It is well established by anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists and other scholars that food is an integral part of human culture and identity. The importance of food for how we think about who we are and how we are related to one another is obvious to anyone who associates a roast dinner on a Sunday with their family or kebab or bag of chips with the end of a night out with friends. But equally important as what we eat is how we eat it and how we make it. We tend to value making food ourselves or having other people make it for us (whether that is family, friends or a chef) and devalue mass-produced and processed food.
Some companies plan to disrupt this personal and social relationship we have with food. Last year the food delivery service Deliveroo made their long term plans clear in a statement to investors with their main aims being to:
- Create its own food offerings, personalised for customers
- Half the cost of food for customers
- Automate delivery
- Automate food production
- Double its profit margins
Central to achieving these aims is their “Own Content” strategy of:
- –hyper-personalized food produced by Deliveroo;
- –lower price of food;
- –create daily use case;
- –greater margin due to supply chain savings and automation’
Their strategy is built around leveraging the data on the types and timings of food preferences they have accumulated by delivering food for restaurants and takeaways which provided them with insights into who prefers particular kinds of foods and at what times of the day. They propose that such data will enable them to tailor menus to individuals in a similar way to personalised playlists on Spotify.
Perhaps more significant than the personalisation, however, is their plans for automation both of delivery (through autonomous vehicles) and of food production. Automated delivery of food is likely to become easier for the company soon as they are in talks with Uber (who have a rival food delivery service, Uber Eats) over a buyout. Despite legal, ethical and business concerns Uber are thought to be close to introducing autonomous vehicles to their taxi service.
The road to automation of food production initially seems a bigger jump as Deliveroo’s model so far has been built on functioning as a middle-man who gets food from already established restaurants (who might not usually offer a delivery service) to a customer’s home. But they have already moved away from this approach in the name of greater efficiency with their use of prefabricated boxes (think of the temporary offices used on building sites) as “Dark Kitchens” in London, Leeds and other cities. So, when you order a noodle soup from Wagamama it might not have been made in a restaurant kitchen but actually come from a metal box on an industrial estate.
No doubt Deliveroo, and Uber, will be interested to note that a start-up called “Zume Pizza” has recently secured $375 million of investment for their robotic pizza maker. Zume plan further efficiencies by using a remote control system to cook pizzas while they are on their journey to customers.
I am not knowledgeable enough about these technologies or the food industry to judge whether Deliveroo’s ambitions are technically or commercially feasible but what I find interesting is their attempt to reshape our relationship to food. In their report to investors they state that in their vision restaurants will only be used for “special occasions” and people will cook only “as a hobby”.
Deliveroo’s automation and personalisation will have made food delivery so convenient and cheap (their aim is to reduce the cost of producing and delivering food to £2) that cooking food or paying a professional to produce it will be seen as extravagant or indulgent rather than a practical necessity.
What impact would this have on one of the most fundamental cultural practices? In some ways this is a development which is part of a long historical trajectory. For instance, we can see this as a further expansion of the “McDonaldization of society” described by George Ritzer. This sees an increasing amount of lives (and particularly the food industry) taken over by rational principles and drives for profit.
Or perhaps we should consider Deliveroo’s vision as part of the “Culture Industry” as characterised by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer in the 1940s as a rational and profit-driven system of production which turns us into consumers rather than producers of culture. Some of the consequences of this being that we lose the ability to produce and appreciate “authentic culture” while becoming “disenchanted” with standardised and homogeneous world.
But there is something distinctive and contemporary about this scenario. It would not be possible for Deliveroo to develop these automated systems without positioning themselves as the mediator between food producers and consumers. By becoming the default “middle-man” they are able to hoover up all of the data on the types of food people eat, when they eat it and where they live. In this sense they are a typical example of a company in what Nick Srnicek calls “Platform Capitalism” in which these mediators take control of the system and accumulate most of the profits.
Perhaps most significantly of all the data which is feeding their transformation of our food and eating has been generated by the many hours of work put in by cyclists delivering food, chefs making food and others involved in the value chain. While these workers have been ostensibly employed to do these tasks they have also been generating vast amounts of data on all aspects of food production and delivery as well as helping to construct profiles of customers.
This “digital labour“, and the data it generates, is vital in Deliveroo’s quest to change our relationship to food. Not only does it give them more information about the whole value chain of the industry but contributes to what Randy Martin calls “The Financialization of Daily Life“. These data enable companies to turn almost every instance of food preparation into an automated service outsourced to a private company. It is an attempt to “reconfigure social relations so that they become fit for financialization” (Arvidsson, 2016: 3).
I don’t know if Deliveroo will be successful in their quest to reshape our lives so that we no longer consider it worthwhile to prepare food for ourselves and our families (or even pay a professional to do it for us) and instead choose to have a robot cook and an autonomous vehicle deliver it. However, it says something about the character of contemporary capitalism that they are attempting to develop such a system.
Arvidsson A (2016) ‘Facebook and Finance: On the Social Logic of the Derivative’ Theory, Culture & Society 33(6): 3–23.