Years from now, after the singularity, when we’ve hurtled ourselves beyond the limit of bodily consciousness and merged into the networked world-mind, we’ll look back and ask ourselves: What was the point of no return? When we first got personal computers? The rise of the smartphone? When digital pop-star Hatsune Miku, a computer program, started selling out stadiums in Japan? When self-driving cars took to the streets? Or did the moment come specifically and directly on October 19, 2007 — the date, now etched into history, of None Pizza With Left Beef?
You might not recognize the name “None Pizza With Left Beef,” but if you’ve spent time on the more jokey corners of the internet, you’ve almost certainly seen it: a depressing circle of flat bread, cut into slices, inside a pizza box. Small chunks of beef crowd the top-most corner, a few other loose crumbles lie around the box and in the bull’s-eye center. It is simultaneously the most depressing pizza ever constructed, one of the most famous images on the World Wide Web, and a monument to the relationship between man and machine.
None Pizza With Left Beef was first revealed ten years ago today, in a now-infamous blog post called “The Great Pizza Orientation Test” published on a comedy website called the Sneeze. Its author, the architect of this great monument, is a man named Steve Molaro, who knows a thing or two about acutely of-its-time cultural production: He is the co-creator, with Chuck Lorre, of the new hit sitcom Young Sheldon.
In October of 2007, however, Molaro was a hungry comedy writer (literally), ordering pizza in a transitional technological moment — the iPhone had only been unveiled nine months earlier, and Seamless had yet to become a verb.
Domino’s, though, had a rudimentary but nonetheless comprehensive online ordering system. As is the case with any software, once you release it into the wild, users will race to find its worst possible usage. “At the time, Domino’s online delivery was new. I loved it, but had gotten fixated on the way they made you order toppings,” he recalled. “Rather than just picking ‘half pepperoni,’ you’d have to choose which half — left or right. That seemed so arbitrary and weird to me, that someone at Domino’s would be thinking, ‘Oh, wait, he wants his mushrooms on the RIGHT.’”
Noticing that Domino’s selection tool allows for a “none” option, even for supposedly essential pizza ingredients like cheese and sauce, Molaro saw an opening. “Just to be a dick,” he wrote in his infamous blog post, “I also ordered a 6-inch individual ‘NONE’ pizza with BEEF (on the left).” His wife ate the pizza.
The blog post and the pizza quickly went viral, spawning a cult of pizza-nality that is practically unmatched. A March 2016 post from BuzzFeed collects “37 People Who Actually Ordered None Pizza Left Beef.” One might assume that hundreds of stoners have requested similar circular abominations over the last decade. You can buy a necklace of it on Etsy (“I only wear it when I need to dress up,” Molaro said). It’s become the sort of picture whose anniversary is celebrated just because, a rare feat for internet ephemera.
Molaro was, as he puts it, “just being an idiot in a blog.” But his limp creation — either a crime against pizza or not a pizza at all — was an early, visceral, and extremely funny aftereffect of the growing presence of automated systems in our day-to-day lives. Imagine ordering such a pizza over the phone. Could you even? The mere discomfort of describing a None Pizza With Left Beef to another human being, the implication that you will put the beef chunks and the naked dough inside your mouth and let them slide down your gullet.
In the near-future, there will be no human interaction necessary when purchasing assembly-line food like Domino’s. There may not be any humans involved at all. “Someday,” Molaro writes, the silently judgmental delivery man “will be a robot with a bad mustache and my life will be perfect.” That reality is closer than you think. At the end of August, Ford announced it was partnering with Domino’s to test pizza delivery in self-driving cars, with customers unlocking warming containers in the vehicle using unique codes.
The good news is that this automation allows for creative freedom unrestrained by social custom. The bad news is, well, creative freedom unrestrained by social custom. Robots don’t judge, or caution, you; they give you the pizza you ask for, even if what you ask for is not, technically, pizza. The man who earlier this year ordered a cheeseburger with no onion, ketchup, mustard, pickles, bun, or beef patty from a McDonald’s automated kiosk — and received, naturally, a single slice of cheese — is a spiritual heir to Molaro, and his “cheeseburger” is the more refined child of None Pizza With Left Beef.
The person who ordered a cheeseburger from McDonald’s with no onion, ketchup, mustard, pickles, bun, beef patty, or cheese — and ended up spending 99 pence on empty McDonald’s bag — has followed the logic of None Pizza With Left Beef to its inevitable conclusion. This is the promise of an automated world: Goods and services provided to you with maximal efficiency, even if it means contorting those goods and services so far beyond recognition that they cease to be the thing you asked for.
When I ordered a None Pizza With Left Beef this week, I received a call a few minutes later from Domino’s, which sought to verify that I wanted “no sauce, no cheese, hot beef?” I said that I was “completely sure,” and the employee (according to the pizza tracker, a man named Kutub) did not press the issue further. Still, I appreciated the safeguard. Will artificial intelligence ever get to the point where it phones me out of concern? “Our sensors indicate your order is repulsive.” Will Alexa ever call me on my bullshit when I order quasi-toxic cuisine? Or will these food bots simply fulfill my every wish, sending me into my doughy, double-wide grave one bite at a time?
I do not envy anyone who has to eat a None Pizza With Left Beef, which I and my colleagues dined on this past Tuesday. It’s just a very bleak creation — bland, with rubbery, hamburgerlike bits that come loose in transit and collect in one corner of the box like pebbles collected from the surface of an eldritch moon. Technology frees us up to give in to our worst impulses, and those impulses have manifested themselves in the guise of a terrible pizza.
So None Pizza With Left Beef lives on, a monument to humanity’s achievement and hubris. Asked if he considers the pizza to be his legacy, Molaro added, “I do have two teenagers I’m proud of. But they can be surly and ignore me a lot, so None Pizza With Left Beef may be my legacy.”
But the None Pizza With Left Beef is also, for now, a perfect troll — a Möbius strip of nonsense that affects everyone it touches. Sure, you get to troll the person tasked with constructing your awful pizza, but in the end, you pay for it and eat it. At the very least, you allow it into your home or office, tainting the space in some intangible way. You are using powerful, optimized technology for the dumbest possible reason, at once breaking a system and having it work exactly as intended. We’ve spent so long asking ourselves if we could make None Pizza With Left Beef, that we forgot to ask if we should.