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The US Food and Drug Administration has decided tentatively that meat and milk from cloned animals are the same as from normal animals, so it is not going to require those products to carry special labels.

Too bad.

It’s not that I think cloned food is dangerous. I’m not a scientist, but I believe them, and from what I can see—and, I haven’t looked into this at all, so the following opinion is worth less than the time it’s taking you to read it—cloned food is safe. But that’s not the point. I’d still like the labels to note that the animals were cloned because more metadata is always good. If people don’t want to eat clones for whatever reason, they should be enabled to make that choice. In fact, we’d be better off with full access to the information about what we’re purchasing. Where was the cow raised? What was it fed? What was its weight? What was its body fat ratio? How old was it? Did it get to roam free? Did it have a sweet smile? What was its sign? We’re better off being able to access it all, no matter how farfetched.

But, because of the nature of non-digital reality, taking up label space with a notice that the meat is cloned would itself be metadata indicating that the government thinks such information is worth noting. Metadata in the physical world is a zero sum game.

And that means not only is it true that (as Clay Shirky says) “metadata are worldview,” physical labels are politics. We are forced to make value-driven decisions by the constraints of the physical (labels take up valuable space), the biological (human eyes require fonts to be sized above a certain minimum) and the economic (it is not feasible to attach an almanac of information to every chicken wing). But online, all those limit go away…

…except for the economic. It would be expensive to do a cholesterol count for every slaughtered cow (assuming that cows have cholesterol) simply to gather information that so far nobody cares about, but there’s plenty of information that we’re gathering anyway or for which there is predictable interest—e.g., cloning—that we could make available online (via a unique identifier for each slab of flesh). There would still be politics in the decision about which information to put into the extended set, but it would be a more inclusive, bigger tent, allowing customers to decide according to their own cockamamie values.

And isn’t cockamamie consumerism what democracy is all about? [Tags: ]

One Response to “metadata + reality = politics”

  1. on 01 Jul 2008 at 8:16 amoniw xhskze

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