Your cup of coffee is a dystopian nightmare

How products from fictional futures creep into our capitalist society

Artwork by Brendan James O'Shea Artwork by Brendan James O'Shea

There are endless ways to be pretentious in Sydney. My preferred method is religiously using the Bonsoy website to find cafés where the iconic soy milk brand is available. Upon disclosing this habit to a close friend, I was told about Soylent.

Soylent is best described as a fancy meal-replacement drink. It was created by a guy called Rob Rhineheart in 2014. At the time of Soylent’s conception, Rhineheart was a struggling student in Atlanta, Georgia, getting by on instant ramen and vitamin-C gummies.

The idea of ‘food’ just wasn’t cutting it for him. Going to the trouble of biting, chewing, swallowing, and even digesting food seemed futile, when it was only the vitamins that his body needed in order to survive—not to mention the thousands of dollars wasted each year when food goes bad and is thrown out.

Rhineheart then ordered powdered versions of 35 essential nutrients off the internet, threw them into a blender with a bit of water, and Soylent was born. After a while, he realised that he could stave off hunger by consuming only the mixture for weeks on end. With the help of an online crowdfund, Silicon Valley big-dogs got wind of Rhineheart’s Dickensian gruel, and helped make it slightly more appealing for the tastebuds. Now, Soylent is available in over six flavours, including mocha and chai.

The most interesting thing about Soylent, however, is not the minimalist brand itself, but its peculiar namesake. Those of you familiar with the 1973 post-apocalyptic dystopian film Soylent Green may remember that, in the film, Soylent actually takes the form of food rations that are made of human flesh.

As of late, it’s not uncommon for goods and services to be named after fictional products in dystopian film and fiction. Soma, the fictional pleasure-inducing drug popularised by Huxley’s Brave New World, has been reincarnated in several business models: an online women’s lingerie store, and a popular coffee shop in Ultimo.

Curiously, Soma is also the brand name of carisoprodol, a prescription-only skeletal muscle relaxant medicine. This is often taken recreationally, bearing some resemblance to Huxley’s original brainchild.

The endgame of dystopian fiction is often to sow seeds of alarm and apprehension among consumers. But strangely, such anxieties are now being enthusiastically appropriated by companies. Dystopian motifs have been repurposed and commodified for drinkers of plant based milk, avid coffee aficionados, and casual drug users—perhaps your average Sydney University student.

It may just be a coincidence that Soma and Soylent draw their branding from dismal futuristic stories. Although, even when we strip the products of their titles, the reality may be that our current existence is itself dystopian.

In a world where soybean production leaves less of a carbon footprint than dairy milk, we tell ourselves that we’re drinking soy—or Soylent—to reduce impact on our rapidly degrading environment. We frequent cafes, like SOMA, to hyper-caffeinate ourselves, to encourage our trudge through potentially useless degrees. We show up at house parties, and take mind numbing drugs as a recluse from the stresses of living in an achingly capitalist, money-driven society. Are we slowly finding ourselves in an ironic yuppie fiction?

Can we still turn to dystopian novels as a warning of what’s to come, when in fact, parts of them already exist?

The fact that Orwell’s ‘Ministry of Truth’ is conceptually mirrored in  contemporary news dissemination by the antics of outlets such as Fox News (who are but a mouthpiece for the current U.S. administration and its fans) is all good and well. But it might be more prudent to look beyond misapprehended contemporary parallels to phenomena in bygone sci-fi texts, and look inward to the smaller details. Our personal habits, and tendencies to maintain loyalty to certain brands, products and lifestyles may hint at the depressing reality that capitalism by its very nature (and the choices that it necessitates) keeps us encased in a dystopic dome without us even realising.

At what point in time do we realise that the current system is failing us, and even subjugating us to its control? It might be when we notice dystopic notions become embedded in our daily lives. This thought alone gives more credence to a reason for revolt.