Luke Robert Mason: You’re lis­ten­ing to the Futures Podcast with me, Luke Robert Mason.

On this episode I speak to jour­nal­ist Jenny Kleeman.

We’re depen­dent on ever greater mag­ni­tudes of tech­nol­o­gy, when I feel that real pow­er comes from a will­ing­ness to reform your behav­iour. If we out­source fun­da­men­tal aspects of human exis­tence in return for the illu­sion of con­trol over our nature, I think we dis­em­pow­er our­selves.
Jenny Kleeman, excerpt from inter­view

Jenny shared her per­son­al thoughts on new devel­op­ments in the emerg­ing fields of sex robot­ics, lab grown meat, arti­fi­cial wombs and assist­ed dying. 

This episode was record­ed vir­tu­al­ly using Skype.

Mason: Your new book is a very per­son­al inquiry into four aspects of human life that have been impact­ed by future tech­nolo­gies, from sex, to birth, to food and death. I guess my first ques­tion is: what made you decide to focus on these fun­da­men­tal aspects of human life?

Jenny Kleeman: It came out of the fact that I start­ed look­ing at death and then I start­ed look­ing at sex, and then I thought, okay…birth, food, sex and death. Those are the fun­da­men­tal ele­ments of human expe­ri­ence. But I start­ed with death. I start­ed because I was in the Smithsonian muse­um in Washington DC and I was with a friend. We were look­ing at an exhi­bi­tion of man­a­cles that they use to chain slaves up. My friend said, This is just unbelievable—that human beings used to do this 200 years ago. What do you think—when peo­ple look back on us—that they’ll think we’re bar­bar­ic for, in the way that we live today?” I thought: prob­a­bly our atti­tude to drugs and then our atti­tude to the right to die; to death—the fact that we haven’t worked out how to give peo­ple a good death. We haven’t worked out, legal­ly, how to give peo­ple a good death.

I start­ed inves­ti­gat­ing the right to die and I found these rad­i­cal right to die groups. Then I saw how tech­nol­o­gy was involved in that. Quite often as a jour­nal­ist, these neat ideas, they don’t come ful­ly formed. You nib­ble a part of it and then you realise you’re onto some­thing bet­ter. Eventually, I realised after I’d done a bit of look­ing at death and sex, I realised that there would be a book in look­ing at the four pil­lars of human exis­tence: birth, food, sex and death.

Mason: All of these sto­ries are at the edge of the future. What do you think moti­vat­ed all of the peo­ple that you inter­viewed? It seems like there was some form of sim­i­lar­i­ty in the way in which they were look­ing at their lit­tle aspect of the future. Just from a pure­ly per­son­al per­spec­tive, what do you think it was that moti­vat­ed all of these inno­va­tors?

Kleeman: In terms of what moti­vat­ed all the peo­ple behind them, gen­er­al­ly, they were all men. There’s what they claim to be moti­vat­ed by. They’re all try­ing to dis­man­tle human prob­lems. They’re try­ing to set us free using tech­nol­o­gy.

In the case of sex robots, they are pro­vid­ing com­pan­ion­ship to peo­ple who would oth­er­wise nev­er be able to have human con­tact, so you know—bereaved peo­ple, lone­ly peo­ple, social­ly awk­ward peo­ple, dis­abled peo­ple. In the case of lab grown meat, it’s solv­ing the huge envi­ron­men­tal cri­sis caused by our con­sump­tion of meat and indus­tri­al agri­cul­ture. Artificial wombs: for prob­lems of baby car­ry­ing that women face. Euthanasia machines: it’s the prob­lem of how to pro­vide a dig­ni­fied death. They say they’re moti­vat­ed by real­ly noble things; social caus­es. But ulti­mate­ly, I think all of them would quite like to make some money—that’s def­i­nite­ly a big fac­tor. The real moti­va­tion that con­nects all of them is they want val­i­da­tion. They want to go down in his­to­ry. They want to be the per­son who solved that prob­lem, who designed that fan­tas­tic thing.’ Steve Jobs came up a lot in my report­ing. Elon Musk came up a fair bit as well. These peo­ple have seen how oth­er peo­ple have made a name for them­selves and they’d quite like a piece of it for them­selves. 

Mason: In a fun­ny sort of way, that feels like what is going to mark these indi­vid­u­al’s lega­cy. It feels like when it comes to solv­ing big prob­lems that are relat­ed to human nature, these indi­vid­u­als real­ly want to be known. It was so clear in the sex robot chap­ter that there is almost this weird com­pe­ti­tion between the very few com­pa­nies, in actu­al fact, that are cre­at­ing these robots—but all of the founders want to be the guy’—whether they’re will­ing to admit it or not. It’s inter­est­ing how you said that all of the peo­ple that you large­ly fea­ture in the book are men. Do you feel this gen­dered view of the future impacts the aes­thet­ics and the meth­ods through which these future tra­jec­to­ries will go? 

