Day 6

Don't call it 'dieting': Silicon Valley's next big hack might happen in your body

Under the guise of increasing productivity, Silicon Valley companies and CEOs are selling products and ideas the diet industry previously marketed to women. But Silicon Valley's brand of dieting is using new language and finding new targets — men.

'It seems like the self is the next device,' says tech writer Amanda Mull

On a podcast last month, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said he follows an 'intermittent fasting' diet — eating one meal on weekdays and just water on the weekends. (David Becker/Getty Images)
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Silicon Valley's next big revolution might have more to do with your body than technology — but the word "diet" likely won't be in their marketing materials.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey told podcaster Ben Greenfield last month that he only eats one meal each weekday and fasts over the weekend. According to Dorsey, it has helped him to be more efficient at work.

The social network founder has been vocal about his approach to wellness. He's an advocate of meditation and says he walks eight kilometres to work each day.

He also reportedly starts each morning with "salt juice" — a concoction of water, Himalayan salt and lemon.

While some research suggests that there are benefits to a diet like Dorsey's — better known as "intermittent fasting" — others have suggested it's reminiscent of eating disorders.

Amanda Mull, a writer for the Atlantic, told Day 6 host Brent Bambury that it's a part of Silicon Valley's attempts to "biohack" humans, an idea that encourages people to be as efficient and productive as possible through diet, exercise — and, of course, technology.

But with diets often considered a topic of women's magazines, Silicon Valley is reframing potentially dangerous health habits to be more appealing to men, says Mull.

Here is part of their conversation.

This is a line from your article: You said, "Silicon Valley, not content with external devices, has pivoted to the self as the next great frontier." That sounds ominous, Amanda. What do you mean?

I think it is pretty ominous. Silicon Valley has found great success manufacturing, first, devices: computers, iPhones, tablets, all kinds of things. And then to outfit those devices all kinds of apps to help us communicate and track ourselves and track our lives — and for them to track us.

But now we've sort of hit the logical extremes at least for current technology. So a lot of Silicon Valley companies are looking for ways to now modify human behaviour: to modify how we act, how productive we are, how efficient we are. So it seems like the self is the next device.

What are the means of doing this [biohacking]?

There's pretty much as many ways to biohack as there historically have been ways to diet.

A lot of these practices are services or products that have traditionally been marketed to women as simple weight loss tools.

So you get meal replacement shakes, you get eating plans, scheduled activities, scheduled suggestions for when you should eat or not eat, all in the guise of productivity, instead of explicitly weight loss.

I love that you said "guise," because it sounds like they're doing everything they can to not say the word dieting.

Yes, dieting is feminine-coded.

There's a marketing concept of gender contamination, which is when one thing or product or service becomes too associated with women, men don't want to buy it.

Dieting is traditionally a feminized thing, so we've got to find a new word for dieting if we're going to sell it to men.

The endorsement of behaviours that are potentially harmful from someone that influential and powerful and famous is, I think, a cause for concern.- Amanda Mull, the Atlantic

Why should we care what Jack Dorsey is eating, or when he's eating, or when he's not eating?

Jack is particularly public about his wellness practices including his more extreme dietary practices.

Tech CEOs are enormously wealthy. They're enormously influential. They have a lot of control over the systems with which people interact these days.

And also, they have a lot of influence on how people who want to be successful, want to be rich, want to be powerful might try to act in order to emulate them.

So the endorsement of behaviours that are potentially harmful from someone that influential and powerful and famous is, I think, a cause for concern.

This is coming from the tech sector. These are supposed to be some of the smartest people in the world. Does the language of technology make otherwise strange dieting advice seem legitimate?

Yes. I think that technology's language tends to make things sound scientific and righteous and logical ... in a way that, I think, a lot of people have sort of come to understand that diet advice aimed toward women often isn't.

So if these enormously successful people, who are held out as being smart by a lot of their peers and a lot of people who want to be like them, make it sound like science is supporting the choices that they've made, that has a chance to make it seem like a reasonable thing to try to a lot of people who might otherwise catch it as something extreme and potentially dangerous.

In this case, this is not women pushing this on women — which I think some women are attuned to and kind of on guard against. This is guys pushing stuff on guys. So is it different then?

I think it is different. A lot of women — certainly not all women, but I think a lot of women — have developed over a lifetime some coping skills and some ability to decode these kinds of messages, either because they struggled with disordered eating at some point in their lives or they know somebody who has.

It's extraordinarily common especially among adolescents, among women.

So you end up sort of on guard and sort of skeptical in a way that if you had not had any personal experience with disordered eating in the past … you might be a little bit more susceptible to some of these sales pitches that are sort of just recycling old ideas, which makes men such a fertile market for it.


To hear the full interview with Amanda Mull, download our podcast or click 'Listen' at the top of this page.

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