The digital virtual dimension of the meal
Editors: Capellini, B., Parsons, L. and Marshall, D.
Place of Publication: London
In a not so distant future 3D food printers are poised to take over the preparation of our meals, lightening the load of meal preparation by taking on ‘the difficult parts of making food that is hard and/or time consuming to make fully by hand’ (Foodini, 2014). Similarly, food photocopiers that reproduce the molecular structure of food hold the promise of repurposing leftovers into brand new meals (Electrolux, 2009). This future may be unpalatable to some because it supposes a corrosion of human knowledge and a brutal displacement and reduction of human competence by ever-increasing automation of domestic practices within the home kitchen (see for example Fırat and Dholakia, 1998). A less extreme, but more present infiltration of technology within the kitchen is that of devices like tablets, smartphones and laptops that are routinely used in preparing meals. Based on a global survey of 7,000 cooks, Allrecipes.com (2013) found that nearly half of respondents used smartphones while shopping for food, while almost a third of American and UK cooks surveyed said to routinely use their mobile phones to find recipes. Through these devices home cooks can access an array of food related content including step by step tutorials on YouTube, recipes and recipe reviews on specialist foodie websites and blogs, and themed meal ideas on Pinterest boards. We refer to these devices as digital virtual (DV) devices in that they open up new spaces and opportunities for the home cook. The integrative ontology of the digital virtual (see Shields 2002; Denegri-Knott and Molesworth, 2010; Molesworth and Denegri-Knott, 2012) that we use here enables us to navigate and consider how consumers’ minds (their imagination, memory and knowledge), the digital virtual spaces located on the screens like YouTube and BBC Good Food website, as well as the device itself – as a physical artefact, interact in practice. For us, this helps overcome some of the essentialism that is inherited by perspectives that create clear demarcations between reality and virtuality (for a critique see Shields, 2002; Denegri-Knott and Molesworth, 2010) which deny the presence of constitutive elements of practice, their various locations and how they come into play, in this case, during, meal preparation. Whilst popular, the presence of DV devices in the kitchen may raise concerns about the growing digitisation of meal preparations, which sees technology as driving the transformation of human practices. A way of eliding the technology determinist standpoint, where use of DV devices like tablets is seen as displacing human labour, is by adopting a practice-based language to account for how human and non-human actors come together in configuring practice. Adopting this approach has two key consequences for our understanding of doing the meal. First, it enables us to document in detail the many ways in which meal practices are transformed when knowledges, skills, and competences necessary to carry out practices around meal preparation are not only distributed across enthusiastic home cooks and material artefacts (such as hand mixers, food processors, cookers, freezers, recipe books and instruction manuals) and other people, but also located in digital virtual space. Second, it helps us see the kind of new meal work that is required from the home cook in maintaining the coupling between the cook and their devices. In this chapter we discuss the intersection between DV devices and food consumption and resultant practices they configure. Drawing on insights gleaned from in depth interviews with 29 cooking enthusiasts living the South of England, we provide an overview of new configurations, placing emphasis on the ways in which various components of practice – knowledge, competence and commitment – are redistributed between our home cooks and their DV devices. While we acknowledge the significance of ultimate goals, which are to be substantiated and attained through meal work, for example the expression of caring parent or competent cook (see for example Molander’s (2011) work on meal preparation as a meta-practice of love and motherhood) here we focus less on the teleoaffective, or goal dimension of practices to deal with specific meal related projects and tasks, like knowing how to decorate a pirate chest birthday cake or make gluten free bread. In this way we can better hone in on the way in which the coming together of technology and home cook produce new forms of doing meal work.