pirate wires #88 // great gas stove debate of 2023, collapse of american futura (the jetsons basically), bad art is terrorism no offense, and advice for tech bros: you need to be culturemaxxing
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Cooking with fire. At the top of the month, as if with a gunshot start to 2023, America was blessed with an almost perfectly idiotic controversy when a previously unknown government bureaucrat declared his desire to ban gas stoves. From classism and elitism to “expert” deception, the bureaucrat’s interview struck every necessary chord to polarize the previously benign topic of your kitchen along standard tribal lines, and ignite a fierce national debate on the question of how you should fry your morning eggs. But the foodcel knife fight was different from the standard culture war story in one significant way: while both sides of the debate pitched arguments on behalf of their chosen tool’s superior cooking ability, support for gas stoves came mostly from regions where people don’t use them, and support for induction came mostly from regions committed to gas. In other words, given revealed preferences in opposition to stated opinions, the battle had nothing to do with the actual function of technology. For most, this was a fight over what the future should look like, and for the first time in over half a century most of the country preferred the look of fire to “the future.” A major problem for technologists.
Aesthetics are a hell of a drug.
Designed to evoke the Jetsons, induction stoves sell the story of smooth metallic happy robots serving humans in utopia. We kick our feet back in the clouds, replicate a dinosaur steak, and watch the holographic evening newsmen chatter over dinner. It is an accessible, immediately recognizable, technologically progressive aesthetic that has driven the country forward for over six decades — American Futura, let’s call it, or what the future looked like according to your grandma. But, in the post-war 1950s, nobody had to force your grandma to buy a dishwasher. This is because the dishwasher worked.
By midcentury, from ubiquitous lighting and refrigeration, America jumped rapidly to the sorcery of air conditioning, the washing machine, and the microwave. Suddenly, there were electric toasters and ice machines, electric juicers and waffle makers. We take it for granted today, but that first Mr. Coffee was a miracle. All of these tools looked roughly the same, as if friendly, helpful cousins in some extended nice-guy Cylon family, forging a look and feel of American Futura that would live for decades. Critically, these tools had another thing in common: they were honest.
Cumulatively, the first generation of consumer electronics freed up billions of man hours, and reinforced a promise embedded in the American Futura aesthetic today: the new way to mix batter, to toast bread, to blend drinks will not only look faster, easier, and better, it will be faster, easier, and better. But as the decades progressed, with no shortage of “new” models released, very few of these tools were meaningfully improved. Today, far more problematically, many of our most basic tools are actually getting worse — even as technological capability dramatically advances.
Professional cooks outraged by an electric mandate in Berkley recently sued the city in favor of gas, which will come as no surprise to anyone who actually enjoys cooking. Induction fails in many ways, from its inferior ability to evenly braise or fry to its frustrating conductivity issues, temperamental touchscreen elements, and its elimination of an entire class of cookware. But then there’s also this:
It is interesting that California, a state in which rolling blackouts have become a routine part of life, is now mandating reliance on electricity in order to feed ourselves. Truly, a sentient alien visiting earth for the first time would look around and wonder — just baffled — at our strange culture of electing people who spend most of their time attempting to kill us.
The failure of induction is emblematic of an entire class of modern instrument designed in American Futura, which no longer live up to its aesthetic promise: automated service at the airport invoking the robot waiter, reduced to a state of gorgeous touchscreen tablets caked in grease unable to answer basic questions, or even fix your order; motion-detecting faucets, soap dispensers, and hand driers that so predictably fail one wonders if they were specifically designed to consume fewer resources at the expense of public sanitation; robotic phone operators built to loop through hours of twists and turns, as consumers drift through a labyrinth of cheerful, mechanical uselessness, growing ever more frustrated by “the future.”
Why is there a television on my refrigerator? Why are you trying to connect my dishwasher to the internet? Why are networked-thermostats taking orders from the government rather than their owners?
Every piece of consumer garbage designed in the style of American Futura that serves to frustrate rather than improve the lives of average Americans constitutes a broken promise, and each broken promise subtly erodes excitement for the future in general — or, that very specific future of the 1950s. With the death of American Futura, we have no easily-accessible sense of where technology is taking us, and so technology is met with hostility rather than celebration. But there are all manner of incredible technologies working, from something so seemingly simple as GPS to the stunning advance of artificial intelligence. Such technologies need a new aesthetic, as captivating and inspiring as it is evocative of something true. This will require a robust exchange of ideas and sentiment between people working on the kind of new technology that is actually capable of improving our lives, and the nation’s creative class.
Unfortunately, this brings us to the topic of contemporary art.