How Sex, Bombs and Burgers Shaped our World
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Our lives today are more defined by technology than ever before. Thanks to Skype and Google, we can video chat with our family from across the planet. We have robots to clean our floors and satellite TV that allows us to watch anything we want, whenever we want it. We can reheat food at the touch of a button. But without our basest instincts — our most violent and libidinous tendencies — none of this would be possible. Indeed, if Canadian tech journalist Peter Nowak is to be believed, the key drivers of 20th-century progress were bloodlust, gluttony and our desire to get laid.
In his new book, “Sex, Bombs and Burgers,” Nowak argues that porn, fast food and the military have completely reshaped modern technology and our relationship to it. He points to inventions like powderized food, which emerged out of the Second World War effort and made restaurant chains like McDonald’s and Dairy Queen possible. He shows how outsourced phone sex lines have helped bring wealth to poor countries, like Guyana. And he explains how pornography helped drive both the home entertainment industry and modern Web technology, like video chat. An entertaining and well-research read, filled with surprising facts, “Sex, Bombs and Burgers” offers a provocative alternate history of 20th-century progress.
Salon spoke with Nowak over the phone from Toronto about the importance of the Second World War, the military roots of the Barbie Doll and why the Roomba is our future.
How would you summarize the broader argument behind the book?
It’s a look at some of the darker instincts that we as a race have: the need to fight, the need to engorge ourselves and the need to reproduce. Despite thousands of years of conscious evolution, we haven’t been able to escape those things. It’s the story of how our negative side has resulted in some of our most positive accomplishments.
So much of the technology you talk about came out of the Second World War. Why was that period so important for innovation?
It was when the military really started spending a lot of money on research. At one point during the war, the U.S. was devoting something like 85 percent of its entire income to military spending. So when you take that kind of effort and those resources and that brainpower and you devote them to one particular thing, the effects are going to be huge and long-lasting, which is why World War II was probably the most important technological event in human history. And the sequel, at least technologically speaking, to that period was the Space Race. I’m of the belief that cancer could be cured if somebody in the United States would dedicate the same kinds of resources in the same amount of time as it did to developing the atom bomb and putting someone on the moon.
What kinds of things came out of the war?
The food innovations that happened during the war paved the way for the rest of the 20th century. The U.S. military had to move large numbers of troops over to other parts of the world and then feed them, so a lot of techniques were created and perfected, from packaging to dehydrating and powderizing foods. Powdered coffee and powdered milk came of age during World War II. These advancements in food processing techniques created the foundation of the food plentifulness in the U.S. and created the opportunity for countries to become global food exporting powers.
Plastics are interesting because they — 60 years later it’s hard for us to think about this — but they really revolutionized the way everything was done because materials were running short in every sense during the war. During the war, there was a lot of emphasis put on creating synthetic materials and chemicals. These plastics were used during the war for things like insulating cables or lining drums or coating bullets. Then, after the war, chemical-makers like Dow started to come up with new uses for these things, which translated into everything from Tupperware to Saran wrap to Teflon to Silly Putty to Barbie dolls.