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Networks of desire: how technology increases our passion to consume

When we walk into a restaurant, we are often confronted by the sight of people taking pictures of their food with their smartphones. Online, our Facebook feeds seem dominated by pictures of people’s hamburgers and desserts. What is going on with food porn? This question leads us down the rabbit hole of technology and passion, into rather arcane theories of consumer desire. Through investigated food porn, the search widened. How is consumer desire itself transformed by contemporary technology?

Investigating past literature about technology showed that most of the writers thought that using technology has a rationalizing effect. As we use technology, we become more logical and calculating, and this reduced passion. But with food porn, it’s the opposite. We took a closer look at food porn using the method of “netnography,” a type of anthropology that uses social media to investigate and understand human culture. We collected data for over a decade on different kinds of online food-related communities, and studied how they demonstrated passion and what effect technology had on that passion. We also interviewed prominent food bloggers and restaurateurs about their role as content creators. In addition, we used social networking site tools to provide an open forum for people to contribute their own food porn, answer polls, and tell stories about the emotions they attach to food porn.

The conclusion? Our smartphone and computer technology directs and intensifies our most basic human passion. People, their smartphones, their passion, and the objects of their desire all combine into a system. That system affects all the players within it. So computers, food, and human beings are all joined into a circuit that increases the flow of desire among them.

 The biological necessity for food had become a passion for food that has now translated into a passion for more technology.

The idea that desire can flow like energy came from our exploration of one of the most comprehensive—and difficult—theories of desire. In this theory, which relates in many ways to ancient forms of belief about the role of energy in human life, desire is treated as a free-flowing form of energy. Desire connects us to each other, and also to things, and sophisticated machines like software and smartphones. When they are connected, these things behave like a system, and they direct and amplify the flow of desire. We call this a “network of desire.” Desires do not merely end in culmination or satisfaction. They build. And as they are building up energy, they can inspire great creativity.

Machines were not only directing these desires, but also building in us the desire for more machines. The biological necessity for food had become a passion for food that has now translated into a passion for more technology. We live in an age where sexting drives people to suicide, where augmented reality video games instantly gain legions of followers who storm public places such as cemeteries, where Presidential candidates announce policy platforms on Twitter, and where fundamentalist-based international terrorist organizations successfully recruit using YouTube and WhatsApp. Indeed, it seems as if the news is getting nastier, celebrities are acting more outrageous, general language is sounding more crude, political positions are becoming more polarized, religious beliefs are more extreme, and on and on through culture and society. Our increasing codependence with technology is playing a role in this mass increase of our passions.

Our collective linking into a vast network of technology might be leading us into a future of rapidly changing, highly segmented taste clusters. Consumers of the future, each micro-segmented into interface-driven categories of consumption desire, might transform ever more rapidly from their other interests and other connections as they pursue their own individual peaks of passion. Consumers, networks, and consumer culture itself turn into things whose hungers have no limits, whose capacity changes by the hour. Unleashing new abilities for us to couple with machine bodies, object bodies, and branded bodies, we literally become posthuman.

Very recently, our adoption of technology seemed to offer more democratic, authentic, and grassroots places to commune and converse. Yet it now appears equally likely that technologically-enabled consumer networks also function as effective amplifiers of corporately monitored and sponsored desires. In the midst of this situation, it seems very important that we try to understand what is happening to our society. Directed by the technology and capitalism, changing rapidly in taste, pushed by our passions to posthuman extremes, we must continue to wonder and explore what our use of technology is doing to us.

Featured image credit: Food grilled chicken by Ananya440. Public domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. e berris

    This is quite a narrow focus. Shouldn’t the causes and effects of new social media be looked at as showing a lack of inner resources by the users ( unable to discern or resist the impact of corporate motives). Without this self awareness, some emotional maturity, it is hard to distinguish between wants and needs, and to know when you are responding lemming-like to crazes or just following an occasional impulse. New technologies are amazing, but like fire, should be used with understanding.

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