The Microwave Economy

My life is better because of microwavable meals. They taste good and fill me up, and they’re ready in 5 minutes. Still, I wouldn’t want to have one every time I eat: I’d miss out on the joys of fresh food and the hard-to-measure satisfaction of meal preparation. Switching to an all-microwave diet would rob me of my humanity, making me feel soulless and uninspired. 

And yet, America has become a Microwave Economy. We’ve overwhelmingly used our wealth to make the world cheaper instead of more beautiful, more functional instead of more meaningful. We don’t value what we can’t quantify, so our intuitions are given short shrift. In the name of progress, we belittle the things we know but can’t articulate. The result is an economy that prizes function over form and calls human nature “irrational”—one that over-applies rationality and undervalues the needs of the soul. 


The Problem with Microwavable Meals

Microwave meals are incomplete. They have neither the craftsmanship nor the aliveness that makes food a cultural pillar of every society. We know this intuitively. I mean, can you imagine having a microwavable meal for Thanksgiving? Something about it seems off, right?

I don’t know about you, but I feel a twinge in my soul whenever I prepare a microwave meal. It’s as if I’m trading away my humanity for hollow convenience. We eat microwavable meals because they’re cheap and easy to make. Even if some of them are delicious, they’re less likely to be healthy, and I feel worse about myself after I eat one. As I take that first bite, I feel like I’ve caved to the futile allure of cheap hedonism and distanced myself from more natural ways of eating. As the synthetic heat steams on my tongue, I think about how each aspect of the meal is designed for scale and instant gratification. I think about how the complexities of modern goods are hidden from consumers, as opposed to the Sears catalogues I used to read at my grandparents’ house, which featured blown-up diagrams of the appliances they sold because people used to nerd out about how things were constructed and form emotional connections with their prized possessions. 

But today, in the name of convenience, we have no such attachments. When our things break, we are more likely to throw them away instead of finding the joy in repairing them. And then I think about how microwave meals reflect the world we’re moving towards: one that aims to distill the complexities of human nutrition into a scalable scientific formula, with lab-created foods that can be consumed in seconds, and where the negative externalities are unrecognized and unaccounted for. 

This urge to microwavify the world isn’t limited to the food industry. In Technics and Civilization, the historian Lewis Mumford writes that our industrial mode of thinking has caused us to devalue the kind of intuitive knowledge that leads to beauty. He writes: “The qualitative was reduced to the subjective: the subjective was dismissed as unreal, and the unseen and unmeasurable non-existent… art, poetry, organic rhythm, fantasy — was deliberately eliminated.” 

As Mumford observed almost a century ago, the world loses its soul when we place too much weight on the ideal of total quantification. By doing so, we stop valuing what we know to be true, but can’t articulate. Rituals lose their significance, possessions lose their meaning, and things are valued only for their apparent utility. To resist the totalizing, but ultimately short-sighted fingers of quantification, many cultures invented words to describe things that exist but can’t be defined. Chinese architecture follows the philosophy of Feng Shui, which describes the invisible — but very real — forces that bind the earth, the universe, and humanity together. Taoist philosophy understands “the thing that cannot be grasped” as a concept that can be internalized only through the actual experience of living.1 Moving westward, the French novelist Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” And in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig describes how quality can’t be defined empirically because it transcends the limits of language. He insists that quality can only be explained with analogies, summarizing his ideas as such: “When analytic thought, the knife, is applied to experience, something is always killed in the process.” All these examples use different words to capture the same idea.

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“The Tao is forever undefined.

Small though it is in the unformed state, it cannot be grasped.

If kings and lords could harness it,

The ten thousand things would naturally obey.

Heaven and earth would come together

And gentle rain fall.

Men would need no more instruction

and all things would take their course.

Once the whole is divided, the parts need names.

There are already enough names.

One must know when to stop.

Knowing when to stop averts trouble.

Tao in the world is like a river flowing home to the sea.

— —

Tao Te Ching – Lao Tzu – chapter 32

As a society, it’s as if we’ve read too many blog posts about the 80/20 rule. When you strip away too much of the non-essential, you lose the kind of craftsmanship that endows an object with soul and makes the world feel alive. 

When you choose to live outside the Microwave Economy, you swim against the current of culture. I’m not saying that we should ban microwaves or microwave meals — or even look down on these things — but we should be aware of the all-consuming pull of quantification and explicitly state the tradeoffs we make when we engage in the Microwave Economy. Otherwise, we’ll get more of the generic language, generic music, and generic homes we see today. 