Kleeman: Absolutely, because I think what I’m inter­est­ed in is the unin­tend­ed con­se­quences of cre­at­ing this tech­nol­o­gy, and I think men are going to fore­see dif­fer­ent prob­lems to women. I think all of these tech­nolo­gies will real­ly have a big impact on women. Some obvi­ous­ly so—like arti­fi­cial wombs and sex robots—but even lab grown meat and euthana­sia machines. I think that they will dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly affect women. Men dri­ve the tech indus­try in every part of the tech indus­try. It isn’t unique to these par­tic­u­lar four areas, but I think that these are four areas where women will real­ly bear the brunt of these approach­es.

Mason: You spend a lot of time with the com­pa­nies build­ing—or at least promis­ing—these futures. You do a very, very good job at actu­al­ly quot­ing some of the ways in which they evan­ge­lise their tech­nolo­gies. It feels like there’s a fine line between hype, pub­lic rela­tions  and naive opti­mism. Where do you think the peo­ple that you met stood on that tightrope? 

Kleeman: Well dif­fer­ent peo­ple stood in dif­fer­ent places. When I looked at the lab grown meat, I met some­body who was real­ly remark­able, Bruce Freidrich from The Good Food Institute. He’s a real­ly incred­i­ble char­ac­ter and he has that American thing where you can ask him any­thing. If I was inter­view­ing some­one British, I’d have to work up to some of these dif­fi­cult ques­tions, but he was so con­vinced that lab grown meat and plant based meat was the answer that I felt like I could ask him any­thing.

After I inter­viewed him, I felt that, maybe this isn’t the sto­ry that I think it is, because maybe this is just the answer and this guy’s going to win a Nobel prize because this is going to change the world. I think he was gen­uine­ly moti­vat­ed by some good things. But then, I real­ly took a turn when I went to actu­al­ly taste this price­less chick­en nugget for myself, and realised how far from ready for mar­ket this prod­uct is and how much smoke and mir­rors was involved there. This seemed pure­ly an exer­cise in hype; pure­ly an exer­cise in try­ing to gen­er­ate ven­ture cap­i­tal invest­ment. 

But then the next per­son I met was some­one who I real­ly had faith in, who was the per­son who was try­ing to grow fish in a lab. He seemed very earnest and very hon­est, and very will­ing to answer all of my ques­tions. Even at the end of that, it was clear that his will­ing­ness to engage was also a brand­ing exer­cise, because he knew that his com­pa­ny would stand out if they came across as being the most authen­tic and the most down to earth.

I think with any new tech­nol­o­gy, there’s a lot of hype and to an extent, that’s fine. It’s up to investors to see through it—they’re the ones with all the mon­ey, choos­ing where to put it. The dan­ger is when this tech­nol­o­gy is promis­ing that human beings can car­ry on as nor­mal in the face of an envi­ron­men­tal cri­sis, which is what’s hap­pen­ing with indus­tri­al agri­cul­ture. Anything that says, Hey, we can car­ry on. I’m just going to solve it by invent­ing a new kind of meat. Don’t wor­ry about cut­ting down your meat intake.”—that’s quite wor­ry­ing, and that’s hype that’s poten­tial­ly very dam­ag­ing.

Mason: There is that theme through­out, and you men­tion it at the end of the book: we would­n’t need half these tech­nolo­gies if we just designed and engi­neered soci­ety in the way it should run, any­way. It feels like these tech­nolo­gies are being cre­at­ed to solve prob­lems that we cre­at­ed due to tech­nol­o­gy.

Kleeman: Yes. We’re depen­dent on ever greater mag­ni­tudes of tech­nol­o­gy, when I feel that real pow­er comes from a will­ing­ness to reform your behav­iour. Then the con­trol is with­in our hands. If we out­source fun­da­men­tal aspects of human exis­tence in return for the illu­sion of con­trol over our nature, I think we dis­em­pow­er our­selves. Whereas if we have the courage to change our mind­set, that’s where the real pow­er lies.

Mason: For you, what do you think was the most impact­ful under those four dif­fer­ent types of tech­nolo­gies that were being cre­at­ed? What do you think has the most pos­si­bil­i­ty to actu­al­ly be rolled out? What do you think is on the hori­zon? Do you think all of it’s hyped, or do you think maybe some­thing might actu­al­ly see its way to mar­ket?

Kleeman: I think all of them will come to mar­ket in some form or anoth­er. I think sex robots are already on the market—some not very good ones, some not very con­vinc­ing ones—but they’re already on the mar­ket. I think lab grown meat is def­i­nite­ly going to come onto the mar­ket with­in a cou­ple of years. Whether or not it will become wide­spread depends on how it’s received. Whether or not the first prod­ucts are dis­gust­ing and get a bad review, or whether or not the first thing on the mar­ket is real­ly very impres­sive. I think the euthana­sia machines—I hope they nev­er come on the mar­ket. I mean they can come on the mar­ket, but actu­al­ly what we need to do is work out how to frame leg­is­la­tion so that every­one can have the right to a peace­ful, dig­ni­fied death—and we know how to deliv­er that with med­i­cines at the moment.

