SupermarketsWe are supermarket cyborgs - if it were not for the cybernetic network of fields, harvesters, farms, mines, foundries, factories, ships, docks, cranes, trucks, and finally, supermarkets  you would die. You and I are as dependent upon supermarkets and wholesalers (“supermarkets for shops”) as we are on air and water. Buy from a smaller shop? They go to a wholesaler. Only eat out at restaurants? Where do you think they get their food...?

There’s something especially eerie about queuing to enter the supermarket under the lockdown restrictions that makes me feel our dependence all the more acutely. Empty shelves stick in the mind more than business as usual. But the supermarket is merely the end point in the food distribution network we are inescapably caught within. There are still a few million people within the shorter, older network of farms and markets, and even a few thousand fed in even older ways - hunting, gathering, and farming for yourself. For the most part, however, food is now a cybernetic service ensuring our utter dependence upon a network we barely comprehend. I touched upon this before in the context of palm oil, and that was a mere fraction of a percent of the vast complexities we supermarket cyborgs are embroiled within.

To ask about the moral and behavioural effects of supermarkets is to face the general condition of the contemporary cyborg - a kind of accidental ignorance I call in The Virtuous Cyborg ‘shallow-sightedness’. We are unable (and unwilling) to attempt a full picture of the inconceivable vastness of our cybernetic networks. We fill a trolley unaware that we are sustaining the poverty of sugar farmers, funding sweat shops, or keeping animals in dire conditions. Perhaps we suspect our impact, but ease our consciences by not thinking about it, or try to navigate the minefield via notions of ‘fair trade’ or ‘ethical shopping’ that flatten the wide view of the network into something that feels more manageable. Mostly, out of sight is out of mind.

Humanity is blessed with the intelligence to solve great technical problems and implement systems on a scale of complexity that rivals the intricacies of the natural world. Yet we cyborgs are cursed with a lack of wisdom that springs at its heart from our elevation of the individual in a way that allows us to equate liberty with the freedom to choose from the shelves of the supermarket, emancipated to enrich the wealthy and exploit the planet. When the philosophers of the Enlightenment argued for our self-determination and liberty, I feel quite sure this servitude to the checkout was not quite what they had in mind.

Wisdom was always a collective knowledge, a skill exercised by communities. When the scale of the systems required to feed us exceeds our mental grasp, the possibility of making wise decisions is shorn from possibility. Is there a wisdom of supermarkets beyond the shallow bribery of discounting and spurious offers? What could it possibly be?

A Hundred Cyborgs, #89

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