America is Becoming a Microwave Economy

The tradeoffs of making the world more efficient are too light to be felt until they’re too heavy to be broken. Consider dictionaries. Modern definitions have none of the nuance they had a century ago, as demonstrated by the changing definition of the word solitude

A quick Google search defines it as “the state or situation of being alone.” This definition is accurate in the way that microwavable foods are fulfilling. Though it’s not wrong, it misses the precision that makes solitude such a subtle and delightful word.

Contrast that with what you see when you look up “solitude” in the Webster’s 1930 dictionary:

In contrast with Webster’s definition, Google doesn’t differentiate solitude from loneliness, where your inability to connect with another human turns into pain. Yet there’s a huge difference between loneliness and the purposeful sort of solitude, where you choose to distance yourself from others to reflect and cultivate your mind. Solitude is a chance to escape society and gift yourself the time to explore the contours of your own consciousness. The shortcomings of Google’s definition don’t end there. Solitude requires isolation. You can’t really experience it in a New York City apartment. It requires the seclusion of a desert or the enchanted isolation of a National Park. Solitude is a state of mind, too. Slow… deliberate… contemplative. A chance to withdraw from the Hydra of digital life — to-do lists, Twitter feeds, read-it-later apps, group chats, Instagram DMs, those weird text messages you get every now and then from an unknown number where you have to choose between the awkward “hey, who is this?” reply or not responding at all, bills to pay, documents to sign, and emails to respond to — where every time you finish a task, two more are assigned to you. Solitude is desirable for the freedom it gives you. Distanced from social demands, you can simply follow the wishes of your heart. It’s like an extensive, eyes-open meditation. As the chatter of your mind slows to a serene silence, you turn to slower activities like journaling, meditating, and the kinds of classic novels we’ve always wanted to read but never get around to. In total, the limitations of Google’s definition show how we drain the world of texture when we strip out the subtleties.  

I see a parallel in recorded music. When the original Phonograph cylinders were invented in the late 1800s, they were the earliest commercial way to record and reproduce sound. People could play music wherever they wanted for the first time. The LPs that followed them didn’t have the depth of 45s or 78s, but they stuck around because they were easier to maintain. Music has since moved away from cassettes, CDs and now MP3 recordings which reduce file sizes by stripping away 75-95 percent of the original audio — the parts that are theoretically beyond people’s hearing capabilities. Reflecting on this trend towards convenience, the musician David Byrne wrote: “It’s music in pill form, it delivers vitamins, it does the job, but something is missing. We are often offered, and gladly accept, convenient mediums that are ‘good enough’ rather than ones that are actually better.”

Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for the convenience offered by efficiency gains, and I still remember how magical it felt to hold my blue 4GB iPod mini in the 5th grade, knowing that it could play 1,000 different songs. It’s the second order effects that concern me. One study found that in the past 50 years, musicians have restricted their pitch sequences and reduced the variety in pitch progressions. During that same time period, the majority of pop music has embraced the same 4/4 beat structure — meaning where there are four beats per bar and every new bar begins at a count of the first beat. It’s stuck because it’s the easiest signature to compose a song around. Fast and simple, just like the microwave. One writer called it “the largest scale homogenization of music in history.”

Smaller values of β indicate less timbral variety: frequent codewords become more frequent and infrequent ones become even less frequent. This evidences a growing homogenization of the global timbral palette. It also points towards a progressive tendency to follow more fashionable, mainstream sonorities.

Source: Nature, Measuring the Evolution of Contemporary Western Popular Music

The Microwave Economy is all-encompassing, and the homogenization of sound is the natural response to its gravitational pull. Convenience, not quality, is the driving force behind contemporary music — and modern life in general — but most people are blind to this. 


We’re Microwaving Ourselves and We Don’t Even Like It

One of the weirdest things about modern urbanism, and the Microwave Economy in general, is that we build the opposite of what we like. We adore Europe’s narrow and car-less streets, but build skyscraper-lined cities with sterile shopping malls and six-lane roads, where pedestrians are always on edge. But the Microwave Economy is most visible in architecture, where the industry has overwhelmingly directed its innovative muscles towards making things scalable instead of more beautiful. It has prioritized machine-like reproducibility over workman-like craftsmanship. In accordance with Mumford’s observation, the real estate industry focuses so much on easy-to-measure attributes such as square footage and the number of bedrooms in a home. But by doing so, it devalues the unmeasurable — but definitely still real — attributes that give a home life, such as natural light and the build quality of a home.  