The thing that scared me the most was the arti­fi­cial wombs. You talk about all of these four areas and the taboos behind them. Actually, you might expect the biggest taboos to be around death and sex, but actu­al­ly, for me doing the report­ing, the hard­est thing to get any­one to talk about was the birth sec­tion. It’s so per­son­al, it’s so intimate—how we have our chil­dren, and it’s the source of so much pain for peo­ple who are strug­gling to have chil­dren that it was very dif­fi­cult to get peo­ple to talk about it. 

That technology—what is dan­ger­ous about it, although it has the capac­i­ty to save the most vul­ner­a­ble babies on Earth—very pre­ma­ture babies—by putting them into an arti­fi­cial womb…that’s the dan­ger of it. Because it’s being devel­oped with that in mind, it becomes moral­ly untouch­able. Who’s going to argue against a tech­nol­o­gy that can save tiny babies and stop them from hav­ing a life­time of dis­abil­i­ty? We real­ly need to think about this tech­nol­o­gy before it arrives.

As I say in the book, in a per­fect world, it’s got fan­tas­tic appli­ca­tions, but in the cur­rent world it can real­ly be mis­used. We can’t just uncrit­i­cal­ly accept it as, Oh, this is a good thing, it’s going to help lit­tle babies.” because some­where, in some State, they will use it to demand that women have babies tak­en out of their uterus­es because they’re behav­ing inap­pro­pri­ate­ly. Or some men, some­where, will see it as a good way to do away with women alto­geth­er.

Mason: Well as a man, it was one of the most chal­leng­ing chap­ters to read because you realise just how uncom­fort­able the idea of birth is. You are so won­der­ful in actu­al­ly shar­ing some of your per­son­al sto­ries and your per­son­al con­nec­tions with your own chal­lenges and excite­ment around the birth of your own chil­dren. Do you think that just makes you just a tiny lit­tle bit more invest­ed in those sorts of inno­va­tions? You speak so hope­ful­ly about birth com­pared to some of the oth­er inno­va­tions, and I just won­der if that’s because of a cer­tain per­son­al con­nec­tion, there.

Kleeman: I think once you have been preg­nant, your view of the world does change. Also your view of your body com­plete­ly changes, and also what you’re here for changes. That does­n’t mean to say that I think women are here to have babies or that any­one’s any less of a woman if they haven’t had a baby, but you become a log­i­cal func­tion in a way that I think maybe men don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly feel. They say that men don’t go to doc­tors as much as women. Men don’t feel like they’re bags of biol­o­gy as much as women do.

I mean, I don’t nat­u­ral­ly put myself into my writ­ing. I’m not some­one who writes mem­oirs. I was try­ing to find a het­ero­sex­u­al woman who would ben­e­fit from using an arti­fi­cial womb, and I start­ed doing some research and then I thought, this is just ridicu­lous. I am my own per­fect case study in this, because I lost a baby who would have been saved if this tech­nol­o­gy had exist­ed. It was kind of use­ful in a way—that I had that insight. It’s a tech­nol­o­gy that I think a lot of women would instinc­tive­ly be repelled by, but I could real­ly see the point of it and the appli­ca­tion for it. It allowed me to have a degree of ambiva­lence that I think is use­ful.

Mason: Part of it is the aes­thet­ics. The idea of the arti­fi­cial womb—or ecto­ge­n­e­sis as it’s more sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly known—we always asso­ciate it with the bags of flu­id and human babies or, in some cas­es, it’s lambs or ani­mals. A very sort of Matrix-esque aes­thet­ic. I think that real­ly dri­ves the pub­lic’s per­cep­tion of what ecto­ge­n­e­sis is, but in actu­al fact it’s much more nuanced, what that process could actu­al­ly enable. 

Kleeman: Absolutely. I mean if you think of the fetus fields in The Matrix or if you think of Brave New World, this is always kind of malev­o­lent tech­nol­o­gy. But actu­al­ly it’s about allow­ing the process of ges­ta­tion to con­tin­ue out­side of the body. At the moment, so many of our laws are pegged to via­bil­i­ty. The abor­tion law is pegged to when can a baby sur­vive out­side of the human body. There is this totemic 23, 24 week lev­el. If you go into labour around 22 weeks—or 23 weeks but around 22 weeks—doctors will not try to save your baby because the baby can­not sur­vive. 

