LinuxUser Column 8

We’re all alone, floating isolated in bubbles of our technology. We’ve built ourselves cocoons of entertainment which make it easier for us to avoid meaningful relationships with other people and the world at large.

I write this knowing full well the enormous conflict it creates for those of us whose livelihood is built on technology’s inexorable progress. I also write this having experienced the incredible benefits that phones and email have in letting distant friends and family stay in touch.

Yet overall I think we are losing something in our march towards a networked, globalised, data-driven future. We’re fundamentally altering the realities in which our children grow up and we have no idea what this is really doing to us. When I was a kid movies were a rare treat either when rented or the odd time they came onto tv. Today the average teenager has seen thousands upon thousands of movies depicting murders, war, kung fu fighting and so on. They may well have been eating nothing but industrial supermarket food all their lives. And they get what they want, when they want it.

The iPod is an incredible thing, easy to use, good looking and an icon. It creates an audio bubble around individuals letting you hear what you want to hear when you want to. It’s total personalisation creating a perception of complete control over one’s environment. But life is very rarely like that – how often do we get such levels of control over our environment?

In fact we have much less control over our world that we might think – in many ways, things are running away from us. We don’t mean them to, it’s just that a series of unintended consequences is sucking us into a world of global warming, traffic jams, ever-longer working hours and social disconnection.

Take for example bread, something I’ve learnt huge amounts about from Felicity Lawrence’s superb book “Not on the Label”. Believe it or not but less than 2% of bakeries in the UK (including in-store bakeries) actually make bread in a way that a home-baker might recognise. Instead of slowly matured and nutritious, modern bread is nutrient poor and made far too quickly.

The bread most of us buy contains ‘flour improvers’ which are a cover for fats, enzymes and other chemicals. These allow the bread to be made in less than 3 hours. Steel rollered flour, with its starch molecules shattered, is mixed with twice the yeast a traditional baker would use, extra gluten, fat and other additives which are stirred mechanically with water. The more water absorbed the better as this adds to the weight of the loaf, which only makes it more valuable as supermarkets sell by weight.

In contrast, decent bread is left to prove over 50 to 70 hours with only a small amount of yeast working away to rise the dough. A couple of times the dough is punched down to develop a wonderful texture before it is baked. Real bread only needs flour, water and yeast. Stonegrinding the flour doesn’t destroy the starch molecules, allowing that lovely texture and flavour to develop. It may not be quick, but it tastes good.

So what if the bread is made in a twentieth of the time? There are consequences: The level of vitamins and minerals in bread made this way are a tiny fraction of what they should be. We’ve known about this for a while and the government does force the replacement of some but not all of that lost. Of course added nutrients are not the same nutritionally as the real thing. Furthermore, due to the broken starch molecules, quick proofing as well as added gluten and yeast – people are reacting poorly to modern bread. We’ve all heard of gluten and yeast intolerances but what you may not know is that proper, traditionally made bread usually doesn’t cause reactions for those who think they’re gluten intolerant. Making bread is incredibly easy, not that long ago most households made it themselves every week. Now, with families so busy with work we can’t imagine making our own bread and so we rely on others to make it for us.

We didn’t want our high streets to die, but just a few of us shopping at the supermarkets was enough to stop making it profitable for small grocers, bakers and butchers to continue. We don’t like not knowing our neighbours but we’re more comfortable watching our TV and listening to our music. I don’t think many of us want our bread to be made the way it is, but with the demands on our time we didn’t hesitate to turn for the affordable breads on sale in supermarkets.

Technology is a difficult beast, it’s not always clear where it’s heading or who’s benefiting from its progress. Clearly industrialising the baking process benefited the large bread suppliers and did result in make bread a bit cheaper for us. But long term our lives are poorer for the lack of good breads available. As we hurry around dealing with emails, phone calls and stuffing ready-made sandwiches in our mouths, we’re losing the joy and quality of life which we deserve. Of course we can’t and shouldn’t all go back to farming the land. But we can pause and ask ourselves what’s really important to us. In twenty years what will we be glad we did or didn’t do?

See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neil_Postman

This column first appeared in the excellent LinuxUser magazine, available internationally. For more information visit http://www.linuxuser.co.uk

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