A peculiar part of the Microwave Economy is that wealthy people aren’t immune to it. Escaping the Microwave Economy has little to do with money. You can buy flashy, but you can’t buy meaningful.2 One friend, who owns a home that belongs on a reality TV show, speaks with a self-deprecating chuckle whenever he references his McMansion. 

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 I originally wanted to include the word “taste” here. But you can buy taste by hiring a designer. That said, most of the professionally-designed homes I know look the same. They’re one-of-a-kind in the “limited edition” sense, but don’t have the hand-crafted soul that gives homes vitality.

Even if his home is grand, it’s cartoonish. To the untrained eye, the chandelier above the front door looks swanky. But as you ascend the spiral staircase on your way to the game room and get a closer look at it, you see how synthetic the crystals actually are. No matter the light conditions, they don’t create the dazzling distortions of color that only a real crystal can do.3 It’s no coincidence that America, the engine of the Microwave Economy, even changed the definition of a crystal so that it could contain less lead monoxide and therefore, be easier to manufacture. A crystal needs 10x more lead monoxide in Europe to be considered an official crystal. Thus, his chandelier is like a porn star. From far away, it has exaggerated features that capture your attention. Glamorous, you think. It’s only when you get up-close and see how lurid they really are that you begin to wonder where else you’ve been tricked and how else the home is phoney. 

It’s not the garish materials that surprise me. It’s that not even the rich and famous can transcend the Microwave Economy. Developing taste has nothing to do with the fatness of your bank account or your proximity to a Restoration Hardware gallery. Just think about it: if wealth could buy charm, the world’s wealthiest country wouldn’t be the center of the Microwave Economy.

If architecture could be a cliche, my friend’s home would be it. If he’s proud of his home, it’s because he’s proud of all the money he made to buy it, and not because of the sweat he exhausted to make it a meaningful place. That’s why his McMansion has the same Koehler faucets, the same Bed, Bath & Beyond light fixtures, the same Schlage door knobs that beep like a truck in reverse whenever you try to open them, the same flimsy cabinets, and the same paper thin doors that tempt me to run through them like Harry Potter and the 9 ¾ platform. 

Though my last apartment wasn’t nearly as nice, I experienced this deceptive build quality firsthand. This Brooklyn apartment had all the fancy appliances: a WiFi connected security system, doors that I could unlock with my phone, and a Nest thermostat that used artificial intelligence to predict my desired temperature. Futuristic, I know. Even better, I was the first tenant to ever live in the building. As sexy as that sounded when I moved in, I regretted that decision by the time I moved out. For the sake of this essay, let’s focus on just the bathroom. During my first winter in the apartment, part of the ceiling turned into a polka-dotted blue and green mold, which implied some kind of spooky situation that I was too intimidated to resolve. The tiles on my bathroom floor were cut so lazily that I could see the coarse-grained plaster underneath. The shower was even worse. Whenever I turned the water on, I had to stand in the corner and shrivel my body like a raisin because 90% of the faucet angles caused the water to leak through a small crevice between the door of the shower and the glass around it. Though I happily made sacrifices to afford New York rent, this bathroom went a step too far. But thankfully, I’m as graceful as an Olympic gymnast. Had it not been for my supple dexterity, I would have had to choose between keeping my body clean and the floor dry. Oh, and I swear. I must have contacted the building management with a new problem every two weeks. Not to mention the aesthetics. On the shower floor itself, contractors who almost certainly won the job because they bid the lowest price had left a white Sharpie mark that said “Tile #248.” It was as if the construction workers stole it off the sample shelf at Home Depot and walked out the front door with it. Looking back, the quality of that bathroom was the equivalent of a student’s rough draft being handed to the teacher instead of a final paper. The general ideas were there, but nobody bothered to check for spelling or punctuation.


To Solve the Problem, You Must See the Problem First

The pernicious thing about the Microwave Economy is that even after writing this essay, I will still fall prey to it. Knowing about it won’t make me immune to it. But only once I’m aware of it can I develop a plan to escape it. For too long, I was trapped in an intellectual slumber that only the nightmare of my Brooklyn bathroom and the soullessness of my friend’s McMansion could wake me up from. Until then, I didn’t see how the relentless grain of culture was pushing me towards such a microwave aesthetic. 

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This is where I rebel against minimalism. Though it’s a worthy counterweight to the excess of 20th-century materialism, it undervalues how material goods can become an extension of our personality. Though we shouldn’t stockpile things, our souls are nurtured by items that reflect who we are, where we’ve been, and what we stand for.