This bag, instead of treat­ing a baby like a new­born and being giv­en assis­tance to help with breathing—that’s what an incu­ba­tor does with breath­ing, and it keeps you warm—this allows the process of ges­ta­tion to con­tin­ue. It is a bag of syn­thet­ic, amni­ot­ic flu­id and an arti­fi­cial pla­cen­ta which is plugged into your umbil­i­cal cord. It’s tubes that deliv­er oxy­gen and nutri­ents, and removes waste prod­ucts. It’s poten­tial­ly an absolute­ly remark­able device. At the moment it’s not a com­plete replace­ment for preg­nan­cy, but I do believe that at some point, it will be sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly pos­si­ble. Whether it’s legal­ly or eth­i­cal­ly pos­si­ble is anoth­er ques­tion. Again, we think about eth­i­cal pro­hi­bi­tions as if they’re real­ly going to stop sci­ence, but you for­get that only a few coun­tries sign up to them. There’s noth­ing to stop Russia or North Korea or coun­tries that don’t gen­er­al­ly sign up to these eth­i­cal lim­its from going ahead and try­ing it them­selves 

Mason: But also, ecto­ge­n­e­sis offers a won­der­ful pos­si­bil­i­ty for indi­vid­u­als who may not have het­ero­nor­ma­tive rela­tion­ships who want to have chil­dren. The under­ly­ing promise that was there was per­haps trans­gen­der cou­ples or same sex cou­ples could actu­al­ly have chil­dren out­side of the womb. That became a real­ly com­pelling idea and con­cept. 

Kleeman: Absolutely. I begin that sec­tion by look­ing at sur­ro­ga­cy and the kind of prob­lems with it. It’s a very tough thing to do. It’s a very imper­fect way of hav­ing a baby, but at the moment that’s the only way that some peo­ple can have babies. I inter­viewed a gay cou­ple, and I inter­viewed a trans per­son who uses they/them pro­nouns. I was very moved by them and what they said. They used this amaz­ing anal­o­gy about pros­the­ses: If you can have ath­letes win­ning in the Olympics using pros­the­ses, doing fab­u­lous­ly and being amaz­ing win­ners, why can’t this be a pros­thet­ic device for peo­ple who aren’t born with wombs but who want to have their own chil­dren? It was real­ly com­pelling for me and it real­ly opened my eyes. As I said, it would be very easy to dis­miss this tech­nol­o­gy as some­thing real­ly hor­rif­ic because of those tropes of sci­ence fic­tion that we’re all so used to—but there’s a real, pos­i­tive appli­ca­tion for it, poten­tial­ly. 

Mason: Trying to ampli­fy that pos­i­tive aspect…you’re a jour­nal­ist your­self, and it’s very tempt­ing in the media to just go after the hype based story—the very excit­ing, very scary, very sexy sto­ry. In some cases—getting that nuance across—does it feel like, to you, the only place to do that is in a book like this? Do you think there’s a place in the media to have these sorts of dis­cus­sions?

Kleeman: Well I think…well there’s two things I’d say. The first thing is I real­ly ben­e­fit­ed from not being a tech jour­nal­ist, which meant that I could a) ask real­ly basic ques­tions, and b) not wor­ry about main­tain­ing rela­tion­ships with peo­ple. I could kind of annoy them by not ask­ing the ques­tions that they were used to.

Mason: How much mon­ey did you raise?” 

Kleeman: Yes exact­ly. What round of fund­ing are you in?”—exactly. But for me, so much of the book was about the sto­ries we want to tell and the sto­ries that we want to hear. Particularly in the sex robot sec­tion, I go through how lack­ing so many of these machines are, and yet they’re breath­less­ly report­ed on by tech jour­nal­ists, by reg­u­lar jour­nal­ists, and also by fem­i­nists who want some­thing to cam­paign against that does­n’t exist yet. That’s because we like the idea of these bits of tech­nol­o­gy, and we don’t want to punc­ture that by ask­ing these basic ques­tions like, Does this work? Do we actu­al­ly need this?” I’ve always been inter­est­ed in those ques­tions because for me, I’m not a tech journalist—I’m inter­est­ed in social issues and human issues—so I’m inter­est­ed in, What does it mean, that we’re devel­op­ing this tech­nol­o­gy? Who wants it? Who’s cam­paign­ing against it? What does that say about us and how we live today?”

Mason: Well there is that thing that the media is able to do which is ele­vate cer­tain aspects of the future from vapour­ware to being an actu­al­i­ty. You’re right, it is the sex robot piece where­by this stuff is still vapour­ware. As you cov­er in the book, half the prod­ucts aren’t actu­al­ly out yet. I think we were both at the International Congress on Love and Sex with Robots at Goldsmiths University a cou­ple of years ago. There were a lot of ques­tion marks over some of the prod­ucts that were promised and some of the prod­ucts that nev­er came to fruition. Yet, there’s entire move­ments around ban­ning sex robots—products which are only begin­ning to seep onto the mar­ket. When they are, it’s a very niche com­mu­ni­ty of indi­vid­u­als who are inter­est­ed in it. Do you think that, in many ways, these things have just been tak­en out of pro­por­tion? Yes, sex robots will exist, but the adop­tion of them won’t be as wide­spread as some­thing like an iPhone.

