For the past month, I have been without a microwave. My roommate moved out, got married, and took the microwave. I know, this seems unfair. I've come to terms with it and moved past it. Despite these deep rifts, we remain friends. I considered it a mark of maturity on my part.
The plan all along has been to get a new microwave, and its delay can only be blamed on my own procrastination. That and my penchant for social experiments in technology. This microwave-less month was just such an opportunity, so I took advantage of it.
I've been living as a bachelor now for more years than I had anticipated, and slowly I've begun to adopt practices which could legitimately be called cooking. This includes knowing how to preheat the oven, draping a towel over my shoulder, and having a spice rack. For a bachelor I feel these are real accomplishments. I consider them marks of character as well. Nonetheless, I still shop for groceries as infrequently as possible (for anything, for that matter). I cook as infrequently as possible and have developed a "leftovers strategy" at restaurants. I can spot predestined leftovers well before I've ordered a meal or turned on the stove. What I lack in enthusiasm for cooking, I try to make up for with a dash of foresight.
That said dinner tonight required the following ingredients: milk, Frosted Mini-Wheats. The measurements aren't an exact science. With cooking, I've learned what you can eyeball and what you should use a teaspoon for (e.g., garlic). Tonight, no precision was necessary.
So, I've been living without a microwave. But more than that, here's what surprised me most: I haven't really missed the microwave. I've found, in fact, that not having one has forced me to cook real meals most evenings, or to eat cold sandwiches. Maybe that menu sounds like a sparse existence to you, but to me it sounds healthier than almost any edible item I've microwaved for 3 minutes. (In fact, in microwaving food, I've discovered this principle: As microwave time increases, taste quality decreases.)
Being without a microwave also forced me to learn some old-fashioned tricks. I had to call my mom in week 3 to ask how to reheat leftovers. You just add a little milk or water and put it on the stove. I didn't know.
This ignorance is the interesting reality of technological progress. When new technology supersedes the old, you quit learning how to do things "the old-fashioned way." The options created by new technology aren't necessarily more. Sometimes they're less. Often, I can accomplish many of the same things, but the method changes. And old methods are lost. A microwave gives me different options than a stove, but I never used the stovetop to its own full potential.
During my month without a microwave, I ate better and healthier than during any month with one. I made real food. There was no fallback plan (except for Mini-Wheats). I may have spent more time cooking and standing in the kitchen, and that's only a drawback if efficiency is your only priority. Yet, I didn't notice a loss of time—of course, I only eyeballed it—and the pace was nice. Learning how to cook—I mean real food—is a benefit I don't get when the microwave is around.
The very presence of a microwave changes the environment by changing the options. It changes what kinds of food I have on hand, whether it’s boxed meals in the freezer or raw ingredients in the pantry. An environment itself can change because of an object within that environment. It can change what foods the grocery has, and how big the freezer section is. The same is true for shovels, smartphones, and lightbulbs. Technology reshapes the environment it inhabits. And new technologies spring up in turn.
The microwave changes the options and the environment, but it also alters what I know and what I know how. It doesn't force me to do anything, sure, but I have to resist it, and make cooking a conscious priority. If I'm ever to learn how to cook, ever to become more than just a bachelor, I have to decide against the microwave. It's a mark of maturity.
If the microwave’s presence in my kitchen changes the environment that much, how much more does the Internet’s omnipresence change our surroundings? If it hasn’t, it will.
As much as a microwave can change an environment, its absence can transform as well. Not only that, it can change me. Living without a microwave has helped me see myself and my food differently. That is a real change. But it’s me who’s changed.
That shouldn’t be ignored. Our technology changes our relationships to the world, and in so doing, changes us.
My month without a microwave helped me see how I relate to food—Is it an object to use and consume or a process to enjoy? Is food objectified and eating pragmatic, or is food the fruit of our labor and eating its reward?