the secret life of foodpaths (my ars electronica presentation)

I spent last weekend in Linz, Austria at the invitation of the charming and thoughtful David Sasaki to be part of the Cloud Intelligence Symposium on Saturday in the Ars Electronica 2009 Festival.

In my next post, I’ll detail my Austrian adventures with this great group of digital activists and, of course, the food. For now, below is the video of my talk (also here), the slides, and a rough transcript.

You should definitely read through and watch the other presentations, particularly David‘s and Ethan Zuckerman‘s (Thank you to Ethan for also blogging my talk.) As I tweeted from the festival (all tweets on the symposium are tagged #arscloud), I was humbled to be part of this group and found presenting incredibly fun.

The Secret Life of Foodpaths

(this a rough transcript of what I said and a few things I wish I’d said)

I was out to dinner the other night with some friends from MIT, and they said “Kristen, why food?” And I responded that I think food has a lot to do with cloud intelligence. I always think of Clay Shirky and Kevin Kelly‘s work where they talk about how the internet runs on love. And that’s very different from lust, which is what we think of sometimes when we think about food representation online.

I am also a food pornographer—please don’t tell my mother that I just told you that.

What I want to talk about today is how we make online food back into real objects. If we have the internet running on love, and we have food lust happening online, and I really want to talk about the social future of food (for more food eye candy, check out tastespotting.com, the food porn aggregator that has attracted many copycat sites).

So we’re going to step away from food fetishism to talk about cooperative [food] communities. Stephen [Downes] talked this morning about moving away from collaboration and into cooperative communities. If you think about food coops, we’ve been talking about cooperative activity and food this way for a long time.

In the NYT a few weeks ago, Renato Sardo, an urban homesteader, was trying to explain the importance of food, and I’ll point you to the end, where he says, “food is the thing you do most.”

We’re not going to talk about politics today, though there is a lot of food politics and some food politics communities online (Civil Eats is a great one); we’re going to talk about politics in this way, instead: Yes We Can Food. What I’m really interested in is the how the products are often quite mobile, but the processing is local [and DIY food processing reclaims the word for food communities, another interesting topic for another time]. That’s what’s on the stamp—be it technology or food, we tend to read labels for where something is from, to have a sense of its place.

While not talking about government, we are going to talk about a government building. This is the official government building of Wellington, New Zealand: the Beehive, which has a great url, http://www.beehive.govt.nz/; I want to talk about honey today, and how honey can be a model for online activity.

This is another beautiful image, also of a beehive, but this beehive has CCD, Colony Collapse Disorder. It’s beautiful and tragic, because if you’ve been following the ‘Save the Honeybees’ movement, you know that the honeybees are in quite a bit of trouble. We use honeybees to pollinate many of our crops; this is a global problem. The honeybees become like a traveling circus, and the same set of bees will be taken around a country, used to pollinate different things, and they become very weak and they die. This image is of a hive that’s been abandoned.

We see similar patterns in online activity; many of us belong to many online communities and as we distribute our attention, there often isn’t cooperative action as an outcome [of our participation]. The real promise of cloud intelligence may be the possibility of cooperative action. We don’t want to become like the [weakened] bee.

Two current buzzwords in food are relevant to our discussion–the first is “single origin”, and single origin honey comes from one specific place. When you buy honey, it says on the label what type of honey it is, like tupelo, wildflower, clover, avocado, which indicates what the bees ate, mostly. What you may not know about honey is that it is most healthful [note: this is unproven, but there is much compelling evidence indicating the benefits increase the more local the honey] if you consume honey produced closest to where you live. Although honey from around the world is wonderful, it won’t give you as many benefits as the honey produced on your block, on your street, in your town.

I live in Brooklyn, New York, where it is illegal to keep bees. There is an aboveground movement and people are keeping bees on rooftops. I have a rooftop. It’s sort of an open secret. Everyone is very into knowing exactly where the product, honey, has come from.

The other term I want to talk about is “source-verified” food. I think it indicates our deep level of distrust of labels, and it sounds very scary, almost governmental. This isn’t on genetically-modified food, this is on slow food, the kind of artisanally-produced food that we think of as the highest caliber of craftsmanship or craftswomanship. We need to focus on what we eat as well as where what we eat is from, on a more granular, local [geospecific] level. We have an alienation from production, and I think that’s one of the reasons for the DIY excitement in online food communities.

I found this image last week; the idea of mapping and elevation, and then pie and cake. We’re familiar with layers in a cake, but this made me think about Cory Doctorow’s article in the Guardian last week about cloud computing and using Amazon as a way to archive data in terms of the layers of data that we have.

Many of us have been online for some time now, and we have generated a lot of material that is out in various places online. If we start to think about this data as sedimentary layers, it will help us start to generate data that can have cooperative actions associated with it. This is my pie-in-the-sky question: how do we want to backfill the sky [the cloud]? What really is worth archiving? If the data never has actions or adds up to anything, where are we going?

Cloud intelligence may be your aggregated actions in context of coordinated, cooperative activities.

I don’t want to take this too far lest it become trendy; some of you may remember tall food from a few years ago. Chefs were creating dishes that were sometimes so tall that you could not see the person you were dining across from. The kitchen would cook ingredients that were then stacked in ring molds that were removed and the top garnish was added, heightening the drama as the dish is sent out. This gives little indication of what the food ingredients actually look like, as everything has been forced into this cylindrical container, this parameter [much like proprietary software, but that's another topic entirely].

To return to the ideas of movement, mobility, and maps as Ethan [Zuckerman] spoke about this morning, this is a map from Fallen Fruit.org of a neighborhood in Los Angeles with the different kinds of fruit trees. You can discover the fruit on a given street that, without the map, you might not see. The fruit becomes the treasure.

Thinking about fruit tree maps along with guerilla gardening and the fact that if [in the U.S.] food is planted on public property, the bounty is yours for the taking. That is, of course, if you are mobile; in contrast, the food itself can be mobile.

In New York right now, we have a food truck movement (this is also happening in a big way in Portland, Oregon); about a dozen or so popular, high-end food trucks. This is the French food truck, Le Gamin, and this is their lamb burger with strawberry ketchup, that I think is worth seeking out (told you I was a food pornographer).

The way to find these trucks is through Twitter. And when the food trucks tweet, they sometimes ask for help with parking, so this is your way to be a fan and to take an action (another very popular group of trucks on Twitter is in Los Angeles, the Kogi Korean BBQ trucks on Twitter here). The trucks also tweet at each other, creating a supportive community of mobile food vendors, and they often park near each other, raising the visibility of mobile food in a given area [that can, rather swiftly, relocate if necessary].

I had schnitzel the other day, this image is from the @schnitzeltruck–I was prepping for Linz, for Austria. The Schnitzel Truck shows up near where I work on Fridays, and we have the Dumpling truck come on Mondays, and the Cravings truck came on a Wednesday (they do Taiwanese fried chicken with secret pork sauce).

I was walking around the same area on a weekend with a friend who said, “You know, it’s such a shame. I used to work around here and there’s really not that many places to go for lunch.”

And I looked around, and the streets were sort of empty, and I though “hmm.” When I look at the same street, I know that the Schnitzel Truck usually parks on this corner. And the Dumpling Truck parks over there. Oh, and there’s an ice cream stand that sets up between these two buildings.

In the social future of food, we are the cooperative mapmakers.

Thank you.

I collect interesting examples of food, currency, and shelter experiments on culturemodding.com.

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