Organic, Inc

Organic, Inc is a good companion to The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Where Michael Pollan deplores and bemoans the corporatization of organic food, Samuel Fromartz investigates it, tracking the rise of Whole Foods, Earthbound (the salad mix people), White Wave (the commercialization of soy milk). Fromartz is a business journalist by trade, and he does a good job of tracking the “Rolling Stone” narrative where the counterculture becomes mainstream. He also astutely perceives the increasing segmentation of the market between supermarket organic, and local CSA/farmers market which can exist alongside.
The book takes on a bittersweet, world-weary attitude about commercial success, in telling the story of the mega-lettuce growers who put their small counterparts out of business, and the visionary soy entrepeneur who stole an idea from a former business partner, and was himself ousted by his corporate acquirers. Sure they are selling out, but compromise is part of the price of going mainstream. This attitude, ironically, buys into the mythos of the organic counterculture, where a set of values are tightly woven together: local, small, humane, unprocessed, authentic, and deviations from the norm are seen as selling out.
I am skeptical of romantic purism, and much more concerned with sustainability. What kind of food system is needed to feed the population without environmental disaster, especially after the cheap oil is gone. So I would rather see the strands teased apart and tested — which aspects are inherently required for sustainable agriculture, and which aspects can scale up sustainably.

  • Fromartz observes that big organic dairies start looking like CAFOs because they can only grow so big before it’s impractical to walk the cows out to pasture. If so, why not just divvy up and have more than one barn, spread out according to walking distance for cows?
  • The book is ambivalent about the rise of organic processed foods — more of a market is created for organic ingredients, but we’re back with a diet of TV dinners and twinkies. But traditional food customs also include some extreme processing — cheese, sausage, pickles, kimchee, and other complicated preserved foods. The badness of pop-tarts and chicken mcnuggets isn’t just that they are processed, but how they are processed.
  • The “heritage” food movement in the US includes many foods that were introduced to the continent by Europeans — they would be considered “invasive species” if they were brought in last year and not 200 years ago.

Recent studies show that organic farming can feed the world. If so, what social and economic structures are needed to make that happen? That’s the evolving story I’d like to see covered. It’s possible that the answer is homesteads where we bake our own bread, brew our own beer, and beat our laundry on rocks again, but I doubt it. Civilizations tend to move by evolving, not by simply turning back the clock.
In his blog, Fromartz shows less of need for “on the one hand/on the other hand” neutrality, and is more of an investigative activist. The lack of false balance is better journalism.

The YouTube debate as mass media

On KQED Forum on Friday, David Weinberger noted that the YouTube debate, drew more from the conventions of mass media than the web. The questions came from citizens, but the candidates answered in soundbite format, with minimal follow-up, and the answers were subjected to talking-head punditry. The YouTube debate was a fine news hook for discussion of web politics. Meanwhile, the interesting action, it seems to me, is in local/regional politics.
Firedoglake has a weekly series where progressive candidates talk to the community, and donations are solicited via ActBlue. Recent studies have shown that MoveOn’s get out the vote efforts actually got out the vote; the next step is peer GOTV. Once the Netroots help candiates get elected, the next step is accountability. On Calitics, bloggers are calling out Jerry McNerney, who was elected with tremendous netroots support, for voting against medical marijuana. The legacy of the Dean campaign, it seems to me, is less about bloggers covering presidential campaigns and more about activists building the 50 state grass roots base.

Met at Wiki Wednesday

Jon Udell notes that Facebook’s choices for how you met someone don’t include “through the web.” There’s no way to list someone you met through online community. The other major gap for me is “through a conference or event.” One of the main ways I use services like Facebook or LinkedIn is to remember people that I met at a conference, event, or community group that is less formal than an “organization”.
Frankly, I’m not even sure how useful the overall categories are. It’s handy to know that you met someone at DesignCamp or SuperHappyDevHouse — is it really useful to have an entire grouping for people you met at “unconferences.” And then what about UsualSuspects — people that you see in a variety of contexts around a network? I think I’d rather just free tag “how we met”, and not limit the tags to one per person, and have a lookahead feature to consolidate the tags.

