Soylent: Rob Rhinehart Interview

A dialogue with Rob Rhinehart, CEO of Soylent. 2013

TVA - I expect we hold similar positions on many questions. Questions concerning:

1) The detriment of nostalgia and romanticism in governing food distribution and consumption. We may refer to these as Organicism, Localism.
2) The tyranny of food-as-experience. The false hope of the eating-experience that, at the expense of nutritional validity and distributional/productive efficiency, modulates the ways food is delivered, produced and consumed.

These will be touched on later perhaps.

Soylent is, in many respects, a superior food. It is nutritionally more complete than its similar costing equivalents in processed real food (to use the term for arguments sake), locally sourced (or GYO) or the many degrees of consumer options in-between. Soylent is also posited as, in quantifiable respects, a superior food with regards to energy, distribution, cost etc. For this reason, I feel you're right in positioning Soylent in relation to the global food crisis. On smaller scales I feel it is an excellent short term aid solution for natural disaster crises. However, food is arguably about much more than ticking the boxes of nutritional requirements. Convivial mastication, familial/peer bonding and a little down-time (either alone or in company) are important parts of eating (generally for mammals) - lets call these food rewards. Many companies understand this, and middle to upper level cognitive workers are afforded food rewards - of course in the hope that they will become more productive. Reaping the benefits of food reward is formatted into food and not into food/fitness supplements. Soylent is a complete nutrition substitute but an incomplete food substitute in this respect. Do you feel Soylent has any responsibility for the food rewards that may be inadvertently jettisoned by a busy Soylent user replacing 'food' with merely nutrition? Should nutritional completeness usurp psychological and social requirements?

RR - I believe the individual should have control over his or her life, freedom to the maximum extent that does not interfere with the freedoms of others. On the colony level, behavior that helps the colony will be selected and optimized for over the long term. People should have the ability to choose the degree of stimulation and work required to fulfill their biological requirements. Life is a funny thing, because it happens to require survival.

Anything that increases social capital should be optimized for, not against. Giving up social eating would be absurd, but I don't think many people are going to miss Burger King in 20 years. The market will correct for it just fine, and the future will be better than the past.

TVA - Your first distinction between individual and colony is intriguing because it hints at a mutual exclusivity. I would emphasise that peoples freedom (biological, intellectual, political etc) is impacted by "colony" format. As we have both commented on already, people and their environment are impacted by the absurdly wasteful food and distribution belief system the current "colony" maintains. The obesity epidemic is a symptom of this. Soylent distribution could play into this dynamic in a dualistic fashion. On the one hand a complete nutrition will become more accessible, cheap and convenient than ever, for individual freedom this is great, but such options will feed into the selection and optimisation mechanisms of capitalism (as heteronormativity is selected, high activity is selected, social skill selection, education selection). Here I want to ask a question that is not at all Soylents responsibility but one it is inevitably linked too. The individual benefits of Soylent may lead straight to individual choices that bolster the entrenchment of the current capitalist model. It is precisely at this point that I feel that trusting that "behavior that helps the colony will be selected and optimized for" is too optimistic. Rather I feel that conformity and stagnation is much more likely than colony wide benefit. Akin to the big 80's IT business hope of giving people more time and freedom but instead transpiring into a control network of 24/7 work. I can envisage Soylent use being taken up for individual freedom initially only to aid long term capitalist colony wide control in the end. Do you have any opinions on this?

RR - I think soylent would be beneficial on both the individual and colony level. That is the beauty of improved efficiency. I do not agree that we are in a control network of 24/7 work. In fact, things are far better than they were in the 80's. Having less time and freedom comes from the individual's decision to live wastefully. If one decides to live simply today you could easily retire at 40. I spend less than $1k / month on myself. Were I working a 9-5 as a computer programmer and wanted to stay single I could retire in my 30's. Capitalism does not control the economy, people do. People buy and support what they perceive as valuable. I see no conformity, in fact I see less than I would like to. People try to express their individuality through every last product. I grow weary of marketing. I do not need my smartphone to express my personality, I just want to make phone calls.

TVA - I think here we disagree on the dynamics of individual and collective agency in regard to capitalism. One comment interests me here, that is the question of individuality. The rise of the 'individual' is, to put it bluntly, essentially a secular, capitalist phenomena. We only have ourselves to worship and we do so via consuming. "Believing" in a certain lifestyle, choosing certain values are very much wrapped up in food experience. Soylent does, at present hold an appeal to individualism (simply because it is not as ubiquitous as Pepsi but a quite small, in-the-know product). Essentially, Soylent is blessed at present because it appeals to individualism, knowledge and logic. If your distribution expands and the product becomes commonly available do you feel that logic and knowledge will prevail over a individualism?

