Food Cybernetics

In “African Influences in Cybernetics” (1995) Ron Eglash describes cybernetic theory as two dimensions of communication systems:

  1. The information structure 
  2. The physical representation of that information

In relation to my ecology–the greenmarket at Union Square–I began to think conceptually about food  as the information structure and their packaging, distribution, and sale to the masses as representations of that information. My thoughts are that ‘food information’ and ‘food representation’ are definitely different things. I do acknowledge post-harvest changes such as fruit waxing* and food distribution pollution as well as changes that even start before foods’ growth like GMOs. However, here I’m asserting that all ‘food representation’, regardless of how local or organic, is different from ‘food information’ or food on the farm.

There is a large gap between farm and table in the United States, both conceptually and literally. I completely forgot the way pineapple grew (in a really odd-looking bush) until I saw a photo on Reddit last week. In fact, I still don’t even know where it grows (somewhere warm?). At NYU’s community agriculture club, members were talking about vegetables I had never even heard of– vegetables that I can’t remember (or pronounce) now. 


click image for source 

This gap occurs in part because the system is so massive in size. Our food is grown and distributed on a large scale, for a large profit, in a large country, with a large population. Of course it also exists on a personal, perceptive level because of my own experiences. The New Jersey suburb I grew up in was converted away from farmland long before I was born, and I’m not exactly closing the gap now with in my  lower Manhattan NYU digs.  

‘Food representation’ is done in both digital and analog forms. In Eglash’s words:

  1. “Digital representation requires a code table (the dictionary, Morse code, the genetic code, etc.) based on physically arbitrary symbols (text, numbers, flag colors, etc.)”
  2. “Analog representation is based on proportionality between physical changes in a signal and changes in the information it represents (e.g., waveforms, images, vocal intonation). 

My everyday understanding of digital and analog leads me to equate “digital” with the cold machine that sorts, trucks and distributes packaged food while I equate “analog” with an open green pasture where ‘natural’ food abounds. I’m fighting these traditional connotations because it’s dangerously romantic in a way that Eglash warns against. He rejects so-called “radicals of the cybernetics community” that claimed “erroneous[ly]” that analog systems “were more concrete, more ‘real’ or ‘natural,’ and therefore (according to this romantic cybernetics) ethically superior”.

My main personal concern with food information and food representation is the literal and conceptual gap between them. However I think both analog and digital representation will both play a role in minimizing it. 



*Fruit waxing is the practice of coating fruits in wax for appearance and longer shelf life


~ by katdom on October 16, 2013.

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