Show blog for Too Fat for Our Pants on Radio One, 91 FM, Dunedin, New Zealand. Airs Mondays 10 am - 12 pm.

If all economists were laid end to end, they would not reach a conclusion.
~ George Bernard Shaw

Monday, 13 February 2012

Critique of "Sex, Bombs and Burgers" by Peter Nowak

This is a response to a book called Sex, Bombs, and Burgers: How Porn, War, and Fast Food Created Technology As We Know It by a Canadian journalist named Peter Nowak.  I discussed the book and interviewed Nowak on the weekly radio broadcast of Too Fat For Our Pants on Radio One, 91FM, which you can listen to here.  Because of the constraints of radio interviews, and because it is so much easier to address questions when you can write and think and take your time, I have invited Mr. Nowak to respond to the critique on this blog, if he so wishes.

The book is concerned with technological developments which have occurred since WWII, a fairly standard point of departure for discussions of the contemporary world, since so many of the institutions that shape the way world government and trade and finance are organized today were formed in the aftermath of WWII – the World Bank, the IMF, the rise of the US as a superpower, etc.  It’s also significant because the war itself was a driver of the inventions of a whole host of new technologies that have since been adapted and adopted by other industries for other purposes, the majority of which revolve around commercial consumption.  That is to say: technology developed for and by the military during WWII to serve that purpose have been reappropriated as consumer goods.  It’s true that the vast majority of new technology, at least since WWII, has come from the military, and I think we all understand why fairly intuitively: research and development takes a great deal of money, and the military has most of the money – in a capitalist system the more money a sector has the more successful it’s going to be, which, in a capitalist system, means the more money it’s going to make.  And as Dr. Robert H. Frank pointed out two weeks ago, arms races have been occurring in evolution since life began; the military budget is really just an extension of evolutionary arms races. Wars have been won – not every war, I’m sure, but that’s not really my area – but as long as there have been wars, the technology with which they have been fought has always been a factor in the winning or losing. If you’ve got a sword and the other guys have muskets, well. 
As Mr. Nowak is a reporter, this book is mostly a series of stories about the development of modern technology and role played in that development by the industries of pornography, the military, and fast food, and as far as the recounting of the history of some technological development goes, it does fine.  I think the simple documentation of the trajectory of the technology that so shapes our contemporary existence is an important process, and creates a platform for more rigorous discussion.  But it’s also completely uncritical and in being uncritical, reveals some serious oversights and misunderstandings on the part of the author, and he espouses some troubling ideas.  In fact, his two fundamental premises are pretty problematic, and that's what I want to discuss here. They are: 1) that technology is value-neutral, and that the use of it is good or bad; and 2) that the industries of porn, war, and fast food are directly related to and driven by basic animal instincts for eating and procreating.  

First premise first: technology is not inherently good or bad, it is how we use it that matters.  This is an argument that gets thrown around all the time, from all kinds of quarters, including some very smart people I really respect, like Noam Chomsky; Peter Nowak points to some compelling examples, like the "terrible duality" of military machinery (radar both saved Allied lives and enabled the bomb drops on Hiroshima and Nagasaki).  It kind of seems like a no-brainer, but I don’t think it is; at least not completely. I do think that some technology can and has been used for both positive and negative contributions to society and the world, but I don’t think that the use is the only place where influence is felt.  Tools of any kind may be used in a variety of ways, certainly, but not an infinite number of ways - you can use a hammer to build a house, or to murder your neighbour, and which you choose is in the wielding of the tool and not the tool itself, but that overlooks the fact that both of those uses involve hitting something.  A hammer is made to hit things, and so the realm of use of that tool is pretty well defined by what it was designed to do (I guess it could pry things, also).  Furthermore, technology does not spring up from nowhere, as the book illustrates, and so claiming value-neutrality ignores the fact that the prejudices, preconceptions, and privileges of the developer will impact the type and design of the technology itself (and I don’t think it’s belabouring the point to remind you that the people designing these technologies are overwhelmingly white, male, and middle class - so when Nowak says, as he did in the interview, that the world is better than it has ever been, he probably wasn't lying.  His world, as a white middle class male, is undoubtedly better than it has ever been.  But if he were a subsistence farmer in India, he would likely think otherwise.  And that, my friends, is privilege.).  Those factors conflate to influence a worldview, and that worldview influences the direction of innovation.  I’m skeptical about the possibility of value-neutrality in the first place, as nothing exists free of context, and context influences not just the intrinsic value of an idea or product, but also the perception of how valuable it is, and for whom. 

