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The Obesity Epidemic

On my too-frequent flights to New York recently, I started reading Michael Pollan's book, The Omnivore's Dilemma.  It's a trip up and down the food chain from a naturalist's perspective, and one of his first stops is an examination of corn. 

Government policies over the years have led to overproduction of this crop, from 4 billion bushels in 1970 to 10 billion bushels today.  At the same time, because supply exceeds demand and prices are so low, federal government payments to farmers -- for corn alone -- comes to slightly more than $4 billion.

There are plenty of lean lessons here, from the folly of "push" production (even in food) to government muda.  But what's really interesting is Pollan's view of the result of this overproduction:

Another way to look at this 10-billion-bushel pile of commodity corn -- a naturalist's way of looking at it -- is that industrial agriculture has introduced a vast new stock of biomass to the environment, creating what amounts to an imbalance -- a kind of vacuum in reverse.  Ecology teaches that whenever an excess of organic matter arises anywhere in nature, creatures large and small inevitably step forward to consume it, sometimes creating whole new food chains in the process.  In this case the creatures feasting on the surplus biomass are both metaphorical and real: There are the agribusiness corporations, foreign markets, and whole new industries (such as ethanol), and then there are the food scientists, livestock, and human eaters, as well as the usual array of microorganisms (such as E. coli O157:H7).

What's involved in absorbing all this excess biomass goes a long way toward explaining several seemingly unconnected phenomena, from the rise of factory farms and the industrialization of our food, to the epidemic of obesity and prevalence of food poisoning in America. . . .

As I read this, I thought about people's struggle to keep up with their work.  Knowledge workers are being crushed by the weight of the email and data they have to manage.  As I pointed out in another post, the  increase in data storage at Chevron is growing by 60% a year, resulting in employees losing from one-and-a-half to three days per month simply looking for (!) information.  And there's the recent story in the Washington Post about the venture capitalist who declared "email bankruptcy" because he couldn't keep up with his email.

You can point fingers in many directions in trying to identify the causes of this tidal wave of (often useless) information.  And certainly, our own poor work habits often exacerbate the difficulty of staying on top of  it all.

But I wonder if Michael Pollan hasn't hit upon the real root cause of the problem.  Perhaps the supply of cheap  computing power and storage capacity has also created an imbalance in nature.   As a result, we've  spawned new creatures to feast on the surplus  "electronic biomass" -- stupid and irrelevant emails, forwarded jokes, multiple copies of "FY2007budgetfinalfinalv5.doc," etc.  Something has to consume those available bytes.

I read somewhere that the computer on board the Apollo 11 Lunar Excursion Module had a whopping 32KB of RAM.  Imagine: NASA landed people on the moon and brought them back with 32KB.  Presumably they didn't have Tetris installed, either -- they didn't have a kilobyte to spare in their work.  Now we have 32MB Palm PDAs, 8GB iPhones, 80GB computer hard drives, and a lot of it (most of it?) is filled with garbage.  It's the electronic equivalent of the obesity epidemic.

But is the information obesity coming from us through poor work habits or more complex jobs, or is it simply an inescapable natural law like entropy or F=ma?  Are we doomed to ever-greater demands on our time from email, text messages, and the like?  Or can we fight the explosion of electronic garbage by going back to older technologies like the telephone or (gasp!) face-to-face conversations?

I'll be thinking about this over my next Supersized Big Mac and fries.

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7 Responses to "The Obesity Epidemic"

  • Jon Miller
    2 July 2007 - 8:34 pm

    Hi Kevin. Thanks for this important and thought-provoking post. There’s more than enough food production capacity in the world to fix world hunger, it’s a question of distribution. Technology push has created a false bottleneck called processed food in place of affordable local produce, and a false scarcity of free time because of ubiquitous e-mail as a replacement for conversation. We create more complex systems to distribute and deliver this food / information, which results in us commuting to office buildings to where we manage these systems via computers, picking up our burgers and fries on the way to the…

  • Kevin
    2 July 2007 - 10:23 pm

    Actually Dan wrote that particular post, but I agree that it is very thought-provoking from several angles.

  • mike
    3 July 2007 - 8:06 am

    the LEM may have only had 32K of ram but it had enough bandwidth to transmit video and audio back to earth.

    Also in 81 when Bill Gates infamously said “640k ought to be enough for anybody” consumers were buying tons of vhs cassets and still some betamax cassets each capable of storing hours of uncompressed video.

  • Mike L
    3 July 2007 - 10:29 am

    To mitigate the problems with informational “obesity,” we can use the same tools that we use to control the shopfloor: visuals, 5S processes, and standardized work. We should all be held accountable for how we create, store, transmit, and respond to electronic information. The problem is that without a basic level of stability in our cyberspaces, we can’t really standardize all of the activities that occur in them.

    I say we go to the gemba to grasp the situation and then create some standards, teach them to everybody, and audit compliance with them religiously. Then, we get the IT folks to develop some poka-yoke devices to help us knuckle-draggers avoid fouling up the whole system.

  • Jim
    3 July 2007 - 11:19 am

    Right on! There is so much excessive computing power/storage today it causes people to be totally careless when it comes to there systems and they become unmanaged wastelands… then somebody convinces them they need a data warehouse to manage it all, sort of like an old school business that thinks they need a warehouse management whizbang package to handle the excessive inventory.

    -Jim

  • Dan Markovitz
    3 July 2007 - 11:49 am

    Mike: I think you’re right about the value and importance of 5S. Rigorously applying 5S to one’s paper and electronic data enables us to keep what we need, dump what we don’t, and focus on how we’re actually adding value. Check out my comments on this issue here: http://www.timebackmanagement.com/blog/5S_Aint_Just_About_Hammers

    Jim: check out the blog post referenced above to see what Chevron and Credit-Suisse are doing (and spending!) to address the data bloat.

  • Jim
    5 July 2007 - 8:06 am

    Dan— I think I read that post before, but went back and revisited it… flagging document importance? interesting stuff and I find it hard to believe that for 80% of the work a simple three ring binder could contain the most pertinent information.

    I give them credit for attempting to do something but it seems like trying to bandage the problem instead of addressing why they have so much data in the first place. I have been involved in putting in these archival/purge systems before (for email) and it causes people to pack rat information even more by saving copies of everything to there own PC.

    -Jim