hand, researchers can write up the interpretations — or pay another person to do that part.
And as I type these words, they’re being stored in a cloud server for safekeeping, backup, and preparation for publication on my website. Both the cloud and website servers are miles and miles away from me. I’ll never see the computers, nor would I need to. I’ve outsourced these storage needs — someone else is handling them for me.
Again, I settle on this simple conclusion: we’ve embraced the streamlining of our lives for the purpose of efficiency. But what is this efficiency for? Is it so that we can focus on work more? Is it so that we can make more money? Is it so we can relax more?
Absent of answers, I wonder where we’ll be in a few decades. When asked questions about our personality and identities and hobbies, will we reply that we enjoy watching and reading others’ accounts of life? Will we effectively outsource our identities to the TV shows, movies, and reviews of reviews?