Design Fiction Chronicles: The Stability of Food Futures

Three ways observed recently to delivery food, in some sort of service stack hierarchy. Which got me thinking about food futures, generally. First, a sample of present food service and presentation protocols as depicted above.

First, catered in a way that provides the opportunity to pick and choose based on inspecting the available items.

Next, inspecting the descriptions of available items on a paper menu, that also conveniently serves two additional functions — as a place mat to sop up drinks spills and food that does not quite make it to the mouth (a distinct possibility when consuming noodle-y things with a fork). Second, it also serves as a marking pad with a number of unique attributes: to indicate when an ordering process has begun (the pink star) and when the meal is closed out and the check has been requested (the blue star); to indicate what is not available currently (item number written on the menu-mat and drawn when a “buster” mark — a circle with a line through it) which appears under my plate for item number 43 which, sadly, was what I wanted to eat; the menu-mat is also where one’s ordered items are written down in (to me) a barely legible set of chicken-scratches (upper right.)

Third, traditional, serif’d menu in a sit-down configuration, heavily serviced by waitstaff in a semi-formal, banquet setting. You wait for what has been determined to be your meal ahead of time. Interestingly, the young woman sitting next to me had to do a bit of dinner order off-roading, convincing the waitstaff to bring her the vegetarian plate. When you try and steer a pre-determined “on-the-rails” dinner service a bit off the tracks, things start grinding gears. This was possible to see in this context where the wiring had to be re-routed in various ways to accommodate this unexpected but relatively minor alteration to plans. (To those of you who have asked, the haggis was quite good, perhaps the formality of the context added something to an experience I genuinely feared. I thought quite seriously of deploying Mike Lewinsky’s powerful “Kosher Defense” which he painstakingly taught me after his experiences in China with the Rabbit Head appetizer. — I don’t think Mike’s China meal was in anyway a metaphor, btw.)

Ice cream from a street vendor amongst a small cluster of other vendors in a mini chocolate tasting/purchasing festival along the South Bank in London.

The dearth of street food in all of the cities I was in during that 12 days in the UK and Finland almost defines the Urban Scout’s conceptual boundary between countries in various parts of the world. There was street food during the day’s perambulation along the South Bank of a particularly pre-configured, organized and licensed sort. Despite that, the opportunity for Ice Cream in London in early April meant something. Besides these, the closest to genuine on-the-street food stalls was rather organized and festival-like. Which is fine. I mean — generally, I take the cautious Urban Scout approach to food consumption which is a minimum of experimentation, and smell but don’t ingest street-made street food.

A crowd of sweets taunting from behind a case at the delicious Indian restaurant called Tayyabs. Food taunting protocols. Display varieties in such a way as to evoke primal triggers for food consumption — like salivating and eye-widening. My restraint algorithm was employed to modest effect.

Thinking about food, and the future, and the future of food got me wondering about rather narrow future food imaginaries. It seems that there is basically food, also, in the future. Space foods of some sort or rudimentary staples. I collected a few science-fiction food future scenes from film that popped into my head right away. These are instances of rather stable food futures, consistent with today in a way that says, basically, food stays the same.

Zero-gravity space food as imagined in the late 1960s, right around the time that NASA in the United States was trying to figure out how astronauts would eat in their weightless journeys to the moon and back. Consistent with the rigor of his production design, Kubrick considered similar constraints on food and eating on long journeys, such as in his epic 2001: A Space Odyssey. Seen here are colored food products, delivered via straw to mitigate hunks floating off into the ship’s environment and gumming up the works. This is perhaps the most future-y food I could recollect in my own science fiction film library.

The future of the street vendor / outdoor noodle and sushi bar. Steamy, crowded, jostling, limited availability of specialty things, as seen in Blade Runner by Ridley Scott and P.K. Dick.


At the noodle and sushi bar in Blade Runner by Ridley Scott and P.K. Dick.

