Herbs and cyberspice - what's cooking on the Net
© Copyright 1994-2002, Rishab Aiyer Ghosh. All rights reserved.
Electric Dreams #31

The last thing you would expect to find a lot of in cyberspace is food. Food, after all, needs to be eaten. Eating is pretty difficult in cyberspace, which doesn't mean that you can't try, but fibre optic cables are hard to digest. Cuisine is an art encompassing all the senses. Unlike single-sense art forms such as music or painting that adapt well to cyberspatial hi-fi sound transmission equipment and real-time video-conferencing technology, to eat you need to see, hear, smell, taste and feel, all this before you swallow.

On the other hand, food fanatics like to commune. They adore arguing over the ratio of sesame to lemon in hummus or the right amount to cool a souffl‚. Usually they do all this when sitting opposite each other, presumable at arm's length from all the exotic ingredients required for an inspired bit of cooking or a food fight. But as soon as people form communities, they can enter cyberspace - which is where you can find gourmets and cooking enthusiasts from all over the world, exchanging recipes, tips and heavenly eating experiences.

The Internet is actually a very good place to talk about food. It encourages an extremely open society, one which sees no distinctions of geography or nationality, and where the only differences between people are their ideas. Ideas without artificial cultural boundaries, ideas that are judged and responded to on their own merit. The delay between a proposal and the response means that you are not obliged to gather your thoughts immediately, in real time. Instead you live in the virtual time of concepts, which develop as you contemplate them, unhampered by the distractions of real people who are their creators. At least, that's the ideal.

Replace 'idea' with 'cuisine' or 'recipe' and you see how cyberspace could possibly foster discussion about food. As always on the Internet, the best source for cuisine wisdom is on the newsgroups and mailing lists. The major newsgroups cover food per se, along with more specialized areas for such interesting subjects as coffee, beer, sour dough, ancient Egyptian cookery, wine-making and vegetarianism. For doctors and nutritionists there is a forum to discuss the daily calorie requirements of a 23 year old male Vietnamese prison inmate, and there is the moderated forum for the sole purpose of requesting and posting complete recipes.

Food on cyberspace is not limited to discussion. There are all those static resources, the archives of files and documents and descriptions and conversion tables. With the spread of the World Wide Web, the graphical, friendly hypertext interface to the Net, there are a number of cookbooks and restaurant guides up for remote access. And some restaurants - the Taste of India Tandoori Take Away, physically located somewhere in the UK. The Internet offers great scope for cooperative cooking activities. It may not be possible to make a communal 20,000 egg omelette over electronic links, but one could have global cooking competitions over the wires.

One day perhaps, we'll actually have restaurants at the ends of the universe providing the truly illusory dining experience. After all, if the best researchers in synthetic materials can spend years on data suits and other intricate devices to make possible virtual sex, there's no reason not to create technologies for virtual cuisine too, and spend all one's life in cyberspace!

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