Man, machines, and what they need to eat

Published November 14, 2021, 9:15 AM

by Pao Vergara

Utopia, dystopia, and everything in between

FUTURE FOOD Lieutenant Riley having a ‘futuristic’ meal from the film Star Trek

[Warning: Dune, Wall-E, and Star Trek spoilers ahead.]

For as long as we have organic bodies, we’ll always have to eat to provide energy that our cells need.

But as people have become more sophisticated and as civilization has evolved, we don’t just eat to keep our bodies running, but we eat for enjoyment, for pleasure, too.

Eating has become not just a need, but a want.

Now, civilization seems to be heading toward a point where bodies can be transplanted through technology. Suddenly, the stuff of sci-fi seems more science fact than science fiction.

Advances in medical science allow us to keep sperm and eggs for future use, save lives with artificial organs, all as prosthetic limbs become more complex, allowing for a range of movement close to that of real limbs and, finally, some predict that one day we may even cheat death by uploading our consciousness into computers.

Technology also already mediates other aspects of our culture, all as a digital record exists of every flight we’ve been on, each time we’ve visited the doctor, and perhaps, starting around 2010, every bank transaction we’ve made.

Close up of Lieutenant Riley’s Star Trek meal

This also applies to other “organic” practices of humanity, like agriculture. It may not be obvious when viewing the Philippine setting, but agriculture worldwide is largely industry and tech-heavy. Rather than teams of farmers toiling away on fields, a lot of farms in the global north use what can be described as robots, enabling a single farmer to do work that once took many hands.

Far from being fish out of water when technology was new and unfamiliar, we are now fish out of water, without tech.

Is this it? A lot of tech optimists like to bandy the phrase “the future is now.” Are we becoming cyborgs? Are we already cyborgs without knowing it?

‘Here, having less time to worry about what to eat has given humanity time to pursue other things, like space exploration.’

And if that’s the case, what will eating be like if humans become organic-technological hybrids?
Will we become like the (literally) cosmopolitan society in Star Trek? Where replicators (those microwave-like boxes that create food on the spot based on molecular configurations, think of a ’60s vision of 3D printers, but with more uses) have basically eradicated poverty and food shortages?

Here, having less time to worry about what to eat has given humanity time to pursue other things, like space exploration and diplomacy with other species from other galaxies.

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Or will we become like the overfed but underactive humans in Wall-E, where it’s revealed that the underbelly of being in a perpetual luxury cruise in the sky, where robots serve one’s every need (from walking to waking up, even) is an overly-polluted, unlivable earth down below? Unlivable because there’s so much trash and plastic everywhere?
It’s a utopia hiding a dystopia. Well, everyone being morbidly obese in the movie should’ve been a dead giveaway.

And now, we have another vision, which is neither too optimistic nor too pessimistic, but somewhere a tad more realistic, maybe even a bit too uncomfortably realistic. Enter the third screen adaptation of Dune, the classic sci-fi book that launched the genre into the mainstream in the 20th century.

As a side note, when I finally read the original novel, I realized how much of the stories I enjoyed, from Japanese animation to Game of Thrones draw heavily from the saga of humans building a galaxy-wide empire around space travel mediated by a spice, which gives humans extra-sensory powers.

Initially, humans seem to have evolved, not having the need for computers and such, working with the notion that technology doesn’t replace human functions but enhances it. Everyone’s pretty lithe, buff, or ripped, and people are generally smarter with faster mental processes. In the world of Dune, technology is surprisingly low tech. Yes, there are space ships, but people fight with swords instead of lasers. Who needs a Mac when your own brain is faster and has better graphics?

But behind this seeming pinnacle of human evolution lies persistent human shadows like politicking, war, and drug addiction. The latter especially is what the Dune universe revolves around, because that very spice, which enables space travel is essentially a drug that kills people who withdraw from it! Finally, the harvesting of spice also destroys the ecosystems of the planets it’s harvested from.

A FUTURE IN LETHARGY From left: What happens as a result of overdependence on robots. Scene from the film Wall-E

Some might say the vision of Star Trek is too optimistic, that a society will never be able to fully eradicate hunger, poverty, and war in order to travel in space.

But think about it. A replicator probably takes tons of energy to produce food at molecular level. Hell, replicators probably can be abused by bad actors.

The engines needed to power a ship through lightyears can probably be used to generate destructive energy more powerful than the world’s current nuclear warhead arsenal.

It seems that the more technology evolves, the more destructive it becomes by sheer energy expenditure alone. The more technology evolves, the bigger the responsibility of the humans using it. It takes a highly ethically evolved society to not use their energy at their disposal to destroy themselves.

Think about it: A civilization can go two ways once it unlocks energy that’s powerful enough for space travel. They can either destroy themselves or evolve past their faults in order to wield it responsibly. They would have evolved to such a point that they no longer see the need for conquest or exploitation, seeing that having everyone (literally) onboard is best for everyone.

And that perhaps is the premise of Star Trek and, by extension, Dune and Wall-E: A reminder to us that it’s ultimately up to us what the future will look like, if we take the time—and energy—to think about how we use energy.