Ridley Scott’s production design and extrapolation of Los Angeles downtown (?) into the future fiction of the film has been praised for the way it captured something that was visually articulate — it is an evocative projection into a legible future world. Spoken language mash-ups, bustling crowds, density and thickness of all sorts — weather, advertising, etc. It’s worth a quick look of this food futures scene, which only serves as a prop to turn the drama a bit toward Deckard. The production design here, though, captures an imaginable setting and atmosphere.

Blade Runner by Ridley Scott and P.K. Dick. (Blade Runner Noodle Bar — Food Futures).

Eating in the future, family style. Some grains and salads. From Alien by Ridley Scott.

A future instance of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer or something. Enjoying a cigarette. Quite consistent food futures. From Alien by Ridley Scott.

Box, sweetened, kid’s breakfast cereal. Suitable for snacking without milk by pouring directly into the mouth. Very familiar food and eating practice, projected into the year 2050. From Minority Report by Steven Spielberg and P.K. Dick.

An advert from the year 2050, where there is still Guiness, thank goodness. From Minority Report by Steven Spielberg and P.K. Dick.

There are some future food imaginaries where we find quite stable futures. We still eat in the future, it seems. I left out the future imaginaries like Soylent Green where “we” (people) get eaten or are alien food. That’s for another consideration.

Why do I blog this? Curious interfaces between people and their food and meals observed while out and about as an Urban Scout. I t is interesting to think about the stability of food, despite the high-end explorations with various delivery mechanisms like aerated food products and other delivery protocols and fancy concoctions.

Distinctive future imaginaries for food are few and far between, best as I can tell just thinking about it. Food is delivered. Space food becomes the same food as today, only constrained by the limits of things like preparation, weight and, bleech..consistency. Food becomes, in the future imaginary, quite instrumental in its consideration of necessary intake and so forth. It seems strange to me that there are not more design fictions that shape design practices that are directly concerned with what food might become. Maybe it’ll be closer to athletic food gels, formulated by food scientists. Bio-chemical genetic foods and the like, taken to their logical and insane conclusion.

4 thoughts on “Design Fiction Chronicles: The Stability of Food Futures”

  1. Awesome topic, I think I read an interesting paper about this in the last few months, see “from speculative meals to design” by Jean P. Retzinger as it interestingly addresses how science fiction highlight dream and anxieties of the present, as particularly shown by the depiction of food.

  2. Nice post, Julian. Longtime listener, firs-time caller. We met briefly at an IFTF conference last fall.

    It’s an interesting contradiction: imaginations of future foods are incredibly consistent over time, and yet actual foodstuffs, tastes, dietary patterns and production method–not to mention the workings of the global food system–have undergone extraordinary transformations over the last hundred years.

    Warren Belasco’s Meals to Come: A History of the Future of Food does a great job of contextualizing that stability of specific form and experience of foods in the larger battle for the future-imagination of food systems: will the world run out of food, and if not, how will we produce enough? Through back-to the land idyllic cultivation? Through modernist mass production? Through “recombinant” ingenuity? He ranges from Malthus and Godwin to utopian and dystopian fictions to current events. His examination of the recurring trope of the meal-in-a-pill is extremely entertaining. I highly recommend it.

    My favorite example along the lines you cite above comes from the first episode of Firefly: the dangerous bootleg cargo, crates of wrapped brown bricks with every molecule stamped with a government id, is revealed to be super-dense foodstuff. Meanwhile Reverend Book gains passage on the ship with payment of a box of strawberries and the ingredients for a meal of “real food,” grown in his monestary’s garden. For me that encapsulates the tension between nostalgia/collective memory and contextually specific necessity that are constantly being distinguished and recombined in almost any discussion of food and foodways.

    1. Hey, that’s fantastic! Thanks for the reference to the book. I was trying to find a way to swerve this really idle curiosity about how food is served into a “design fiction” perspective, and now I find this wonderful sounding book about the future of food..remarkable.Thanks so much Miriam..

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