April 10, 2016
There’s something serious to be said about robots and their persistent intrusion into the food world. But saying it requires a bit of set up, so don’t expect anything too serious in this week’s blog. We got off on robots years ago when any blogger was going to be beset by dozens of computer programs—bots, they call them—written to scan the Internet looking for an opening. Bloggers in their intense insecurity are always hoping for some meager sign that their activities are being noticed, so most of us use platforms that encourage readers to leave comments. But that comment box is what the bots recognize as an opening, an invitation of sorts to inject a bit of code. At least that’s how I imagine the bots thinking, when I imagine them as thinking at all.
When you see the “robots” tag on a Thornapple Blog, 9 out of 10 times those are the robot demons I’m complaining about. They encourage you to download their software to boost your blog’s visibility, and they pimp all manner of consumer products. They entice you to “Accept” the comment with bogus questions or over-generalized praise. They are less of a problem than they used to be, and I presume that’s because WordPress has unleashed its own fleet of robots to combat them. And then there are the WordPress robots that let you write a blog in advance and then schedule it to post at some designated time in the future. That’s what I did last week when I was down in Arizona and working of a Sunday. These are often some of my least inspired blogs, but my penchant for regularity overrides the blogger ethic of spontaneity (and sometimes good taste). So although I think of the WordPress robots as my friends, I’m not altogether sure that they are good for me.
But there are angelic robots in the food world, not the least of which are the ones that make the hundreds if not thousands of food related blogs possible in the first place. One might be tempted to say that there would not even be a food world without them. That’s not quite right, though. I think all human beings have inhabited a food world. We do tend to eat, don’t you know. And because of that we carry around an implicit sense of how to do that. I’m confident that the food world of many of my undergraduate students is severely impoverished. Food has always just been “at hand” for them, whether that meant being hailed for dinnertime by the parent-in-charge or being able to amble into a dining hall or drive-through whenever the moment struck them. Getting interested in local food is often an early step toward building out one’s food world, as is watching Iron Chef or Guy Fieri on the Food Network.
But neither of my regular readers will be surprised to learn that this is not what I sat down to write about this Sunday (no robot posts on April 10, mind you). No, the angelic robots I was thinking about this morning are the armada of apps that service our dining needs. I should start out by saying that I’m pretty oblivious to this aspect of modernity. I don’t have an app on my phone that helps me figure out how to prepare celeriac or that computes the nutritional value of items in my shopping cart. If I want to know what guanciale is I have to Google it: I don’t have a specialized app on my i-phone that helps me probe the obscure details that distinguish salami and bologna from bresaola and mortadella. It’s embarrassing, but as a foodie, I am pretty low grade.
I do use Open Table and Yelp!, however. And frankly, because I am such a low-grade foodie, it’s Yelp! mostly. Of course Yelp! is not even exclusively food oriented. Until just recently I was the “duke” of Williams Volkswagen just because of the work I had done there back in December. (It seems that like the Energy Bar, no one checks in at Williams Volkswagen.) I think it’s great that these feisty little robot angels are out there enriching our food world by giving total strangers a way to vent their emotions about the service they got at some random Applebee’s in Poughkeepsie way back in August of 2013. I want to know about that. Or how they don’t really care much for the General Tso’s Chicken at some Chinese joint in Murphysboro because it isn’t authentic enough for them. I want to know about that, too. My food world is infinitely richer for it.
Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University