An SNS caste system?

danah boyd has written an interesting and controversial essay documenting an observation she has made in recent months that there seems to be a socioeconomic/cultural division between young people using MySpace and Facebook. Privileged kids are gravitating to Facebook; lower-income and otherwise marginalized kids are staying on MySpace. There are a lot of very serious concerns about increasing inequality and decreased social mobility in the US. And if I was looking for domains to worry about it, Facebook and MySpace would be somewhere near dead last.
Like other folks who have commented on danah’s essay, I would be watching out for change. The demographics of Facebook changed rapidly when they opened it up. The population is likely to change further with new applications. Maybe developers will add apps to Facebook that have more media and decoration features, so kids who want music and more pictures will be able to have those things on Facebook. Without more research, it’s hard to say how much of the relative preferences have to do with overall visual style, vs. features, vs. preferential attachment. Not to mention, sns’s are the subject of fashion, like physical clubs. What is considered “cool” will change in different social groups, too.
I don’t see an increased concern about the creation of an SNS-based caste system. People group themselves, that is nothing new. A person will go where their friends and perceived peers are. We’re talking about MySpace vs. Facebook, so digital divide access issues are factored out. Free social network services have much less built-in stratification than: selective colleges; the ability to pay for higher education or private education; racial profiling in shopping areas and on the street; clothing; transportation; neighborhood safety… any number of factors in the real world that differentiate strongly by income inequality, and are much higher, more persistent, more tightly closed barriers than social groupings on Myspace or Facebook.
One of the reasons that the article was controversial was that danah wrote about her anecdotal observations before going and getting quantitative data. I think it’s fine to blog prepublished, unfinished and informal things. I would very much look forward to danah’s cut of the analysis based on data. Once source might be the Pew data set which has socioeconomic information. The Pew study doesn’t have the psychographic categories that danah is talking about, but they do have household income, education level of parents, race and ethnicity, and age, and might be a place to seek to validate some of the hypothesis.

Delamination and the antitrust

David Weinberg has a fine manifesto up on Delamination, the idea that in order to have a free and competitive internet, we need to split access from services. Which is good right and true, and darn hard to do with the government as wholly owned subsidiary of the oligopoly. A good number of the intractable problems in US society come from way too much market power. The problem with Net Neutrality is like the problem with the Farm Bill — a handful of companies own the market and buy the law, and it’s pain in the rear to buy back. Delamination on its own is like saving the whales, a good but atomized idea that’s not big enough to sustain. We need to rebuild the trust-busting ideal of the good old Progressives.

Advertising your way out of a problem

Michael Arrington over at TechCrunch criticizes the Google blogger’s use of Sicko to pitch ads for the healthcare industry. Why is this a bad idea? In his post, Arrington says it’s because the topic is controversial, “Millions of Americans have a serious problem with the way health care is handled in this country, and such a polarized topic is hardly one in which a company like Google wants to take a stand. And if they did take a stand, it would be with Moore.” In a comment further down in the thread, he goes further, alleging that the move is unwise because it will “step on certain toes” in the Bay Area. Arrington’s implication is that as a company gets bigger, its bloggers need to refrain from controversy and toe the line with respect to politically correct conventional wisdom.
Ross Mayfield is closer on with his critique of the blogger’s statement that Google advertising is a “democratic” way of spreading the word about the good side of your industry. Advertising isn’t democratic, first of all because it costs money, and second because advertising messages are one way and don’t allow readers to talk back.
Building on Ross’ point, what’s worst about Lauren Turner’s post — from Google’s perspective — isn’t that it expresses an opinion about a controversial topic (the health care industry really isn’t that bad), or that it overestimates the democracy of online advertising. It’s that advertising is presented as the way out of a PR dilemma that caused at least in part by real problems.
The classic lesson of contemporary PR — from the Exxon Valdez to the Tylenol poisoning to John Mackey of Whole Foods taking on Michael Pollan’s critique of “industrial organic” — is that when there’s bad press that has some merit, you should honestly take on the critics, and acknowledge the problems, and make changes. You can’t just whitewash your way out of a scandal.
Given the number of uninsured people in the US, the statistics about infant mortality and lifespan and healthcare cost, there’s clearly a problem. that is not going to be fixed by pictures of smiling grandmas and cute babies. You can agree with Michael Moore’s solution, or like his filmmaking style, or neither. (Disclosure: I haven’t seen the movie because Moore’s style often bugs me, but I probably agree with his conclusion). Regardless, the US healthcare system has problems and it can’t just advertise its way out.
As a provider of advertising services, Google is ill-advised to market their services as a way to escape a well-deserved bad reputation.