Kleeman: The adop­tion of them won’t be as wide­spread as an iPhone—that’s the first thing to say. The adop­tion of very few things will be as wide­spread as an iPhone.

Mason: But that’s the promise embed­ded into the idea that we must ban sex robots. It’s like: Oh God, they’re going to be every­where. We won’t be able to move with­out falling into a sex robot.

Kleeman: When we imag­ine them, I think for a long time they’re not going to be very con­vinc­ing, which means that they will still be a niche; a fetish. You’ll have to be some­body who has a kink for robots or a kink for dolls to find it sexy. As we get bet­ter at animatronics…I mean some of the stuff that I saw com­ing out of China was really—I mean, uncan­ny’ is a bad word to use in the con­text of robots—but it real­ly was remark­able; jaw-dropping. We’re get­ting bet­ter at chat­bots and AI. I don’t think it’ll be that long before it’s not unusu­al to have robot com­pan­ions. That’s the point about sex robots: it isn’t about the sex; it’s about the com­pan­ion­ship. It’s about the idea of an arti­fi­cial rela­tion­ship where only one half of the part­ner­ship hap­pens. That’s what the issue is for me. It’s not the sex, it’s the rela­tion­ship. 

If you think about the way that we relate to our phones and the way that if my phone is being repaired, I feel like part of my body is miss­ing, nobody could have banked on that—that we would have a rela­tion­ship with tech­nol­o­gy that was that per­son­al and intimate—and yet here is some­thing that looks like a human that might be able to talk quite a bit like a human. When you think about the dopamine hit that you get from get­ting likes on your phone, imag­ine the dopamine hit that you’ll get from hav­ing this part­ner that’s tai­lor made exact­ly to your spec­i­fi­ca­tion, con­stant­ly telling you how great you are and laugh­ing at all of your jokes. You might not want to go out too much.

Generally, the effect that’s going to have on soci­ety. You would­n’t need many peo­ple to have these things for it to start to change the way we inter­act. For those peo­ple, empa­thy will become hard­er work. 

Mason: Well it does feel like part of the desire for a lot of these things does come from a dis­con­nect­ed rela­tion­ship with either them­selves or oth­er human beings. That’s not just with regards to sex robots—it’s across all of the tech­nol­o­gy that you cov­er. It’s a dis­con­nect on how they should feel about these cer­tain aspects of human exis­tence. It’s a reliance, more on the tech­nol­o­gy, because they have a bet­ter rela­tion­ship in many ways with tech­nol­o­gy than either with them­selves or with oth­er human beings. Do you think that’s a fair analy­sis? 

Kleeman: Yes. I think that’s fair but I would recast it as it’s a des­per­a­tion for con­trol, and an inabil­i­ty to sit with the fact that as human beings, no mat­ter how clever we are, we can­not con­trol our exis­tence. We might get bet­ter at incre­men­tal­ly mak­ing some aspects a bit more pre­dictable, but even then, we can­not con­trol any­thing. I think, you know…I fin­ished writ­ing the book in 2019. Since then, the world has changed so much and it’s a real­ly good exam­ple of so much of what’s in the book: that we’re des­per­ate from tech­nol­o­gy to save us from this virus, but ulti­mate­ly we’re com­plete­ly floored by it; we’re com­plete­ly a vic­tim to it.

While the tech­nolo­gies in my book might seem like a solu­tion to a lot of the prob­lems posed by the virus: Sex robots—the ulti­mate dis­tanced rela­tion­ship; lab grown meat—you don’t need to have those large pop­u­la­tions of ani­mals that allow these kinds of dis­eases to thrive. I saw lots of sto­ries about sur­ro­gates who were aban­doned with their babies because their intend­ed par­ents could­n’t come and get the babies. Death machines—everyone’s scared of death, here’s a way of con­trol­ling your death.

But then again, what the lock­down has shown is how much we’re all able to change our behav­iour and how we’re not all just self­ish and greedy. I’ve said this before, but cap­i­tal­ism depends on a view of human beings as self­ish and greedy and these tech­nolo­gies depend on this idea that we all just have an insa­tiable appetite for every­thing and we don’t want to com­pro­mise. Any prod­uct that says, You don’t have to com­pro­mise and you can have as much as you like with­out any sac­ri­fice.” is going to sell. But actu­al­ly, I don’t buy that view of human nature. I think we’re real­ly capa­ble of pulling togeth­er and chang­ing when there is a great need.

