Technology, as futurists like George Orwell and Arthur Clarke have been predicting for decades, will be the battleground on which the fight against corporatism is played out.
The United States has become a corporate republic, with the takeover of cyberspace one of that republic's primary goals. Corporate domination of the real world no longer seems possible unless companies like Microsoft and AOL/Time-Warner bring the virtual one under control. From sweetheart regulatory legislation for media companies and telcoms to the Children's Internet Protection Act to Carnivore and the DMCA, they're working on it. Small entrepeneurs are falling like flies, just as little diners, family eateries, and small farms and meatpackers have fallen before McDonald's and Burger King.
In fact, technology and fast food, profoundly intertwined, serve as useful metaphors for the unintended consequences that accompany scientific advances.
Fast food is, in many ways, the story of contemporary America -- its work and health, its homogenization. Fast food is central to urban and suburban sprawl and to the rise of malls as retailing forces. Fast food has created a generation of new, mostly lousy jobs, cemented the divisions between rich and poor, triggered an epidemic of obesity, and sparked resentment of America's so-called cultural imperialism abroad. It's the stepchild of post-war progress in farming, slaughtering and packing, refrigeration and transportation.
For a preview of the unintended ways in which technology shapes the new world -- ways nobody wants to think or talk much about -- the fast food industry is a good (and sobering) case study. Fast food practices are already shaping tech industries, too, from computing to software to bio-tech.
A case study is exactly what Eric Schlosser provides in his new book Fast Food Nation. In the 1970s, he reminds us, political activists were already warning about the McDonaldization of America in much the same way that hackers, programmers and open source advocates are sounding the alarm about the Microsoft-ing of the Net. Those activists sensed that the emerging fast food business threatened independent companies and presaged a food economy dominated by giant corporations.
Beyond that, fast food franchises obliterated a sense of geographical and cultural differences among different regions of the United States. The appeal of fast food -- that people would know just what to expect no matter where they bought their Whoppers or Taco Bell burritos -- was also one of its most devastating consequences.
And there were plenty of others. The industry was one of the first to use technology -- especially advances in genetics -- to set the ground rules for the corporate republic, whose media, culture and economy are increasingly dominated by McDonaldesque notions about uniformity, scale and work. The fast food biz re-conceived the high-tech, manual-labor factory; it has always relied on poorly-paid workers doing regimented, robot-like work.
It has, naturally, attracted a disproportionate number of immigrant, poor and minority workers who have little real chance of advancement, and whose work is so rote and mechanized they have no need for high wages, further training or the opportunities to acquire meaningful new skills. This corporatized industry has, with the help of an equally corporatized media, portrayed itself as a great boon to the underclass, hiring people nobody else would employ.
The fast food industry also perfected, even nationalized, the notion of false courtesy -- those forced mumbled greetings and thanks delivered with all of the sincerity of a telemarketer -- that echoes to this day throughout the tech support and customer service universe.
The burger, pizza and burrito chains' vast purchasing power, writes Schlosser, and their demand for an uncompromisingly uniform product, have triggered fundamental changes in farming and how cattle are raised, slaughtered and processed into burgers. These changes have made meatpacking -- once a highly skilled, well-paid trade -- into the most dangerous job in the U.S., performed by legions of poor, transient immigrants whose rapidly rising rate of injuries attract little publicity or government attention. The same meat industry practices, reports Schlosser, have facilitated the introduction of deadly pathogens, such as E. col 0157:H7, into America's hamburgers, one of the foods most aggressively marketed to kids.
Schlosser describes how the "natural flavor" of most fast foods -- what consumers crave when they order their burgers and fries -- are liquids manufactured in flavor companies along the New Jersey Turnpike and in the Rust Belt.
The American "flavor industry" now has annual revenues of about $1.4 billion, reports Schlosser. Until the l950s, flavor additives were used mainly in baked goods, candies and sodas. But the invention of gas chromatographs and mass spectrometers -- technologies that could detect volatile gases at low levels -- radically increased the number of flavors that could be synthesized. Within a decade, the American flavor industry was creating the taste of products from Hamburger Helper to Pop Tarts.
The evolution of the fast food industry shows us not only how powerful and ill-considered technology is as a force in American life, but offers some chilling previews of where the Net, the Web, the computing industry and tech culture may be headed. The lessons of fast food have been learned all too well, and deployed enthusiastically in the so-called new global economy (computer chips are also made in far-away factories. These jobs pay more than average wages in some countries, but are still lousy jobs generally making pennies. Assembly and packaging jobs pay even less.)
Like the people who established burger chains, the Net's founders arose from a ferociously individualistic culture, advances in technology generally provided by diverse and idiosyncratic subcultures from hackers and geeks to researchers and entrepeneurs.
But an industry launched by iconoclasts with bad haircuts in garages and basements has become a global one based on rooting out individual creativity and promoting uniformity.
The Net is already being overwhelmed by mass-marketed sex, entertainment and retailing entities. And the tech industry is already notorious for creating thousands of low-paying, unrewarding dead-end jobs. It's promoting American notions of culture all over the world -- just wait until the ethos that brought you natural flavor and McDonald's gets hold of AI research and the Human Genome project and starts marketing perfect, sweet-tempered babies to an unsuspecting world.
Mary Shelley's Frankenstein warned about the unthinking application of technology all the way back in 1803. Technology made the fast food industry possible, and without any real national discussion and consideration, retailing, health, work and the ability of individuals to operate farms or small businesses was altered for good. As Eric Schlosser thoughtfully points out in his book, there was nothing pre-ordained about the corporatization of food and culture.
From the airline industry to computer companies, American corporations have always worked to survive under the Darwinian laws of the marketplace by eliminating or absorbing their rivals -- the heart of the Microsoft strategy, in fact.
Some tend to see this corporatization as something apart from civics or public policy, but it isn't. These companies ought to be accountable -- taxpayers helped create them. Some of the strongest growth areas of the American economy -- the computer, software, aerospace and satellite industries -- have been inspired by or subsidized by the federal government. The Net, the heart of the so-called new economy, began of course as the ARPANET, the military communications network funded by Congress in the late l970s.
Free markets are good for economies, and in many cases, for the people who work in them. They can promote creativity, innovation, prosperity, choice and individualism, more than other political and economic systems. But there has to be a balance between the prosperity of the market and the morality of the market -- a balance already tilting off center in almost the entire range of tech industries, and on the Net and Web.
The relentless corporatization of retailing, farming, publishing and entertainment, to name only a few, have swung the balance much too far, at least in the United States. Corporations are now the primary contributors to the American election system. They fund the overwhelming majority of lobbyists who prey on Washington. They block regulation that would promote competition, offer the public more choices in areas like Internet access, and fend off governmental and other supervision. They promote conformity and uniformity. Since corporations have acquired virtually all of the popular media, they are rarely criticized or challenged.
Writes Schlosser: "An economic system promising freedom has too often become a means of denying it, and the narrow dictates of the market gain precedence over more important democratic values."
This ought to sound familiar. This same economic system -- promising security, morality, freedom, protection for artists and the owners of intellectual property -- is using technology to transform the Net with the same zeal that hamburger chains used to decimate family restaurants. The story of fast food is turning out to be our story too.