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Our Hyperpalatable Future

We’ve recently learned that one-third of the world’s population is overweight or obese. The concept of obesity is a little bit arbitrary and not nearly as ominous as people make it sound, but one data point we probably could take away from this is that people in industrialized nations are consuming more calories than they generally consumed in the past. And we’re consuming more calories in part because the high-calorie processed food tastes so darn good that we want to consume it. American pediatric nutritionist David A. Kessler has coined a word for this: hyperpalatability. The high-tech food appeals to us so much that healthier, low-tech food can’t compete, and since the object is always to make food taste better instead of worse, unhealthy food is not going to get any less delicious over time.

Can technology make other things hyperpalatable? And what happens if it does?

Pornography is already much more powerful than most people think. In the 1990s, feminist scholars coined the term “pornification” to refer to the growing influence pornography has had on how many people, and men especially, view gender and sexuality. There should also be a word—and probably is—to refer to the growing influence Photoshop is having over our cultural standards of physical attraction. And meanwhile, virtual reality is on the verge of taking off. When these trends converge, we’ll have a large number of men who are attracted to faces and bodies that nobody actually has, who have a pornified understanding of sex, and who can satisfy these expectations only through a visually convincing virtual reality experience. What kind of effect will this kind of hyperpalatable porn have on our culture?

Or we can look at recreational drug use. Earlier this week, the European Drug Report informed us that illegal drugs in Europe are on the whole both more compact and more potent than they have ever been in the past, a trend that generally carries over worldwide. As conventional psychopharmacology becomes more and more sophisticated, recreational psychopharmacology is taking off. Addiction to recreational drugs already destroys an untold number of lives. What will happen when these drugs become more hyperpalatable?

This general tendency towards hyperpalatability carries over into every area of our lives and, while it is not altogether bad, it can present dangers to us.

Technology gives us what we want and, as Aldous Huxley explained in Brave New World, what we want can destroy us as easily as it saves us. I tend to be an optimist about the future, but we are entering a century where focus and restraint are going to be rarer and more powerful things. We’d be well served to develop them now. It may be harder to develop them later.