Column A few hours after a meal, there's sometimes a nasty moment. The stomach does a bit of a churn, and you wonder, 'Oh god, what have I eaten?'
In the anxious minutes hoping things downstairs calm down, we might wonder if there isn't some way to know (or better, avoid) these tense moments.
Food production – vast, complex and crowded with different actors – remains almost entirely opaque to us, except in the rare occasion when we grow something for our own palette. To lift a fork to your mouth requires a leap of faith – backed up by health codes and the threat of fines, to be sure – but prevention will always be a thousand times better than any threat of punishment. And, as the Chinese learned after melamine-tainted baby formula killed many children, faith can be recovered only with great difficulty.
Although blockchain enthusiasts assure us that they will some day track the provenance of every morsel on our plates, providing all that information on the dinner plate may only confuse a diner. We need a different sort of tool, one that gives us a thumbs up/down when the plate has been placed before us – something a bit like Star Trek's tricorder, capable of sensing the chemical constituents of a meal.
That would have been a big ask before the latest breakthroughs in "microspectroscopy". Shine an invisible near-infrared light on something, read the reflected spectrum, analyse it, and voila! Every chemical has a unique spectrographic fingerprint, every food its unique recipe, and every toxin its own signature. All of that can be detected after a moment's scan.
The technology behind microspectroscopy sounds complicated, but given smartphones regularly use far more sophisticated componentry – such as Apple's FaceID depth camera or Google's Project Soli radar – microspectroscopy sounds like an easy win, low-hanging fruit for a device maker looking for the next must-have feature.
On top of that sensor we'll see components that can scan food for toxins, break down the fat, protein and carbohydrate content of your dinner, possibly even check your medicines for quality. Anything that goes into our bodies will be scanned – and it's almost guaranteed that what we'll learn about the purity of our industrial-scale food production will shock us.
While we will greatly benefit from a new ability to scan and analyse the food on our plates, we confront a greater challenge: how do we detect when we're been fed a line? A hundred years of public relations – and the whole human history of deceit – has made us adepts of spin, misdirection and outright mendacity. Add in the amplifications of social media, and we now confront a world where people shovel all sorts of excrement into their minds all day long, in the belief they're getting nourished.
What sort of light can we shine on this, the mind's food, probing its constituents, examining its sources, and testing its veracity? Sugar-coated lies go down a treat, inevitably followed by that horrible, stomach-turning moment of realisation. How do we avoid that? Can we imagine a "device" – the functional equivalent of a microspectrometer – for truth?
People will always argue over truth, just as we argue about nutrition. And while we may never know the comfort of black-and-white standards of truth and lies, we can and should be aware that what we're being fed can help sustain us – or might make us sick.
In the absence of any such tools for truth, we rely – as we always have – on trust. (It might even be that you're reading The Register because we've done our best to be worthy of your trust for going on a quarter of a century.) Trust is a strong foundation, but how can trust scale? Not just in reach (that's easy) but in involvement? How can one trustworthy actor lead to more?
These sorts of questions can't be answered by any bit of kit. Tech can help, but only where it helps us both to be truthful, and to know the truth. First, we've got to learn how to suck the poison out. That's a human project, and hard work. ®