Digital technologies have increasingly penetrated aspects of daily routines and practices — this has only been exacerbated by the conditions put forth by the COVID-19 pandemic. Technologies mediate experiences, thereby generating new forms of engagement with the world (Ihde, 1990). One arena of such digitalization and increased technological entanglement is food; over the last decades, the processes of procuring, growing, preparing, and eating foodstuffs have been inundated with new technologies (Lewis, 2018). From cooking robots and “smart” kitchen appliances to virtual online communities devoted to sharing food-related content and discussing food politics, interactions with food have transformed considerably. These transformations warrant additional inquiries into how food and surrounding processes of tasting and eating may manifest differently in accordance with such technologically-intertwined conditions.
In this post, we examine the origins of Taste the TV (TTTV), a lickable screen invented by Dr. Homei Miyashita, as well as its broader anthropological significance. TTTV allows the user to taste the flavors of a particular food depicted on it, thus giving a whole new level of possibilities to those interested in elevated multi-sensory experiences. Using preset chemical recipe mixtures distributed by ten flavor canisters onto a hygienic film, users simply lick the screen to taste the food of their choice — from chocolate to more elaborate local dishes. Like other technological innovations, this invention presents both potential as well as problems: How does one define and construct a standardized taste? Who decides which recipes (and thus tastes) are included or featured on TTTV and how do different forms of power manifest in these choices?
Key overarching points:
- TTTV constitutes a new layer of screen-mediated action (taste) in screen-mediated societies.
- There is a standardization of “taste(s),” which facilitates the perpetuation of power dynamics around food through technical design
Screen Ecologies and Technobodies
Screens have become platforms for most areas of life: work, friendships, entertainment, romantic relationships, bureaucracy, and more. The first point of our article is that the TTTV constitutes a new layer of screen-mediated action: taste. In affluent and highly technologized societies, screens are ubiquitous. Computers, TVs, tablets, cars, and other internetized technologies mediate daily engagements with the world. Generally, screen-based technologies involve primarily sight, hearing, and touch: smell is rarer (e.g. Digiscents’ iSmell) and, while taste has been excluded from screen-mediated action, the TTTV precisely reverses this trend.
Screens are experiential interfaces with which users interact both symbolically and physically. All screen-mediated action is physical insofar as it is embodied action – music “enters” through our ears, images influence our ideas and imagination, and habitual smartphone use shapes the manuality of our fingers. On a spectrum, however, it could be argued that the act of licking is an even deeper physical engagement with a screen, insofar as users directly introduce a physical component into their organism. The TTTV thus continues a process in which humans and technology become increasingly intimate: “We let it into us; we let it position between us. And as a result, [this] technology increasingly has knowledge about us and can even operate just like us” (van Est et al., 2014). The “becoming intimate” of humans and technology occurs through a wide range of applications, such as data-mining, face recognition, physical prostheses, augmented reality glasses, biotechnologies, internetized objects, and more. Such tendencies indicate a blurring between humans and technology, particularly between human bodies and the socio-technical interactive ecologies that they navigate. It appears the very imagination and concrete realization of a TTTV technology implies an anthropological image of humankind as a screen-mediated technobody.
The use of “technobody” herein alludes to Turkle (1995) who argued for the reimagining of the human body and experience from a technological perspective: “we are learning to see ourselves as plugged-in technobodies” and “we are redescribing our politics and economic life in a language that is resonant with a particular form of machine intelligence.” Thus, the relevance of the technicization of surrounding environments in everyday life comes to further fruition — a vast binary sea of algorithms and machines mediates our experiences and even biological processes. Despite screens not being biologically implanted in our bodies like a pacemaker, our embodied condition through which we navigate environments is co-constituted with an interactive ecology dominated by screens.
Screen-Mediated Tasting Experiences: Taste Standardization and Representation
Although screens offer representations that establish a distance between the user and the original represented object (Baudrillard, 1983), we emphasize that screen-mediated experiences do not simply “distort” a pure, unmediated event: rather, they transform the experience of the event itself. We wish to ask what such a transformation entails within the realm of food, particularly with regards to the role of taste.
Screen-mediated tasting has to confront the fact that the materiality of the food is absent. Food reveals the limits of digitalization in its attempt to replicate ordinary reality. It is not accidental that when Don Ihde describes imaginaries of radical technological embodiment, he makes a food-related (ironic) comment: “I’ve never had a virtual burger” (2001). The impossibility to eat not only problematizes the idea of transferring one’s body in a separate digital reality but also points out the highly material exchange between humans and environments through food. The TTTV simplifies such an exchange both because there is no actual food within nor near the screen, and because tasting involves more complex ecological conditions. In addition, by removing the experienced food from its situated context of materiality, the TTTV lends itself to a risk of taste standardization.