Against Biomimicry

The thesis of Cats Paws and Catapults is an argument against naive biomimicry. There is a fashionable and romantic belief that natural design is “better” than manmade technology, and human technologists should therefore borrow designs from nature.
The clearest counterarguments Steven Vogel brings are about locomotion by air and water. The attempt to use birds as a model for human flight set inventors off in the wrong direction. Birds are smaller than people, and so the characteristics of their flight technology is different. Larger entities need to go faster to stay aloft. Propellers and jets are superior to flapping wings for heavy humans; lighter birds don’t need the speed. Similarly, marine creatures are smaller than ships. Waves pose a significant barrier for smaller, lighter swimmers, so most marine locomotion happens beneath the surface of the water. Characteristics change yet again at smaller sizes; some insects like water striders are just the right size to take advantage of surface tension.
“Cat’s Paws” compares and contrasts human technology with natural technology in a range of domains: structure, shape, materials, locomotion, using lots of examples from the worlds of biology and artifact. Vogel explains the physical principles, benefits and tradeoffs for the different design approaches, using words to describe the basic math. The material would be even more fun and memorable with animated calculators that showed the changing properties of flight, structural support, and so on, allowing participants to see the impact of changing values. I wonder if this simulation exists somewhere.
The argument is made with a light hand, and the bulk of the book consists of delightful comparisons and contrasts between very different ways of solving design problems. When it comes to biomimicry, Vogel argues the most effective examples involve borrowing some aspects of a natural design, such as a dolphin’s streamlined shape inspiring aerodynamic vehicles, a beetle’s jaws inspiring chainsaw teeth, and the adhesive characteristics of burr inspiring velcro. The models are adapted from nature to the specific design problem and materials needed for the human requirement.
The critique of naive biomimicry focuses largely on the operating characteristics of the technologies: how they solve the presenting design problems of structure and motion. In doing so, Vogel misses a few key points about how and why human designers might want to emulate nature.
Vogel explains that human technology is able to leverage much higher temperatures and temperature ranges than natural technologies. The book, published in 1997, takes for granted the enormous amounts of seemingly cheap fossil fuel energy that allows humans to run our blast furnaces and jet engines. Sample throwaway quote: “One must remember that, their image makers notwithstanding, utility companies are in the business to sell, not save power.” (California fixed this in 1982, when the state Public Utilities Commission came up with the decoupling idea that would allow utility profits to grow while sales declined.)
Another topic that the book doesn’t address at all is waste. Human production processes have tended to create vast quantities of frequently harmful waste; smog, nonbiodegradable plastics, heavy metals in rivers, fertilizer-created dead zones in oceans. Natural processes tend to consume byproducts instead of creating waste, perhaps because they evolved at slower scale in the context of ecosystems, and perhaps because of accidents of chemistry. Birds digest fruit pulp and excrete the seeds that grow another plant. Animals at the end of their life become food for vultures, larvae, and bacteria.
To date, human industrial technologies have been hugely wasteful of energy and materials. Our culture needs more sustainable processes, not because it sounds romantic but because the current solutions won’t last. Vogel’s insight that natural models are best adapted, not borrowed, can be seen in industrial parks that use the byproducts of one manufacturing process as the feedstocks for another, and the use of microbes to detoxify industrial waste.
There are other areas where science and technology have gone beyond the information available to Vogel when he wrote the book a decade ago. Human artifacts are assembled or processed, while natural artifacts are grown. The growth process consists of an development process that creates the organism, and the ongoing chemical processes that sustain the organism; both sets of processes governed by genetic programs. Human products are often assembled at the macroscopic level, while biological products are assembled at the molecular and cellular levels. It would be interesting now, and probably even more interesting ten or twenty years from now, to read a version of the book taking into account insights and progress in the areas of gene-driven development and nanotechnology.