Nor did I understand the Paradox of Modern Home Design: We’ve never had so many options, but because we’re so overwhelmed by them, we all trust the same curators to make buying decisions for us. Sometimes, it’s Wirecutter. Sometimes, it’s the best-seller list on Amazon. Sometimes, it’s the curation of Fortune 500 department stores that homogenize the world but advertise the illusion of choice. Simon Sarris calls this standardization the Aesthetic Deep State: “As the availability of stores like Home Depot (founded 1978) and Lowes (21 stores in the ’60s) spread — both have over 2,000 stores each today — the commodification of house hardware intensified. Today it is easier to find the things you are looking for quickly, for example if you need a replacement doorknob. This also means that everyone’s doorknobs look almost the same. As manufacturers and distributors consolidate, while carrying only a few brands, the details of houses converge… Before you can choose any options, you are limited by which choices are even available.”

IKEA, too. If you search their website for 6 foot x 8 foot high pile rugs, you’ll see 31 options. At first, their selection feels abundant. But then you remember that IKEA earns more than $45 billion in revenue per year, which means that there are tens of thousands of other people with the same rug you bought because it “expressed your individuality.” So by trying to be different, we end up becoming the same. 


Opting Out of the Microwave Economy

When I moved into my Austin apartment, I feared that I could fall into the traps of the Microwave Economy. I had all the usual excuses: work was busy, and I didn’t want to spend too much money. My options are also limited because Austin’s public transportation system is basically non-existent and I don’t own a car.

I created this 2×2 decision matrix to distance myself from the Microwave Economy. Just as I still eat a microwavable meal from time to time, I was okay with some generic items. I wanted an apartment that wasn’t just homey, but meaningful. But I didn’t want my living space to look like a West Elm advertisement. So I categorized all my purchases into four categories:

1. Generic and Cheap: A “generic” object is something that’s commonly found in people’s houses. Generic products are functional and utilitarian, and just like a microwave meal, getting them fast and cheaply matters more than getting the perfect one. Scissors. A laundry hamper. Even though I use them all the time, I have no idea who makes them. 

2. Generic and Expensive: For anything in this category, I want to find a bargain. Though these items are some of the most expensive things in my apartment, I don’t care about the brand. I just need them to work. My couch comes to mind. From the day I moved in, I knew I wanted an 8-12 foot sectional couch. As long as it was clean, comfortable, and reasonably priced, I didn’t care where I bought it. I also didn’t see the couch as a “statement piece” or anything like that. I tried some local furniture stores, but their offerings were beyond my budget. So I used platforms like Wayfair and Facebook Marketplace instead, both because they’re affordable and my friends had good things to say about them. 

3. Stylish and Cheap: A stylish object makes your environment your own, reflecting your personality and creativity. Like a home-cooked meal, it’s where you get to express yourself. For me, this category included house plants, pots to match the blue accent color throughout my living room, obscure coffee table books like Lewis Mumford’s Architecture as a Home for Man that the owner of my local bookstore gifted to me, a 1972 New York subway map that inspired my love for map design, two framed TWA advertisements that showcase New York and San Francisco (the two cities where I’ve spent the most time), and a 2,864 page Miriam-Webster dictionary from 1958 (the same year my mom was born). Or it could be something you made. Or thrifted. Or received as a hand-me-down from a friend who recently moved. All of these totems have a personal story and all of them give me the comfort of a home-cooked meal. Together, they add up to an environment that makes somebody say: “This space is so David.”

4. Stylish and Expensive: These are the rare purchases that stick with you for years. They own you as much as you own them, so buy them deliberately. They’re the things you’ve wanted for years and would haul with you if you moved across the country. All of these purchases have a story behind them. Here, my definition of expensive is “a purchase that stings.” Due to their cost, I try not to make these purchases impulsively and aim to have a story behind them. For this apartment, my 1-150 scale United Airlines Boeing 737 model airplane comes to mind. Model airplanes were my favorite thing to collect as a kid. I’ve wanted to fill my home with them since Bill Clinton was the president. 

I’m proud of my apartment, but it’s still more microwavable than I’d like it to be. The IKEA coffee table in my living room is my biggest regret. Its minimalist style looks like something you’d find in a hospital. It was advertised as unique because of its “distinctive grain pattern.” But deep down, I know that this Lisabo coffee table is just like all the other ones I saw at the IKEA showroom — all of which are 56 inches long, lined with the same protective coat of clear acrylic lacquer, and referred to as “Article Number 702.976.58” by the in-store computer system. Someday, I hope to replace it with something more meaningful, just like I want to stop eating microwavable pasta and start making it myself. 

Until now, convenience has won the battle. That said, I should probably start looking for a more stylish table.


Cover photo by Daniel Barnes on Unsplash

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