Morozov is concerned about solutionism because it recasts social conditions that demand deeper philosophical and political consideration as simple hurdles for technology. The availability of certain types of solutions—the app-driven “sharing economy” and so forth—make them seem like the right solutions for problems just because they are available as solutions.
But solutionism has another, subtler downside: It trains us to see everything as a problem in the first place. Not just urban transit or productivity, but even hamburgers. Even ketchup!
The fact that tech rags like Tech Insider and Mashable are covering ketchup leather as technology or innovation exemplifies the issue. When presented as a solution, ketchup leather demands that a problem exist. And so we invent one—sogginess, for example.
In truth, what’s really going on at Plan Check, the Los Angeles restaurant credited with “solving” the burger problem through ketchup leather, is something far more modest—and more interesting—than solutionism allows.
Specifically, an ancient food-preparation technique, dehydration, is being applied in a novel and clever way. There’s no problem whatsoever, and certainly not one solved by dried slaps of tomato paste. If your burgers are soggy, it probably means they’re not being cooked to proper temperature. Some folks love their meat medium-rare, but a medium or well-done burger makes for better hand-edible cooked sandwiches (and also better protects you from the risk of food contamination).
When seen from a culinary rather than a technological vantage point, the ketchup-leather technique doesn’t solve a problem so much as it offers a different way of experiencing ketchup on burgers. The pleasure of a cheeseburger comes from the hot patty’s ability to melt and meld with the cheese, yielding a glorious merger of flavors. When squeezed or even spread, condiments must either be applied to the bun or atop the patty. Both approaches resist incorporating the flavors into the burger itself. By dehydrating tomato paste, Plan Check is able to create a thin layer of ketchup flavor that reconstitutes into the burger like cheese.
It also serves an ornamental and exhibitionist purpose, of course. Anyone who’s made meatloaf knows that getting tomato flavor into ground beef is a “solved problem,” as it were. But the delight of watching ketchup melt like cheese is one that burger lovers are justified in wanting to experience. To encounter familiar materials in new ways is one of the delights of dining.
But to call ketchup leather a solution to the problem of burgers is to miss the point. When simple, deliberate technique becomes recast as innovative problem-solving, it seems to respect and even exalt cookery. Even here innovation can flourish, in the humble home of the hamburger! The same is true of our tendency to call any sort of clever idea a hack—“hack your burger with ketchup leather.” In truth, these moves have a different effect: They reincorporate subjects like hamburgers into the domain (and therefore the values) of the contemporary technology industry, rather than allowing them to remain just what they are. In this case, foodstuffs. Burgers. Lunch.