This extends to the subject matter of this book as well as to the construction of the book itself.  As a reporter, Peter Nowak is, no doubt, trying to be neutral.  But there are facts which are recorded, and facts which are not recorded, and the worldview of the author lies in situating the facts which are presented in the context of all the possible facts.  So when he presents us with the fact of the European Union opposing GMO foods, or the facts of what the Green Revolution promised to do, without the facts of the critiques of those promises, and the facts of where those two sets of facts diverge, then that reveals a worldview which supports the technology of the Green Revolution, even if it is not explicitly stated. And no, I don't believe that quoting an inflammatory remark from Prince Charles and pointing at Greenpeace was a genuine attempt to acknowledge the criticisms of the biotech industry, and the fact that during the interview Nowak stated outright his belief that biotech is the only way to feed the world.

As for his second premise, and the main thesis of the book, that the underlying driver of the industries’ adoption and innovation of technology is a means to satiate what Nowak calls the “shameful trinity”: food, fighting, and sex.  I’m sure there's a whole conversation to be had about the Puritan origins of the idea that our basic animal instincts are at odds with our godly natures as humans, and all the oppressiveness that grew up out of that, but perhaps here is not the place. What is certain is that Nowak, and many other people, is guilty of the false logic of the biological imperative.   

So that deserves some clarification: I don’t mean that sex, or fighting, or eating are not directly related to human instincts.  Of course they are, because at the most basic evolutionary level our overriding imperative is to reproduce, and reproduction means you have to fight to eat enough to stay alive long enough to have sex, or you have to eat enough to be strong enough to fight to have sex.  And this simple fact is so often extrapolated wildly as a defense of the pornography and military industries in particular, a way to assert that they are somehow “natural” and therefore “right”.  It's the same school of thought that leads people to say asinine things like "men are from Mars, women are from Venus" - I'm exaggerating Nowak's use of it, but he most definitely does use it, and it's a type of essentialism that is used to validate discrimination on the basis of nature. This is such a red herring: there is a difference between the fact of sex and the industry of pornography.  One is a biological imperative, the other is a social construction which is shaped by cultural taboos, the economic environment, international trade laws, business regulation, and on and on and on.  The growth of the fast food industry and the form it takes is not the same thing as the need to eat.  Yes, people need to eat, but they would do so without fast food.  Yes, people need to have sex, but they would do so without internet porn. So I’m immediately and deeply skeptical of anything which seeks to justify social constructs as biological imperatives, because it can be and has been a very dark and dangerous road.  And particularly when we’re talking about industries which are economically and socially oppressive, it becomes very easy to dismiss that oppression as inevitable.  To ignore the damages in a book which posits the industries of porn, war, and fast food as natural extensions of human instinct – that’s oppression apologism.  Saying that the pornography industry is natural and inevitable because the human drive to have sex is natural and inevitable, without addressing the differences between the act and the industry, is essentially saying that the oppression caused by the industry is natural and inevitable too. 

Or at least, that's what it would be, were there not also numerous cheeky asides such as "the porn industry, like it's performers, must be flexible", or the paragraph about how porn work is not always glamourous, no no, sometimes there are long hours and late nights and lots of travel and sleeping in hotel rooms by yourself.  I don't even know where to start on this.  Long hours and lonely hotel rooms are not the hazards of porn work. Rape, abuse, drug addiction, post-traumatic stress, slavery, injury, poverty, and death are the hazards of porn work.  For Nowak to not acknowledge these aspects of the industry - while glamourizing the individual woman he spoke to, who even says "the girls don't make money, now I'm one of the few women making money"! - is worse than accepting that oppression as inevitable, it's denying that it exists at all (but if it did exist, well, it would be inevitable and natural, because sex exists). I've written about the porn industry here, and the food industry here, and there are lots of other places to find mountains of information.

Now, I understand that a book cannot cover everything, and that's fine. It would have been far too much to cover all possible social outcomes of the technology he describes, I get that. But the problem here is the divide between the existence of industry and the conflation of industrial motives with biological ones, and by erasing that divide and presenting them as the same thing, Nowak has essentially posited all the not-mentioned outcomes and knock-on effects of those industries as biological as well.  And that is a big, dangerous, oppressive problem.


  1. Aren't you overthinking and overcritiquing his arguably objective analysis? Isn't there a ying/yang principle to the premise that good springs from bad? By limiting the latter, do we limit the former? China achieved a period of peace in 200 BC, withdrew inwards and stagnated. The west caught up and surpassed it on all fronts. Do you realize that without war I would definitely not be reading your post and commenting on it?

    1. "Do you realize that without war I would definitely not be reading your post and commenting on it?"

      Ah, well, then it was all worth it!