Within the context of screen-mediated techno-environments, what arises are concerns about the ways in which said environments have the potential to guide and shape tasting experiences. While previous philosophical commentaries on taste have stressed either material-physical processes (Plato, Hegel) or purely metaphorical aesthetic judgments — such as one’s “taste for beauty” (Kant) — more recent literature on taste has stressed its ecological interactivity and liberation from corporeal necessity (Perullo 2016, 16). As Nicola Perullo points out in his modeling of taste as experience, taste can be understood in two interconnected ways: “ as experiencing things in the world (as in becoming an expert)… [and 2] living an experience, an inner experience, something that eternally enriches us” (Perullo 2016, 8). Herein the subject and object become entwined with one another in a “complex in-between organism”, which navigates the various “dichotomies that exist between entities of the mind and body, subject and object, or nature and culture” (Perullo 2016, 8).
With TTTV, the holistic and ecological character of taste is disrupted through a segmentation of the processes of tasting: for these generally involve the acknowledgment of flavor through the accompaniment of smell. The idea of taste is often conceptually restricted to the mouth, despite the extensive role that the nose plays in these processes (Rozin 1982, 397). At times, this “duality of the olfactory” causes tensions between people’s preferences for the taste of something versus its smell, thereby complicating the development of hierarchies in relation to different tastes (Rozin 1982, 397). Thus, TTTV flattens and simplifies tasting experiences because of its inattention to other complementary sensory experiences such as smell and texture. Incidentally, this experiential simplification is what forms the basis for a standardization of tastes and their use within TTTV.
To address his deep longing for dishes from “far away” (mostly Japanese) restaurants during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, TTTV inventor Dr. Homei Miyashita attempted to re-create flavors from many of his favorites (Reuters 2021). According to Miyashita, the flavors for all kinds of foods can be systematically broken into ten types of tastes such as salty, sour, sweet, savory, bitter, and so on (Euronews 2022). This strategic categorization of key tastes is what inspired the ten-canister design of the TTTV (Reuters 2021; Euronews 2022). The aim of TTTV is to pioneer the creation and distribution of certain recipes or “taste content” across the world, as well as provide a distance-learning tool for institutions of culinary education (Reuters 2021). Therefore, not only does TTTV present itself as an access point for people to experience a carefully curated collection of cuisines on demand, but also as a means of culinary learning with a degree of authority.
Tasting Technologies for the Masses: On Democratizing Taste
Gastronomy has a long history of operating in proximity to hierarchical power structures, most especially given its development post-French revolution as a means to invite people from all walks of life to enjoy the pleasures of dining after the downfall of the monarchy (del Moral 2020, 1-2). The moral transformations around food and dining herein created a sociocultural uplifting of eating; to eat well was a sign of a wonderful life. In Distinction, sociologist Pierre Bourdieu describes one’s taste for certain foods as inherently linked with social class, thereby reinforcing the consistent presence and interplay of power even within personal preferences of what is “good” (Bourdieu 1984, 177). Although previous gastronomic standards and trends have been established and perpetuated by special interest groups, typically based in the Global North or conceptual “West” (e.g. Michelin), who award establishments prestige within the community for their aesthetic and technical abilities, there has been a notable shift towards the democratization of food and dining criticism through the digitalization of dining experiences and reviews (Feldman 2021, 1340-1341). As Zeamer (2018) highlights, the embracing of online spaces demonstrates how “food texts have shifted from authority figures in the field to anyone who dines out and goes online” (Zeamer 2018, 3). The integration of technologies into food and its related processes thereby offer diners and food consumers more arenas to engage with different food practices, norms, and thus hierarchies — TTTV is no exception.
While TTTV cannot meaningfully replace the experiential interactivity of tasting, one could argue that it connects people with tastes that they may not have access to. While this may be a positive potential outcome, we wish to highlight the possibility of an unequal representation of food and cultures due to the numerous logistical, economic, and research demands required to develop a single recipe. While the current twenty or so available “recipes” for the TTTV remain obscured, the current selections inevitably reflect the designer’s perspectives of what is considered “good” food. An obvious bias of the current design of TTTV is first its localization of available recipes commonly enjoyed in Japan. Through attuning recipes to the alimentary affinities of Japanese diners, TTTV’s operations incorporate Japan’s specific “technical codes”. As Feenberg (1995) explains, technical codes embody how specific values, interests, and beliefs are both consciously and unconsciously built into a given technology. While TTTV has the potential to empower diners’ tastebuds through technology and the digital, it, unfortunately, stimulates the proliferation of dichotomies of “good” and “bad” foods. The democratization of TTTV design could challenge these dichotomies by allowing users to shape content. Such a democratizing process is possible but requires attention to recipe accessibility through the unraveling of connotations of elite (typically European) cuisines as being more important or valuable. There must be more versatility and openness during “taste content” creation, organization, and dispersion. A design infrastructure that encourages user-generated content (UGC) would be an ideal path towards achieving this as opposed to the currently available recipe curations. However, we acknowledge that this technology is new and its trajectory within food politics remains to be seen because of TTTV not being readily available for consumer purchase and use.
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