RR - I disagree. Worship of the self and service of the community are not entirely exclusive. I think service of the individual and the group are not at odds. It's economics. The prudent actor finds ways to benefit himself as well as others. There are ways to work together wherein more value is created than the sum of the individuals acting separately. Soylent partially appeals to the 'quantified self' market, the champions of individualism and self-knowledge. I feel the idea of transparency and understanding will expand and believe that Soylent is the most rational food choice for many situations and people will see it as such.

I think it is fantastic that our species has gotten to the point that our physiological mechanisms for judging the safety and health of food are now almost exploited to provide a experience focused entirely on pleasure. Take the C. Elegans worm, that has a single biochemical taste receptor to guide it toward consuming the ions it needs for survival. Now people are afraid of high sodium diets. Many other biological necessities have been optimized. We sleep in beds, with central heating, and pipe water directly to our homes. Yet we still enjoy camping, fires, and beer. The same will happen with food. Anything that legitimately makes it easier to be healthy will catch on inevitably. The people will want soylent. However, this is not oppositional to the sharing and social aspects of eating. I think a basic pleasure like red meat consumption will be relegated to moderation and its stimulation replaced by more complex, healthier pursuits. I think many physical pleasures (save sex perhaps) will give way to mental pleasures. It's all in the mind anyways. I don't think eating alone will be a popular leisure activity for many people in the future.

TVA - I agree with you regarding physiological survival mechanisms. We are burdened with a survivalist format that was coded for harsh environments of food scarcity. Like wearing crampons in The Hilton. Likewise, I can imagine archaic modes of nourishment (like eating red meat) being relegated to quaintly social occasions - cutlery and meats, along with rotary dials and vintage cars will be saved for ceremonial affairs like weddings. I would also agree that Soylent health benefits are not, potentially, exclusive from social interaction (but the current model of personal distribution leans towards isolated nourishment I feel). Have you considered concepts like Soylent Hubs? Or Soylent Moloko Bars in urban areas? Whereby distribution would be limited (and more efficient) plus social interaction would be maintained in unison with a public-only supply format.

RR - I have thought about a place that serves Soylent. In fact, I would like soylent served anywhere you can get a coffee. However, the efficiency of the experience does not lend itself well to social interaction. I would like a place that has something else to offer, like a nice view or an activity, and only Soylent is served, the idea being 'look at all the fun things you can do when you don't have to worry about eating'

TVA - I imagine libraries, motorway lay-bys etc would be great locations. Following from individualism, but also in relation to distribution and capitalism - would you ever want Soylent to be state distributed - for efficiency, access, colony wide nutritional efficacy etc but also to leave individualising products for capitalism?

RR - Yes I want it everywhere, private, public, I want it marked up for busy professionals who value their time and subsidized for the malnourished. I want more of a commodity than a product. In fact I would be okay with other entities producing us and competing with us on distribution.

TVA - Have you considered, either for a consumer choice perspective or to make a product that allows people to live better, different strains of Soylent? For example a thermogenic, high caffeine form for mornings? Or different formulations for physical activities or sedentary periods? Likewise, I imagine many Soylent users are using the product because they want optimised nutrition so that they can focus on other things - I can envisage a proximity to nootropics and supplements. Can you envisage Soylent branching and diversifying in this respect?

RR - Yes eventually we'd like something customized down to the individual basis. Every body is different. In addition, I think in the future we could choose flavors of the mind for the day.

TVA - Soylent is made from many ingredients that require manufacturing. Have you directly compared the environmental (carbon footprint, waste) and human impact (labour) of your product to more traditional food production modes - localism etc? What are your views on such a comparision?

RR - That it will be a primary focus of measurement and optimization, but currently our supply chain is in a bit of flux

TVA - These are essentially questions of nutritional agency, control and dependency. I'd like to hear your views on 'hacking Soylent'. How do feel about people spending time, energy and resources in a small scale and inefficient manner to create their own food substitute? Do you feel this negates the benefits Soylent proposes or encourages a liberating agency that points towards an alternative consumption regime (philosophy/network)?

RR- Not at all. It seems people are having fun with it while learning a lot about nutrition and biology, perhaps even getting healthier as a result. It's a win-win.

Soylent satisfies me on a philosophical level. I enjoy the simplicity, the purity, and the precision. I don't like having things I don't need. Also it's nice to be able to detach myself from a constant influx of over-stimulating addictive foods, not to mention the quiet violence of the food and agriculture industries. I feel quite liberated from a large burden, and have taken an important step towards a life of simplicity and minimalism.

Aerial Photographs from Mishka Henner's 'Feedlots' Series.