This is an abridged excerpt from my 2017 MA thesis for the Design Research, Writing & Criticism at the School of Visual Arts.
The Blue Apron homepage features a birds’-eye view of an open Blue Apron box on a kitchen counter. Two hands in the shot invite you to insert yourself into the scene–as if you’re the one standing at the counter, looking down into this box that is tightly packed with colorful fresh produce. It’s a carefully crafted image, slightly at odds with what a Blue Apron delivery typically looks like. In an actual delivery, most of the produce in the box is encased in a plastic bag, labeled with a sticker. Everything in the box is wrapped in an insulating foil liner, and the box itself is not the open-topped apple carton style suggested in the website image.
Blue Apron has constructed the image on its website to be reminiscent of a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) box, reaping the connotations of collectivity that are associated with the CSA model–communal labor, small-scale farming, eating local, and supporting the livelihood of an individual farmer. The image promises Blue Apron consumers the opportunity to partake in the collective values correlated with the CSA model, though in a more convenient way–by buying into the service. By contrast, CSAs are facilitated through volunteer labor, with each member taking on some of the administrative and logistical tasks required to run the CSA. But the Blue Apron model removes the element of volunteer labor that drives the CSA model, commoditizing the values of environmental and social responsibility that are associated with co-operative food distribution by making them available for purchase. In adopting the visual signifiers of the CSA’s collectivity, Blue Apron styles its consumers as actively engaged in a food system based on cooperative values, when perhaps they are actually passive.
Soylent’s characterization of its customers is quite different. In framing food as a product that can be precisely engineered to meet the needs of the human body, Soylent focuses on individual optimization. Soylent narrative is constructed around the notion that technological development can free food from its current dependence on human labor. The image that greets visitors to the Soylent website, features Soylent products in a regimented row against an uncluttered background of cool, rational blue. The overlaid text reads: “Food that frees you–We fuel our bodies every day, and often it feels like hard work. That seemed wrong, so we created Soylent.” As the first image that potential customers see, it introduces the idea that the work it takes to prepare food is hard work wasted.
Labor and productivity are continually emphasized, often at the cost of recognizing the affective investment that is built into the institution of food (preparing a meal for one’s family is considered an act of care, and social exchanges with friends are frequently conducted around food). In his 2013 blog post, “How I Stopped Eating Food, Soylent inventor, Rob Rhinehart pondered the potential social implications of the product, writing: “I for one would not miss the stereotype of the housewife in the kitchen. Providing diverse, palatable, and nutritious meals for an entire family every day must be exhausting. What if taking a night off didn’t mean unhealthy pizza or expensive take out? How wasteful society has been with its women!”
It is a comment that laments the hours women have spent nurturing and caring for their families as “wasted” hours–giving little regard to the affective value of this labor. It also implicitly values potential productivity in the workforce above all else. Indeed, images of that space of “wasted” labor (the kitchen) are completely absent from the Soylent website. Soylent is consistently depicted outside of the home, with traditional images of domesticity conspicuously absent from the Soylent mediascape. The Soylent citizen, freed of the time and energy required to prepare and eat food, is free to occupy the spheres of production (outside the home) full time. It’s a new interpretation of Hannah Arendt’s notion that the ability to move freely within and participate in the public sphere is dependent on sufficiently “mastering the necessities of life”.