Mason: Yeah that’s the thing—when there is a great need. The ques­tion is: is there a need for any of this? Is there a need for the sex robots if we can just build bet­ter rela­tion­ships with each-other? Is there a need for these death machines; these euthana­sia machines—if we can just have a bet­ter con­ver­sa­tion about death in soci­ety? Is there a need for these cul­tured meats if we can just change our diets? Is there a need for exter­nal wombs if we had­n’t got­ten our­selves in this posi­tion in the first place where­by we’re always prod­ding and pok­ing preg­nant women to make sure that things are going right? It does feel that it all comes back down to, is: just because we can, should we?

Kleeman: I would say No.” There is no need for any of this tech­nol­o­gy. I’m not a lud­dite. I love tech­nol­o­gy. I have been able to have my career because of tech­nol­o­gy. If the pill had­n’t exist­ed, I would prob­a­bly have 10 chil­dren by now and would nev­er be a jour­nal­ist, so I’m very grate­ful to tech­nol­o­gy. But I would say that when using tech­nol­o­gy, we have to think: Do we real­ly need it? Is it worth the unin­tend­ed con­se­quences that it will bring? Are we just being sold a kind of snake oil that is promis­ing to give us what we tru­ly want, when we can achieve that by oth­er means? Which is what I would say is def­i­nite­ly the case for all these tech­nolo­gies. 

And the meat! The thing about the meat is at the moment, it’s being made by some real­ly ide­al­is­tic peo­ple and some of them are real­ly good peo­ple who are using their con­sid­er­able intel­li­gence to try and solve a prob­lem that is a loom­ing envi­ron­men­tal cat­a­stro­phe for the world, and yet their strat­e­gy depends on a very neg­a­tive view of human nature, which is that human beings will nev­er change. I just don’t believe that. I believe that change isn’t a grad­ual thing—it comes in giant shifts. If you look at Black Lives Matter or Me Too—okay per­haps those changes haven’t been big enough. But there are repeats of Big Brother on because tele­vi­sion pro­grammes aren’t being made and you see what was nor­mal 10 or 15 years ago—we have changed mas­sive­ly. We can change. It might not be as quick as some peo­ple would like, but we can do it and we don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly need these fan­cy inno­va­tions to mean that we can opt out of chang­ing. 

Mason: Given all of the explo­ration that you did, do you think these new future foods can be a gate­way drug to things like veg­an­ism?

Kleeman: That’s the argu­ment all these peo­ple make, is that once you get used to not liv­ing at the expense of ani­mals, then it becomes repel­lant to do so. That might be an argu­ment that I sign up to, but I would say part of the prob­lem with the veg­an move­ment is the bag­gage that goes with it and the sense of moral supe­ri­or­i­ty that often goes with it. I’m a meat eater—that’s part of what was real­ly use­ful for the book. People have grown by lab grown meat and cul­ti­vat­ed meat before, but they tend to be evan­gel­i­cal­ly veg­an. Quite often, I’ll have a lunch that is deli­cious, and then I’ll realise an hour lat­er that it was veg­an, and it just hap­pened to be veg­an. What we need to do is rethink our atti­tude to food so that it does­n’t become this cul­tur­al badge of iden­ti­ty and of moral rec­ti­tude to eat in this cer­tain way. That if we encour­age our chil­dren to eat in a cer­tain way, they will con­tin­ue to do so. If we were to eat meat once a week, it would solve many, many prob­lems. We don’t real­ly need to eat meat more than that. I feel that it’s pos­si­ble that these prod­ucts could be methadone, but they’re also dam­ag­ing in many ways. I’ve had an Impossible Burger—it’s amaz­ing. It’s very con­vinc­ing, but you have to do a lot of tin­ker­ing to turn plants into things that resem­ble meat so much. They’re very high­ly processed foods. You have to ship all of the dif­fer­ent com­po­nents to the same place—that’s quite a lot of car­bon. They’re not the answer that they promised to be, when you could just get more used to eat­ing some real­ly nice things that hap­pen to be plant based.

Mason: That’s the piece I don’t get. Why does this stuff have to sim­u­late pre-existing food­stuffs? So because we invent­ed the ham­burg­er, now we have to invent a thing that is like a hamburger—but the ham­burg­er was some­thing we invent­ed in the first place.

Kleeman: Well this is what’s so inter­est­ing in what I learnt at the end of that meat sec­tion, which is the extent to which meat is cul­tur­al and our atti­tude to it is cul­tur­al. This is why this Godfather of clean meat—the man who grew the beef burg­er in the petri dish, the one that if any­one lis­ten­ing to this is imag­in­ing lab grown meat—it’s Mark Post’s lab grown meat. He says, Meat is mas­cu­line. It’s about dom­i­nat­ing nature. It’s about mak­ing fire and killing ani­mals.” There’s the flip­side which is the assump­tion that veg­eta­bles are wimpy, women eat fish and sal­ad and men have steak—and that’s the stuff to be unpacked. That all comes from how you teach your kids. If you say to your chil­dren, Oh if you eat your greens, then you can have some choco­late after­wards.”, they will process: that’s the bad thing and this is the good thing. Whereas if you present every­thing as equal, that’s how kids take it, I think.

