Rob Rinehart's blogpost "How I Stopped Eating Food" this February led to a wave of media excitement picking up on his invention of a drink mixture called "Soylent" he'd created in hopes of being able to forgo food entirely. His initial experiment seemed both sensational and strangely awkward, presented with the stiff enthusiasm of a home shopping network testimonial. "I haven't a bite of food in 30 days, and it's changed my life."
After the first wave of amazed news stories picked up on Rinehart's work, everywhere from Vice to The Economist, skeptical countertheorists emerged, including a lengthy post in The Verge forums suspecting the whole thing was a viral plant from an advertising agency. After three months of experimentation however, Rinehart's efforts appear to be genuine, with a launched a Crowdhoster project (after being rejected by Kickstarter) that quickly raised more than $400,000. After three months of self-experimentation, with a diet primarily based on Soylent, Rinehart made samples available to Forbes writer Caleb Melby, who claimed to be a convert after a week on the liquid diet.
Rinehart's writing feels evangelical in its own clipped and hyper-empirical way. Many of his fundamental arguments are persuasive: food waste is a bigger problem than starvation, our least healthy cravings can be traced to an incompatibility with our cubicle-dwelling lifestyles and the 200,000 year-old physiological machinery that's carried our species to this point. And yet, there is a discomforting insistence that the solution to these incompatibilities should be to start drinking a liquid solution, rather than to, say, rethink the abstraction of office-driven economies and the massive waste their surplus wealth often encourages. It seems these social structures will only be empowered if subsistence on a liquid food is made possible. We will feel marginally better about ourselves while avoiding the larger conflict of whether our present social conditions are trading virtue for tolerable efficiency.
"Reductionism is not romantic, but everything can be improved once seen as the sum of its parts," Rinehart wrote after the third month of his experiment. "If we can make transistors that are cheap, fast, and low power, surely we can make food that is tastier, cheaper, and more nutritious than anything that exists naturally. In the past food was about survival. Now we can try to create something ideal."
Like its namesake, Rinehart's grand scheme is both utopian and sublimely horrific, clearing space for new and unforeseen problems that will replace the old. His story goes to the heart of the drama of technology itself: whether our life's work should be to invent new material solutions to our problems, or to use those problems as markers for how to better moderate our behavior toward one another and our environment. Should we change the world or ourselves? It's an irresolvable dichotomy, and Soylent captures both ends of the rhetorical spectrum. —Michael Thomsen, Complex (@mike_thomsen)