The Obesity Epidemic, Part II

This post received such a strong response when I published it on Evolving Excellence that I'm republishing it here.

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On my too-frequent flights to New York recently, I started reading Michael Pollan's book, The Omnivore's Dilemma. It's a trip up and down the food chain from a naturalist's perspective, and one of his first stops is an examination of corn.

Government policies over the years have led to overproduction of this crop, from 4 billion bushels in 1970 to 10 billion bushels today. At the same time, because supply exceeds demand and prices are so low, federal government payments to farmers -- for corn alone -- comes to slightly more than $4 billion.

There are plenty of lean lessons here, from the folly of "push" production (even in food) to government muda. But what's really interesting is Pollan's view of the result of this overproduction:

Another way to look at this 10-billion-bushel pile of commodity corn -- a naturalist's way of looking at it -- is that industrial agriculture has introduced a vast new stock of biomass to the environment, creating what amounts to an imbalance -- a kind of vacuum in reverse. Ecology teaches that whenever an excess of organic matter arises anywhere in nature, creatures large and small inevitably step forward to consume it, sometimes creating whole new food chains in the process. In this case the creatures feasting on the surplus biomass are both metaphorical and real: There are the agribusiness corporations, foreign markets, and whole new industries (such as ethanol), and then there are the food scientists, livestock, and human eaters, as well as the usual array of microorganisms (such as E. coli O157:H7).

What's involved in absorbing all this excess biomass goes a long way toward explaining several seemingly unconnected phenomena, from the rise of factory farms and the industrialization of our food, to the epidemic of obesity and prevalence of food poisoning in America. . . .

As I read this, I thought about people's struggle to keep up with their work. Knowledge workers are being crushed by the weight of the email and data they have to manage. As I pointed out in an earlier post, the increase in data storage at Chevron is growing by 60% a year, resulting in employees losing from one-and-a-half to three days per month simply looking for (!) information. And there's the recent story in the Washington Post about the venture capitalist who declared "email bankruptcy" because he couldn't keep up with his email.

You can point fingers in many directions in trying to identify the causes of this tidal wave of (often useless) information. And certainly, our own poor work habits (many of which I've written about before) often exacerbate the difficulty of staying on top of it all.

But I wonder if Michael Pollan hasn't hit upon the real root cause of the problem. Perhaps the supply of cheap computing power and storage capacity has also created an imbalance in nature. As a result, we've spawned new creatures to feast on the surplus "electronic biomass" -- stupid and irrelevant emails, forwarded jokes, multiple copies of "FY2007budgetfinalfinalv5.doc," etc. Something has to consume those available bytes.

I read somewhere that the computer on board the Apollo 11 Lunar Excursion Module had a whopping 32KB of RAM. Imagine: NASA landed people on the moon and brought them back with 32KB. Presumably they didn't have Tetris installed, either -- they didn't have a kilobyte to spare in their work. Now we have 32MB Palm PDAs, 8GB iPhones, 80GB computer hard drives, and a lot of it (most of it?) is filled with garbage. It's the electronic equivalent of the obesity epidemic.

But is the information obesity coming from us through poor work habits or more complex jobs, or is it simply an inescapable natural law like entropy or F=ma? Are we doomed to ever-greater demands on our time from email, text messages, and the like? Or can we fight the explosion of electronic garbage by going back to older technologies like the telephone or (gasp!) face-to-face conversations?

I'll be thinking about this over my next Supersized Big Mac and fries.