The Microwave Economy

My life is better because of microwavable meals. They taste good and fill me up, and they’re ready in 5 minutes. Still, I wouldn’t want to have one every time I eat: I’d miss out on the joys of fresh food and the hard-to-measure satisfaction of meal preparation. Switching to an all-microwave diet would rob me of my humanity, making me feel soulless and uninspired.

And yet, America has become a Microwave Economy. We’ve overwhelmingly used our wealth to make the world cheaper instead of more beautiful, more functional instead of more meaningful. We don’t value what we can’t quantify, so our intuitions are given short shrift. In the name of progress, we belittle the things we know but can’t articulate. The result is an economy that prizes function over form and calls human nature “irrational”—one that over-applies rationality and undervalues the needs of the soul.

The Problem with Microwavable Meals

Microwave meals are incomplete. They have neither the craftsmanship nor the aliveness that makes food a cultural pillar of every society. We know this intuitively. I mean, can you imagine having a microwavable meal for Thanksgiving? Something about it seems off, right?

I don’t know about you, but I feel a twinge in my soul whenever I prepare a microwave meal. It’s as if I’m trading away my humanity for hollow convenience. We eat microwavable meals because they’re cheap and easy to make. Even if some of them are delicious, they’re less likely to be healthy, and I feel worse about myself after I eat one. As I take that first bite, I feel like I’ve caved to the futile allure of cheap hedonism and distanced myself from more natural ways of eating. As the synthetic heat steams on my tongue, I think about how each aspect of the meal is designed for scale and instant gratification. I think about how the complexities of modern goods are hidden from consumers, as opposed to the Sears catalogues I used to read at my grandparents’ house, which featured blown-up diagrams of the appliances they sold because people used to nerd out about how things were constructed and form emotional connections with their prized possessions.

But today, in the name of convenience, we have no such attachments. When our things break, we are more likely to throw them away instead of finding the joy in repairing them. And then I think about how microwave meals reflect the world we’re moving towards: one that aims to distill the complexities of human nutrition into a scalable scientific formula, with lab-created foods that can be consumed in seconds, and where the negative externalities are unrecognized and unaccounted for.

This urge to microwavify the world isn’t limited to the food industry. In Technics and Civilization, the historian Lewis Mumford writes that our industrial mode of thinking has caused us to devalue the kind of intuitive knowledge that leads to beauty. He writes: “The qualitative was reduced to the subjective: the subjective was dismissed as unreal, and the unseen and unmeasurable non-existent… art, poetry, organic rhythm, fantasy — was deliberately eliminated.”

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