All of our atti­tude to food is cul­tur­al, and yet it’s pre­sent­ed as nat­ur­al. It’s nat­ur­al to eat meat, it’s what we did as cave­men. That was quite inter­est­ing. That was the assump­tion through­out all of it. Then I spoke to this veg­an soci­ol­o­gist, who…he’s a veg­an sociologist—he would say this—but he said, It’s not nat­ur­al. It’s not giv­en.” You might say it’s not nat­ur­al for us to be here because it’s too cold, and yet we’ve invent­ed clothes. We know how to get all of the nutri­tion we need from the diet we have. Actually, for peo­ple who haven’t eat­en meat for a long time, when they eat it it’s dis­gust­ing and it makes them very sick. They can’t digest it. I don’t think there’s nec­es­sar­i­ly any­thing nat­ur­al about it. The whole point is that we eat meat because we like it, and a lot of why we like it is cul­tur­al.

Mason: Interestingly, in that chap­ter about future food, the per­son who gets the most free-rein is an artist and he’s a friend of mine. He’s pos­si­bly the most redeemable char­ac­ter in the book, which is Oron Catts. He’s doing it pure­ly as artis­tic explo­ration. It’s a much more play­ful engage­ment with future pos­si­bil­i­ties. What do you think the role of folks like him—artists—have in real­ly con­tribut­ing to the con­ver­sa­tion around how this stuff may even­tu­al­ly present itself in the future? 

Kleeman: I think Oron is a fan­tas­tic char­ac­ter and as he would say him­self, as an artist he has a license to ask ques­tions with­out any duty to answer them. He can expose what is prob­lem­at­ic with­out pro­vid­ing answers. I, as a jour­nal­ist, kind of have to pro­vide some answers—I don’t have to answer all of it. Scientists have to pro­vide the answers. So, he is able to take things to extremes and make peo­ple feel uncom­fort­able and awk­ward, and make peo­ple feel dis­gust in a way that is real­ly use­ful, but he leaves it up to you to decide what to do with it. For me, that was kind of a missed oppor­tu­ni­ty. He is so smart and so artic­u­late and he real­ly does have some­thing to say about how prim­i­tive our under­stand­ing of what life is, and how we haven’t learnt how to con­cep­tu­alise it yet, and how dan­ger­ous that can be, and the unin­tend­ed con­se­quences of hav­ing not thought through what does it mean to say that some­thing is alive. It becomes some­thing that is very niche that is for a very small audi­ence, and it also means that his mes­sage does­n’t get as far as it should, unless it is co-opted and tak­en by sci­en­tists who are pre­pared to put on a show that he has inspired. 

That was a big find­ing of the book. Actually, he was the first per­son to grow and eat lab grown meat, and the way that he did it as a per­for­mance in a French art gallery formed the blue­print for how this has been done ever since by sci­en­tists. They seek ven­ture cap­i­tal invest­ment by putting on these grand shows of pre­sent­ing their meat and doing a tast­ing for jour­nal­ists and for ven­ture cap­i­tal investors. It’s like the world received the prod­uct and the way that the prod­uct was unveiled, but not the mes­sage along with it. The thing that inspires him, as he says, is the psy­chopatholo­gies of con­trol, what hap­pens when human beings try and con­trol nature and why we’re try­ing to con­trol nature—which is why when I said to him, Don’t you feel a bit sad that you grew the first lab grown meat as a com­ment of our inabil­i­ty to con­cep­tu­alise life prop­er­ly and the dan­gers of it, and yet it’s become this blue­print for how this is done? This mas­sive indus­try exists because of what you did.”, he just sort of laughed it off and said, Well you know, my whole approach is to not try and con­trol things. I’m fas­ci­nat­ed to see where this all goes.” In many ways, the entire book that I end­ed up writ­ing was about the psy­chopatholo­gies of con­trol; what hap­pens when you try and con­trol every­thing. I think he is a bril­liant mind and an excel­lent artist—I just wish more peo­ple knew about him. 

Mason: It feels like a lot of this stuff has the possibility—providing that noth­ing goes wrong between now and when it finds its way into the gen­er­al public—all of this has the pos­si­bil­i­ty to become very banal in the future. The suc­cess of your book would be the obso­les­cence of the weird­ness about the sub­ject mat­ter. It feels like a lot of the com­pa­nies and the indi­vid­u­als you were cov­er­ing were des­per­ate for that sort of acceptance—not just con­trol over cer­tain things, but accep­tance of their world views.

