November 2, 2002

"Fast Food" Software

- By totro -
There is a lot of popular, convenient and ubiquitous general-use software widely used these days that have subtle, scary strings attached. Due to the subtle and devious nature of these "attached strings," most of today's computer users aren't aware of them, and most don't even realize they have a right to be annoyed and concerned.These "attached strings" (complete with examples as hyperlinks) come in forms of:

When I use the term the "Pop Culture Software" I'm referring to "strings-attached" commercial software like MS Windows, MS Office, MS Hotmail, Internet Explorer, and MSN Messenger. This software is used for commonplace computer activities like writing business or school documents, using email, surfing the web, online chatting. There are now very realistic, free replacements available without the previously mentioned strings attached, but most people don't know or care enough to use them. Why is this?

I'd like to illustrate by using an analogy playing on the similarities between this "Pop Culture Software" and fast food. In this analogy, "food" is analogous to "software". "Eating" the food is analogous to "using" the software. "Health food" would be analogous to free, high quality software like Linux, OpenOffice, Evolution (coupled with a free POP email account), Mozilla, and any IRC chat client. Since more people are familiar with fast food than computers, perhaps this analogy can be valuable and educational for those who know little to nothing about computers.

The "Pop-Culture-Software-as-Fast-Food" Analogy

What is the nature of the fast food industry? It produces questionable food that everyone can't seem to help eating far too much of. Collectively, everyone generally agrees it's bad (especially the scientific, technical experts in the field of food production), but individually, most Average Joes generally don't mind it.

Not much care goes into the making of the fast food. Every conceivable shortcut is used to get it out the door quicker, to turn the highest short-term profit. These shortcuts always come at a cost, but luckily for the fast food companies, most fast food consumers don't know enough about food production to notice the shortcuts (and hidden costs), let alone the problems these shortcuts create for the whole food industry. Due to all these shortcuts, the quality of fast food suffers greatly, yet nobody seems to notice or care since a) it's packaged attractively, b) a tidal wave of marketing promotes it, and c) most importantly, it's very convenient. Fast food companies even have great success in making their burger flipping "technicians" look like food professionals, having formal corporate training in fast food technology and a homogenized, pro-fast-food demeanor.

At first, fast food tastes great. The convenience is extremely compelling, in our ever-busier world. But after that initial good flavor wears off, it gives you pimples, a stomach ache, and your digestive system disruptively complains repeatedly for a long time. In the long term, previously unseen, nasty problems develop. A tough to break habit forms to eating fast food, very similar in nature to an addiction. Even when fast food's addictive nature or hidden costs becomes known to you, strong incentives have been set up to keep you coming back. Who has the time and will power to learn a whole new way of eating? Who has the time to find the best recipes, gather and prepare the right ingredients, and actually eat health food? A dangerous attitude even becomes widespread that eating health food is a frivolous, unnecessary activity that only hippies and crazies have the devotion to engage in.

For most fast food consumers, searching for other kinds of food, which have many other kinds of redeeming qualities, seems like far too much hassle. Most who even learn that there is an alternative to fast food don't even take an honest look at how tough it is to switch to health food. The few (oftentimes continually shrinking) disadvantages of health food scare most off, despite the wealth of advantages. The redeeming qualities of health food often times have a subtle, yet profound nature. The value of these benefits can also be tough to explain, and sometimes they can only be understood and reaped in the longer term. Unfortunately, the advocates of health food face an uphill battle inspiring in others a firm desire for these subtleties that can make a world of difference once you've experienced them. It seems tragic that anyone who advocates an alternate kind of food simply can't beat the convenience of fast food. Let alone the sheer power and influence of the fast food industry. You see, for most people, lowering one's standards of convenience is literally inconceivable in today's day and age of ever-raising expectations on technology. Long-term consequences are often times completely forgotten in the short-term gain of convenience.

Product placement of fast food seems ubiquitous, and this marketing has a subtle but cumulative effect. There would be no advertising industry if this weren't the case. There's a ton of marketing to hype up the fast food, and virtually everyone eats it. And since virtually everyone eats fast food, it must be OK. Many people don't even have a realistic choice due to factors beyond their control. The relatively few people who break free from the pack are marginalized as "hippies" or "granolas" (analogous to "Open Source zealots"). "Who cares what these granolas are saying, why would anyone take someone with an abrasive attitude or non-mainstream demeanor seriously? I can't relate to those crazy hippies at all."

Fast food companies don't stop there. Under the unrelenting pressure of shareholders for ever-increasing profits, fast food companies come up with many clever business tactics that push the very limits of the law. The interests of their customers fall by the wayside when fast food companies figure out that they can get away with it. For example, they might try to make deals with schools and universities for exclusive rights to sell their products there. Even more clever would be to control a person's very first eating experience. Any newcomers to the world of eating will usually just eat what's put before them, since it must be OK (otherwise it wouldn't be there, right)? By default, these trusting newcomers probably wouldn't even know that there are different kinds of food, all they see is the fast food put immediately before them. A company with a monopoly on this first experience would be monumentally powerful. The newcomer to eating might grow up never knowing anything else.

What if fast food companies had a way to force you to agree to let them monitor all the food you ate? Would you feel like your privacy had been invaded? How about your personal freedom?

What if this was taken even further? Just imagine if fast food companies tried to eliminate all competition from purveyors of health foods by buying government legislation that gave them absolute power in deciding all food that is allowed to be eaten by anyone, anywhere. And anyone that even tries discovering, discussing or leaking a fast food recipe is literally breaking the law.

What if I told you this was all on the brink of happening right now in the food industry and world of food in general? Would you then finally get serious about breaking free from eating fast food?
How about maintaining the right to choose what you eat?

The next time you are talking to a completely non-technical friend and they admit to you, "Man, I don't know anything about computers. I wish I knew more," a brutally honest reply would be, "It's not just what you don't know. The real tragedy is that you don't know what you don't know. If you only knew the magnitude of how that ignorance is being used against your personal freedom."

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