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Tellspec and the Quest to know your food

2013 December 18

What is with the Tellspec hype this season?

Tellspec Truffle

Tellspec is a little handheld device that looks like a mouse (that’d be a computer mouse, not a real one), which you wave over your food–

Wait, wait for the beep of recognition–

And information about pesticides, gluten, allergens, nutrients, and more appear magically on your smartphone (which you’d also have to have, of course).

If you’ve got any allergy or health issues that make you sensitive to particular ingredients common in food, then this is the device for you. Even if you have no such issues, here you have one simple, relatively cheap device which figures out food for you. You need never worry again. Your quest to know what’s in your food is at an end. Never leave home without Tellspec.

Tellspec has been much in the news: FastCo, HuffPo, Mashable, you name it; the promissory capacities of science vocabularies are leveraged in full force to anoint Tellspec the x-ray solution for our chemically-saturated times; straight out of Star Trek, the smaller-than-your-phone device to alleviate suffering, and bring about world peace. [Well, nobody actually promises world peace, but it's pretty darned close.]

But what is Tellspec? How does it work?

Engadget: “The device is essentially a miniature spectrometer — a device that can analyze materials (ingredients, in this case) by measuring properties of light.”

Mashable: “TellSpec beams a low-powered laser at the food in question, and low-energy photons are then emitted back to the TellSpec’s spectrometer, which sorts the photons by wavelength and determines what chemical compounds are within.”

Digital Trends: “That magic wand is technically a spectrometer scanner. With a custom algorithm and a companion app on your smartphone, the TellSpec can determine the allergens, chemicals, nutrients, calories, and ingredients in the food. Here’s how it works: According to TellSpec, “Light is made up of particles called photons. When you beam the low-powered laser in the TellSpec scanner at the food, some of the photons are absorbed, raising the energy states of the molecules in the food. Lower energy photons are then reflected back. The spectrometer inside the TellSpec scanner sorts these photons by wavelength and counts them. The resulting numbers, called a spectrum, describe the chemical compounds in the food.” The spectrum is sent to an ‘analysis engine’ in the cloud via your phone (through Bluetooth), and all the aforementioned nutritional info is then sent back to your phone.”

Magic wands. Custom algorithms. Companion apps. Photons, lasers, spectrums. The path to health. A way to “beam” my health up? Wow. I’m about to go sign up for the prototype beta version, when I start to read comment upon comment that calls the project bunkum. Even those that quip about finally being able to tell the recipe for Coke aren’t buying. No, really? Alongside so much promise, so much skepticism?

I decide to consult our in-house scientist-cum-physician-by-default [Verne], and our own Shari-Ann whose work is with mass spectrometry instruments. And they concur: bunkum (but being scientists to the core, they say: “very likely bunkum”). The company would need to have a database already established, but what about interference? What about ingredients not researched? A worthwhile spectrometer for barely $250, really? Either that, or there’s something about the process that nobody’s revealing.

My point here, however, is not to discredit the Tellspec, though I do (always) err on the side of the skeptic. What interests me is more the consecutive movements of this unfolding narrative, and what they tell us about contemporary techno-inflected belief-systems, characterized by hyped fascinations on the one hand, and grave skepticisms on the other. We live in the space between these ends.

From being impossible (but cult-like belief-inducing) sci-fi, we have now caught up with Star Trek. Religion has failed us, politics even more, media–don’t get me started. So we’ve placed our faith in Technology-with-a-capital-T. Circuits and machines mediate so much of our daily lives, smartness is everywhere, we even hear that thinking is happening in the Cloud, how could it be that technology wouldn’t save us from our most basic of human problems, that of knowing our own food?

Right, we also believe that we cannot know our food without the aid of technology. So thick are the deceptions of marketers and producers, we have no idea what it is we are eating. We are kept from knowing what it is we’re eating. [Yes, it's a conspiracy, but that's another story.]

Our categories are molecular: allergens, pesticides, steroids, specific ingredients like gluten. They do not break food down into the properties (“doshas“) an ayurvedic physican might identify as suitable for your body: vata, pitta, kapha, or combinations thereof. We speak of personalized diets and medicine, yet our approaches are universalizing. [Thanks to my friend Arvind for this point.]

We believe that more information=more choices. Or better choices. Never mind that more information about all things under the sun has also made our choices that much more intractable, and our risks that much more overwhelming.

Speed is at the base of everything, for magic wands perform no magic without speed. Wave an instrument, activate a thinking Cloud, get results on a smartphone. Et voila.

Intelligence is externalized, the work of smart devices and intelligent clouds (less and less human minds). Analysis is the work of companies providing services (less and less scientists doing research). Technology fills in our blanks.

We want magic, badly, in part because choices and decisions have become overwhelming. It’s not just analysts who deal with Big Data. Just knowing the large implications of little decisions (paper or plastic? regular or fair trade? or organic?) inserts Big into Little in overwhelming ways. And we’d like some magic to deal with all that, from time to time.

Hey, if Tellspec actually comes through and brings us that little magic, just in time for Christmas, nobody will be happier than I. For the moment, however, it’s weedy gardens of Indravalli and Roselles for me.

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2 Responses Post a comment
  1. February 8, 2014

    Wow, that’s really interesting. When I started reading I was ready to sign up for one too, lucky I kept reading. What a great point you make that the only reason we need one at all is because the powers that be allows pesticides (and gmos and who knows what else in production) and furthermore we are becoming divorced from what real food is, we don’t know who grew it, where and how it was processed. Growing food in our own backyard seems a lot more attractive.

    • February 10, 2014

      Isn’t it though? Harder, yes; less predictable, of course; but–heck, so, so much more meaningful, not to mention healthy. Yup, we’ve divorced ourselves so much from real food that we need ways to find ourselves back. And given that technologies feature so powerfully in contemporary belief-systems, it’s logical that we look to them. But it’s like creating a problem and then creating a solution to fix the problem so that we don’t have to fundamentally rethink any of what we do. Oh, the ironies!

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