Peter Nowak’s book Sex, Bombs And Burgers: How War, Pornography And Fast Food Have Shaped Modern Technology has an interesting title. It’s all downhill from there.
The problem starts with Nowak’s writing style, which is more appropriate for an AP news brief than a 335-page book. A long-time newspaper veteran, he writes in the bland, neutral voice of an objective observer. It’s a good way to cover a city hall meeting, but it doesn’t engage the reader in the way a non-fiction book aimed at the popular audience should.
Few authors use quotes as liberally. Occasionally, as when Nowak quotes a soldier saying his tour in Iraq “was like a video game”, they add value to the narrative, but it’s mostly stuff like this: ‘“There are certainly downsides to using a can because once you take the food out you’re left with it. Unless you have a trash compactor, the volume of your trash builds up correspondingly,’ Williams says. ‘But a number of the foods are spicy, which makes them quite palatable. I was impressed with the juices they had. Instead of being a crystal that gets water added to it, these were real fruit juices. It was remarkable to get to have those.’”
Sex, Bombs And Burgers is comprised of page after page after page of these types of space-filling quotes from an innumerable number of people who quickly blend together in the reader’s mind. Nowak clearly did an immense amount of research, but he either ignores or doesn’t understand the first rule of feature writing: discard ten quotes for every one you use.
There’s no character or overarching storyline that draws the reader in. Instead, the book has a rudimentary structure of alternating chapters covering the ways pornography, the fast food industry and the military have driven technological growth over the last century.
In theory, the subjects themselves—from sex robots to virtual reality and a behind-the-scenes look at the science behind mass-food production—should be enough to keep the reader’s interest. It’s a testament to Nowak’s writing style that they do not.
Throughout, he writes from the perspective of an innocent, marveling at the wonders of modern technology. Like a diligent middle-schooler writing a book report, he repeatedly hammers home his thesis without delving into its deeper implications.
Has the overriding importance of military spending and defense research in technological development created a powerful bureaucracy which constantly searches for threats to justify its budget? Has our ability to gratify our basest impulses on a whim been a net positive for society?
Nowak has nothing to say beyond noting that our drive for food, fornication and fighting has allowed us to create robots who can drive cars. Even in the conclusion, he remains bizarrely insistent on presenting every side of an argument without weighing in: “Some argue that the sexualization of culture is a sure sign of decadence and decline. Many more think that sexual liberation and acceptance of different lifestyles are positive steps forward in our evolution.”
However, after over 335 pages, it’s clear which side he comes down on. As a technology writer, he starts from the assumption that modern technology is inherently good, therefore, whatever caused us to create that technology must be good, too.
It takes him until the final page to explicitly state his point: the road to progress is paved with “bad” intentions. Sex, Bombs And Burgers, however, was written with all the best ones, which might be why it’s so hard to read.