Last weekend, my kids and I whipped up some home-made Play-Doh. It’s not too hard – all you need is flour, salt, oil, water, cream of tartar, and whatever colors of food coloring you want, and you become super dad.
The kids had a blast both making it and playing with it, and afterward I marveled at how much fun it is to make something “from scratch” together. But at the same I starting to realize that I was not really making Play-Doh “from scratch” because, other than water, I have no idea where to get those ingredients other than Wal-Mart. I’m pretty adept at mixing the pre-purified ingredients, but it would be an enormous undertaking to actually plant grains, harvest them, and grind them down into flour.
Enter the Cheeseburger
As I was thinking about how nice it is to have all of those ingredients, I came across a blog post by Waldo Jaquith where he describes how much more impossible it would be to make a hamburger “from stratch.” Since he already raises chickens, he thought it would be fun to grow tomatoes and onions, make buns and mustard, and grind his own beef by hand. But the more he thought about it, he realized to be truly legitimate he’d need to raise his own cows. Then he realized that he’d need at least two cows, one for meat and one for milk to make cheese. As he continued to peel back layers, he came to this realization:
Further reflection revealed that it’s quite impractical—nearly impossible—to make a cheeseburger from scratch. Tomatoes are in season in the late summer. Lettuce is in season in spring and fall. Large mammals are slaughtered in early winter. The process of making such a burger would take nearly a year, and would inherently involve omitting some core cheeseburger ingredients. It would be wildly expensive—requiring a trio of cows—and demand many acres of land. There’s just no sense in it.
A cheeseburger cannot exist outside of a highly developed, post-agrarian society. It requires a complex interaction between a handful of vendors—in all likelihood, a couple of dozen—and the ability to ship ingredients vast distances while keeping them fresh. The cheeseburger couldn’t have existed until nearly a century ago as, indeed, it did not.
Think Outside the Bun
When we reflect on what we usually call “technology” (electronic gadgets like iPhones, tablets, etc.), it’s not uncommon to observe that those devices would have been impossible to manufacture a century ago. But it’s interesting to see how many other everyday things – like cheeseburgers and homemade Play-Doh – are almost as improbable as an iPhone.
So before you bite into your next cheeseburger (or take ingredients out of the pantry), take a moment to look at each part and imagine the vast constellation of technological resources that magically, seamlessly, and invisibly come together for our benefit. We live in exciting (and complex) times!