October 25, 2011

You Are What You Eat

The first record of this beaten-to-death phrase appeared in Anthelme Brillat-Savarin's treatise on the Physiology of Taste in 1826, where he wrote (in sexy French), "Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es." [Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are]."

I've heard various twists. "You are what you read" "Show me your friends and I'll show you who you are." "Don't eat that Matt, that's disgusting." For today's blog, let's broaden the definition of "eat" as far as it will stretch.

"You are what you consume." Which is more or less true. Yes, you can believe you have a soul, that there is a unique bit of you that never changes. But it's pretty undeniable that your upbringing - the combination of what you've seen/heard/experienced - shapes who you are.

Which makes me wonder who I'm becoming. My twitter feed draws from comedians, news sources, friends, family, industry pros, companies; I receive about 40 tweets a minute (and I'm only following 541 feeds). I'm reading newspapers from around the world, watching "tv stations" (that term is so outdated) streamed from nearly every continent (still waiting for PenguinTV... oh no wait, it exists). I played an online game from a company in New Zealand last night. The list goes on.

And I feel anxious that I'm not consuming enough media. In the morning when I wake up, the second thing I reach for (right after whacking my long suffering alarm clock) is my iPod touch, to catch up on the news. The radio is seldom off in my house - silence now makes me twitchy.

It's an anxiety that I think ties back to, "You are what you consume." With individual messages losing any sort of authoritative standing as they get swallowed by the deluge. keeping up-to-speed on what's happening now seems to like the best chance to becoming a complete person. Identity now lies on the Cutting Edge of the Information Age. Which makes me wonder:

  • As we increasingly share the same media streams with the rest of the world, is humanity becoming homogenous?
  • How can I become a complete person when I can't possibly keep up with all the media?
  • Are we losing or gaining by consuming the same information?


Thanks to my classmate Chantal Verrier, who told me that the title to Anthelme's treatise "Meditations de Gastronomie" translates to "Meditations on Transcending Gastronomy." I find that comforting for some reason...


  1. Hey Matt,

    Engaging in a philosophical discussion using an anthropological background isn't quite like bringing a knife to a gunfight. More like bringing a checkers set to a chess tournament. But I'll dive in anyway

    First off, I wouldn't say that we are what we consume, unless by consume, you mean 'experience'. And even then, what we are owes some debt to our biology (as much as some anthropologists grudge to admit this).

    Further, I think the relationship between ourselves and our experiences is recursive. That is to say, we are what we experience, but the way we experience the world is affected by who we are. To use your news example: you would experience a FOX news broadcast in a very different manner from, say, a red-state Republican die-hard.

    So, on to your points

    1. The media in the world is definitely becoming homogenized, but so long as the experience of individuals outside of the media varies, there will also be some variability in how we consume that media and, thus, how it impacts us. However, if we get to the place where either we spend most of our time consuming only those loudest media outlets, or differences in our lives outside the media disappear, then we're going to see diversity plummet.

    2. Even if you could consume all the news in the world, you would not experience it in the same way as a middle-class white woman, or a billionaire pop star, or young, gay Ju|'hoansi boy. In this way, it's impossible to be 'complete' (the source of much navel-gazing among my cousins in cultural anthropology). The flip side of this is that if it's impossible to be complete, we don't have to worry about it.

    3. I want to say 'losing' because diversity of knowledge and experience in a group, like genetic diversity in a species, can be a good thing for survival if or when shit gets real.

    One thing you don't mention that I'd like to talk about is whether we ARE increasingly sharing the same information. I mean, yeah, between now and the time when we used to communicate over long distances with sticks and clay, things have tightened up a bit. But ten years ago, there was no way for me to watch Al Jazeera or (for better or worse) read the rantings of Paulian /b/tard nutbags. We all watched the CBC. Today, I can get my news from any continent, and I can get it filtered through hundreds of blogs, editorials, photo essays, etc. So, are things really homogenizing?

    Your answer will be worth marks.

  2. Also, 'definitely' in sentence 1 of paragraph 5 should be 'maybe'.

    10 points from Bruggencate.