The bento box is our digital future

Value beyond self-interest

Welcome to Wait! Just Listen, a digitally handcrafted newsletter on the seemingly mundane, inconspicuous and yet defining stories nestled within our online communities. If you enjoy my musings, please subscribe for a regular dose of freshly penned thoughts. My readers are my partners in thinking and your comments and ideas are always greatly cherished.


The bento box first surfaced in 1185 (the 5th century) during the Kamakura period, when they were used to carry rice by Japan’s farmers, hunters and warriors. The concept behind its grid based design was inspired from the humble farmer’s seed box typically used to categorise various types of plantation seeds throughout the season. The etymology of ‘bento’ stems from the term biàndāng, a Chinese colloquialism from the Southern Song Dynasty, which quite literally means “convenient”. The underlying principle behind the bento box is simple. It espouses variety and balance without unnecessary excess. This unassuming carry-all also posits a novel framework for understanding ‘value’ as compellingly presented in Yancey Strickler’s book, “This could be our future - A manifesto for a more generous world".

For Strickler the bento box presents a visualisation of various outcomes in our life. It tells us what is out there beyond the confining limitations of self-interest. It points towards a broader sense of how our individual values ultimately influence the outcomes within our social ecosystem - the people, institutions and communities we interact with in our lives. Strickler describes it as a novel alternative way of thinking about value outside the capitalistic perimeters of financial maximisation.

The book memorably explains the bento philosophy using basic game theory. It presents a hypothetical dilemma for two prisoners, placed in separate interrogation rooms, who must choose whether to be loyal to each other and go to jail or inform on each other to go free. Each square encapsulates what an individual would do when considering: his/her interests (“Now Me”), his/her future (“Future Me”), the collective fate of both at present (“Now Us”) and the collective fate of both in the future (“Future Us”).

The point of the exercise is to evaluate various outcomes in each scenario with the assumption that each of these outcomes are based on your own inner values - not some arbitrary rule or expectation. The assessment of any situation stems from “Now Me”, but any conclusion or decision in this space influences the other 3 scenarios. The beauty of the bento model is in how it interprets causality, not as a concrete chain of events but one that is delicately poised on what we chose to prioritise in our lives based on our innate belief systems.

I like to understand the bento model as a conceptual magnifying glass that showcases the role of our values in the larger scheme of things. It isn’t prescriptive in that it doesn’t tell you what to do when faced with a specific conundrum. Instead, it gently facilitates a flavour of introspection into what really matters to us in a given scenario and the potential impact of those actions on current and future visions of ourselves and our community. It is then up to us to decide on what the course of action will be.

Armed with this analytical clarity, I found myself pondering on what ‘value’ actually means for digital technology and its associated communities, in a world sandwiched between competing and conflicting instances of capitalistic excess. As a human race, we pride ourselves on our visionary outlook towards using technology as a societal and community based development tool. In fact, we’ve abided by the same mantra through several watershed moments in technological advancement. Moments that are each imbued with its own promise for greater public good.

Some notable events include the discovery of DNA in 1952, the invention of APARNET of what will be known as the Internet in 1983, the founding of Facebook in 2004 (ok, maybe slightly dubious in its intentions on hindsight), and a tad more recently, the launch of the iPhone in 2007 at the Macworld convention in San Francisco. There was a common rhetoric delicately wrapped around each of these landmark moments, one laced with the promise of enriching lives for a greater utilitarian purpose. There was a staunch futuristic wisdom that prefaced each new invention. 

While we’ve heard countless narratives on how these technological inventions have brought value in terms of speed, efficiency and connectedness, there remains (at least for me) a nagging absence of clarity into what ‘value’ means in the digital space for the individual self at very primitive level. The answer is obviously different for each of us but that is why this makes for such an interesting inquiry.

In an effort to apply the bento model to a current conundrum that I’ve had for some time, I posed the following basic question relating to Twitter advertising:

Should I pursue an aggressive Twitter advertising strategy for more followers, to create exposure for this newsletter?

I’ve attached my bento map below.

If you look beyond the horrendous handwriting, the map speaks to my own reason for creating this newsletter - as a platform to showcase quality essays around digital culture that provide my discerning and intelligent readers with digestible nuggets of evocative prose.

An aggressive Twitter advertising strategy may lead to larger subscriber base (thanks to all the 150 who are already part of this journey), but like all algorithm driven campaigns, there is no guarantee it will align my work with the ‘right’ audience, who appreciate long-form semi-intellectual ramblings. A higher Twitter following will satisfy an immediate desire for a growing reader base but it could potentially impinge on my ambition to connect with readers at a more intimate, meaningful and intellectual level. Till date, I can safely say that I’ve spoken and/or met with 90% of subscribers to this newsletter. I’d love to keep that close contact and community feel. As emblazoned in the opening paragraph of each newsletter; my readers are my partners in thinking. They represent the main reason why these essays remain in the public domain.

And then there’s my natural tendency to get swept away with numbers, if past projects and businesses are anything to go by. In my case, a gung-ho/ take no prisoners Twitter campaign strategy would ultimately shift my focus away from quality to quantity. The logical value-driven approach for me would be to harness a strong loyal following through my writing first, before opting for a more scalable strategy.

Now Imagine…

Imagine if big-tech corporations could mobilise a similar framework in their UX design considerations, monetisation plans and ideas for future expansion. The idea that value starts and ends with financial maximisation isn’t new but it is a flawed and painfully myopic way to explore the broader value of digital technology and communities. With every new technological advancement, we see a promise for greater individual agency, recognition and fulfilment. But perhaps these visionary expectations are based on the wrong type of metrics - the type that glosses over our interconnectedness as human beings and innate desire to seek meaning through purposeful association and community-belonging.

Most companies (the generalisation is deliberate) would be hard pressed to identify a clear bottom line value/principle that they would abide to at all costs. This value proposition could perhaps be premised on the welfare of staff or maybe in how it conducts R&D processes when developing new product offerings. But ultimately, as most of us know, the corporate mentality remains enslaved to the allure of making a quick profit. There is nothing wrong in having a profit maximisation outlook. In fact I’d argue that it is integral to have one. But when it remains the sole driver for determining organisational action, it stymies the realisation of something bigger, better and more intrinsically valuable.


The morning predicament of a 7-year old

Moving on to a vastly different plane, I’ve also included my 7-year old son’s application of the bento box on the following very pressing Monday morning predicament:

“Should I play with daddy now?“

I’ll leave you to decide what his *conclusion was from this exercise…

*Hint: It involved me whizzing around hot-wheel cars for a more positive “future us”.

Kids huh.


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