Yummy, if you like that sort of thing.

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Soylent Is Weird, But It's Good Weird

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”
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On Monday, software engineer Rob Rhinehart published an account of his new life without alternating electrical current -- which he has undertaken because generating that current "produces 32 percent of all greenhouse gases, more than any other economic sector." Connection to the power grid isn’t all Rhinehart has given up. He also doesn’t drive, wash his clothes (or hire anyone else to wash them) or cook anything but coffee and tea. But he still lives in a big city (Los Angeles) and is chief executive officer of a corporation with $21.5 million in venture capital funding.

That corporation is Rosa Labs, the maker of Soylent, a “macronutritious food beverage” designed to free its buyers from the drudgery of shopping, cooking and chewing. In the 2,900-word post on his personal blog, Rhinehart worked in an extended testimonial for Soylent 2.0, a new, improved version of the drink -- algae and soy seem to be the two most important ingredients -- that will begin shipping in October.

One theory that made the rounds Monday was that the in-your-face weirdness of Rhinehart’s depiction of his lifestyle was a calculated effort to make the post go viral and thus promote Soylent 2.0. If that’s the case it certainly worked -- there are already lots of intrigued and outraged responses all over social media and regular media, with many more surely to come. And there are passages that do seem calculated to generate a reaction. My personal favorite:

I have not set foot in a grocery store in years. Nevermore will I bumble through endless confusing aisles like a pack-donkey searching for feed while the smell of rotting flesh fills my nostrils and fluorescent lights sear my eyeballs and sappy love songs torture my ears. Grocery shopping is a multisensory living nightmare.

Rhinehart is perfectly willing to eat at restaurants, where he goes “when craving company or flavor.” He’s also willing to fire up a butane stove to heat water for coffee or tea. It’s just shopping for food that appalls him. Laundry, too:

I get my clothing custom made in China for prices you would not believe and have new ones regularly shipped to me. Shipping is a problem. I wish container ships had nuclear engines but it’s still much more efficient and convenient than retail. Thanks to synthetic fabrics it takes less water to make my clothes than it would to wash them, and I donate my used garments.

Reality, parody or brilliant new-style marketing? You tell me. Or maybe it’s just sexism:

Still, I keep going back and rereading Rhinehart’s post. It is weirdly compelling. Part of it is that every once in a while he makes sense. On transit, for example. At the moment he gets around Los Angeles by Uber or by bus. In the future he’d like to see:

Perhaps a cross between a subway car and an automobile: some sort of self-driving electric pod that carried a dozen people in a UberPool model would improve on this.

That paragraph didn’t end there, though. The next sentence was,“Either that, robot horse cheetahs, or drone multicopters.” And overall, the real appeal of Rhinehart is his willingness -- nay, eagerness -- to come across as extremist and/or nutty. He is a technologist who despises much modern technology. It isn't just kitchen appliances and washing machines that gross him out -- televisions and air conditioners are on his blacklist as well. Cars, too, although at this point he can’t avoid riding in them from time to time. He does like his computer, though, and hopes to live in a space colony someday.

In short, Rob Rhinehart is odd. And oddness has its economic uses. Don’t believe me? Believe Paul Graham, in his much-cited essay on “How to be Silicon Valley”:

[A] place that tolerates oddness in the search for the new is exactly what you want in a startup hub, because economically that's what startups are. Most good startup ideas seem a little crazy; if they were obviously good ideas, someone would have done them already.

Graham is the founder of Y Combinator, the famous Silicon Valley funder/incubator/accelerator of startups where, it just so happens, Soylent got its start. He has been criticized for promoting mainly a very particular, male-oriented brand of oddness, and there’s something to that. But Rinehart’s very particular, male-oriented brand of oddness has at least generated an interesting product.

Yes, there are already lots of meal-replacement and nutritional-supplement drinks out there, but as Rhinehart told the Verge, “they're loaded with sugar, they're just way too sweet, and they don't really have the macronutrient balance or the glycemic index that I would feel comfortable sustaining myself on or a user on.” Soylent substitutes self-righteous strangeness for the sugar. Seems like a pretty good trade to me.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net