In his new book, Peter Nowak explains how our basic appetites go hand in hand with our greatest achievements.
In Paradise Lost, Milton set out to “justifie the wayes of God to men.” After all, it’s not easy living in a fallen world, mired in suffering and haunted by death. In his poem, Milton meditates on questions of free will, trying to understand the predicament in which humans find themselves and wondering what role our own minds might play in helping us escape.
Contemporary bestseller lists are not much concerned with the wayes of God, but there is a subgenre of contemporary non-fiction that seems intent on justifying the ways of Man to men. A number of recent works have set out to demonstrate that behind apparently troubling facts of contemporary life lie human traits that have, on the whole, done us much more good than harm. This place isn’t perfect, but it might just be the best of all possible worlds.
In Everything Bad Is Good for You, for instance, Steven Johnson defends our supposedly dumbed-down popular culture, arguing that, by feeding our hunger for entertainment in increasingly sophisticated ways, TV and video games are actually making us smarter. That kid sitting in front of a gaming console for eight hours a day is not gradually becoming a sociopath with udon legs; he is absorbing cognitive nourishment.
Meanwhile, works of popular sociobiology remind us that most of the tendencies we try to tame in ourselves (greed, lust, aggression) have fueled our evolutionary triumph. It is soothing to be told that our foibles not only make perfect sense, but are firmly affixed to an arc of human development.
Peter Nowak approaches some of this territory in his book Sex, Bombs and Burgers: How War, Porn, and Fast Food Created Technology As We Know It. Nowak argues that the industries associated with military combat, fast food, and pornography have been invaluable drivers of technological innovation, especially in America during the last seventy years. In other words, our most basic animal appetites (for food, sex, and dominance) and our loftiest intellectual achievements form a double helix that is the DNA of industrial progress.
Nowak traces handy household devices back to the bowels of the American military-industrial complex. He explains that many of the processing techniques that underpin the global food system emerged as entrepreneurs innovated to meet the demands of two mega-customers: McDonald’s and the U.S. military. He shows how the pornography industry (a feverish early adopter) has nudged forward various entertainment and communications technologies, either to enhance the pleasure or safeguard the privacy of its customers.
Sex, Bombs and Burgers is strongest when it discusses technology related to sex, mainly because it is here that Nowak dwells most on the intersections of social and technological change. One example: the technology for Polaroid cameras grew out of Second World War military optical equipment and subsequently spread through the consumer marketplace in large part because so many people wanted to make their own sexy snapshots. Prior to the release of the Land Camera (a.k.a. Polaroid) in 1948, a photographer who tried to have a titillating roll of film processed by the local druggist risked arrest. The appeal of the Polaroid was not so much instant processing as private processing – no smirking technician required. By 1965, this application of the device was so widely accepted that Polaroid released a camera model called “The Swinger.” (Photo booths also attracted the DIY nudie pic crowd; topless shots taken in these booths are the ancestors of the sext.)
Nowak, the senior science and technology editor for CBC News Online, is adept at describing devices like the mass spectrometer in breezy terms, which works well. When it comes to the moral dimensions of technological change, however, the discussion sometimes feels a little too breezy. The book is framed in ethical terms (the concluding chapter is titled “The Benevolence of Vice”), yet it tends to address ethical questions only glancingly, focusing instead on tracing curious genealogies of invention. Nowak points out the connections between nukes and cancer treatments, but ultimately shrugs that “technology is neutral – it’s what we do with it that matters.”
It certainly is our choices that matter, and this brings us back to Milton and the judicious exercise of our will. The breakthroughs Nowak describes remind us that, often, it is neither vice nor necessity but money – from both governments and consumers – that spurs and spreads innovation.
There is nothing inherent in military labs that make them especially generative; they have received dizzying amounts of funding over the last several decades, and they have produced. It is a matter of luck that certain life-saving medical technologies have been among the byproducts of combat-oriented research. Food manufacturers have figured out how to meet our caloric needs cheaply, and how to push our sensory and neurochemical buttons in the process. Partly thanks to the seductions of these wizards’ products, the current generation of American kids is the first that is not expected to live longer than their parents. Pornographers make billions selling sexual images (and now robots) that are remarkable mainly in their homogeneity. One need not be prudish to wonder whether “teledildonics” are the ideal response to anyone’s sexual yearning.
People have achieved astonishing things over the past century. But whatever story we tell ourselves about our inventions, we are still the uncertain creatures Milton describes departing the garden, “hand in hand with wandring steps and slow,” alone with our instincts and our choices. The subtext of Nowak’s love-it-or-leave-it account of our progress is that to desire more virtuous engines of technological innovation would be tantamount to desiring a more virtuous society. And what would be wrong with that?
Listen to an interview with Peter Nowak here.