Joseph F. Turcotte, PhD

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Virtuous Vices

In other words, the space agency was required to enrich America’s businesses by allowing them to profit from the technologies it invented. – Peter Nowak, p. 154

In Sex, Bombs and Burgers Canadian journalist Peter Nowak provides an accessible and entertaining look into the influences behind some of the most important technological innovations in recent history. In doing so, Nowak looks at a number of unconventional and unexpected facilitators of everyday innovations. Focusing on the adult entertainment (porn), military and food industry connections allows Nowak to explore how vastly divergent interests have helped pave the way for changes in everything from home electronics, household cleaning and cooking supplies and the food that we eat. And as Nowak writes, even “the all-time bestselling toy, the Barbie doll, was the product of space-age military thinking”.

The author’s treatment of the much-maligned US military-industrial complex (USMIC) provides a nice counterpoint to critics who view it as nothing other than a purveyor of imperialism and destruction. This is not to diminish the negatives associated with the USMIC (there are many); rather, it is interesting to see how everything from Google Earth, microwaves, saran wraps, plastics, cold medicines and processed foods are implicated with the US’ drive to be first militarily and technologically.

Perhaps the most influential and transformative technology to have come out of the USMIC has been the Internet. While the Internet’s connections with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) are well documented, Nowak goes a step further to shed some light on other interesting connections between the World Wide Web and the US military.

In one way or another technology firms such as Intel and Apple have links to military-funded research institutes. Meanwhile, the connection between video games and the atomic bomb is an interesting revelation.

Also interesting is Nowak’s connection between porn and technological innovation. Using the infamous Paris Hilton sextape as a jumping-point, he connects advances in home electronics—video cameras, the VCR, and even cable and telephone infrastructure—to the adult entertainment industry. Perhaps unsurprising, visual internet file standards such as JPEG, GIF and MPEG owe their existence to the push from suppliers such as Playboy. While maligned in the same way that the USMIC is, albeit for different reasons and often by different groups, Sex, Bombs and Burgers helps to establish a link between the industry that helped spur the sexual revolution to the technological revolution that is currently in train.

Throughout the book, Nowak argues that it is our most basic needs—as well as money—that have helped push technology forward. From fighting to sex to food, he makes this point clear. Genetically modified foods have become a growth industry as have new ways of food production and processing. The need for faster, cheaper and more food has helped create changes in the ways we eat. Much of this can be attributed to McDonald’s whose press for efficiency and standardization makes it the Wal-Mart of the food industry. In large part this has dramatically affected the types and quality of food being offered. The large-scale demand that McDonald’s commands means that it helps create standards that the rest of the industry follows—for good or bad.

By extolling the innovations that fighting, sex and food have contributed to our everyday lives, Sex, Bombs and Burgers demonstrates the good that can come from these various industries. He does not, however, diminish the negatives as he clearly demonstrates the juxtaposition to positive innovations and negative developments. At the same time though, this book leads one to believe in the inevitability of a better world in which technology (and robots) remove many of the mundane aspects of our daily lives and help to create a better and more (globally) prosperous future.

The commitment from DARPA to allow for an almost open-sourced nature to its innovations—through collaboration and licensing with corporations—demonstrates how technological innovation is spurred by an open eco-system. Closing off access to the valuable knowledge that DARPA and its affiliates created (and continue to create) would likely have led to a drastically different world. Fair and balanced intellectual property rights can help ensure that the advances created through DARPA, et al can reach a broader segment of industry—and inevitably us.

As Nowak writes: “traditional industries are having to come to grips with the fact that in the new digital world, the old ways of doing business may no longer work”. Opening information up and freeing innovation from some measures of proprietary control could go a long way towards creating an innovative global economy.

Sex, Bombs and Burgers demonstrates that “the technological development has come full circle—while many toys and games began as offshoots of military technology [and other industries’ concerns], they are now influencing and changing that same technology”. Capitalizing upon this success and adapting it for other industries (and the global economy) will prove important for securing the type of promising future that Nowak’s book envisions.

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