Kleeman: That’s very true, and that comes through in the way that they were, all of them, obsessed with lan­guage and pick­ing the right terms that peo­ple would accept. The sex dolls, for exam­ple, the peo­ple who make sex dolls don’t call them sex dolls—they call them love dolls. Lab grown meat does­n’t get called lab grown meat. At the moment they still haven’t real­ly decid­ed what it’s called—this sub­stance. I think they’re call­ing it cul­ti­vat­ed meat, dur­ing the time of my report­ing they were call­ing it clean meat. When I was on tours of the labs where they were grown and I referred to it as a lab’ or if I inter­viewed peo­ple and said, Surely when you were grow­ing up, you did­n’t imag­ine you’d be grow­ing meat in a lab.” and they’d say, Err, stop you there. We’re doing it in a lab at the moment but actu­al­ly it’s going to be like brew­ing beer or it’s going to be like cul­ti­vat­ing yoghurt.” They want us to think of it that way: that this is not frankenfood—this is prop­er, just like brew­ing.

So yes, there’s a great attempt to nor­malise things and make them match. In the book I talk about IVF a lot, because IVF is some­thing that at the time was a rad­i­cal tech­nol­o­gy that was the height of tin­ker­ing with nature and there were many fears that IVF babies would turn out weird because they weren’t con­ceived in the nor­mal way. IVF is entire­ly mun­dane now. I have so many friends who have had babies that way. As I say in the book, you see adverts for it on the tube. The NHS gives every cou­ple the right to it. So yes, I think it is quite pos­si­ble that these tech­nolo­gies will become nat­ur­al at some point, but I would fight against that because I think in the case of IVF it’s about…I was about to say it’s about solv­ing a prob­lem but again, it isn’t. IVF is a cir­cum­ven­tion of a prob­lem. It’s a dif­fer­ent route to solv­ing a prob­lem instead of actu­al­ly solv­ing the prob­lem. I would always say we should always try and solve prob­lems rather than find bits of tech­nol­o­gy that cir­cum­vent.

Mason: That’s inter­est­ing in the con­text of think­ing about, I guess, death. When I knew you were cov­er­ing death in the book I thought: Oh no, here we go. It’s going to be anoth­er chap­ter on longevi­ty, and end­ing age­ing and liv­ing for­ev­er, and immor­tal­i­ty. I’ve said this mul­ti­ple times in this pod­cast and mul­ti­ple times in pub­lic: If we’re going to have a dis­cus­sion around longevi­ty then we des­per­ate­ly, des­per­ate­ly need a dis­cus­sion about assist­ed sui­cide and when we’re going to want to make these choic­es of when we’re going to die. With death being that final taboo, how do you think we start to have bet­ter dis­cus­sions about design for dying? 

Kleeman: There have been sur­veys in the UK that show that 80 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion believe in assist­ed dying. Assisted dying means: some­body who has been diag­nosed by two doc­tors as hav­ing less than six months to live should be helped to die. It’s not a very rad­i­cal propo­si­tion, but politi­cians are wary of being the guys that made this hap­pen’ because of fear of how the laws might be abused, or how vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple might die as a con­se­quence. That’s legit­i­mate, but we should be pour­ing as much effort as pos­si­ble into try­ing to find a way to frame the laws so that they are fair. There are many coun­tries around the world where these laws are in place and I don’t think many vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple have been exploit­ed as a con­se­quence. I know there will be lots of right to live char­i­ties who will dis­agree with me, but it seems to me that a lot of old­er peo­ple who aren’t ter­mi­nal­ly ill, who have lived com­plete­ly self-directed lives—and we are all grow­ing up being used to being mas­ters of our own destiny—there is a cloud hang­ing over you. You don’t know when, but you could have demen­tia; you could have a debil­i­tat­ing con­di­tion that takes your agency away. That makes death and dis­ease so fright­en­ing. I real­ly think this is some­thing that we have to crack.

At the begin­ning of the death sec­tion, I begin by set­ting out that we have this idea of what a per­fect death is and in fact, there are very few ways for some­body to just go to sleep. There are a few drugs that they give your dog to put your dog to sleep and that they give to patients on Death Row, but that’s it real­ly. The thing is, there is one way, and I think we should allow peo­ple who are afraid and near the end of their lives and are under the care of doc­tors to have it. I think a lot of peo­ple agree with that point of view.

The death sec­tion is more a kind of—and obvi­ous­ly it’s going to come at the end because it’s death—but it also comes at the end because here is a clear­ly ridicu­lous piece of tech­nol­o­gy that we real­ly don’t need. It’s just an exam­ple of how when we fail to do the think­ing that is nec­es­sary to make the social changes, tech­nol­o­gy steps into the vac­u­um, and oppor­tunists step into the vac­u­um.

Mason: Those oppor­tunists face so much dif­fi­cul­ty in actu­al­is­ing a safe and respect­ful assist­ed death where­by just sourc­ing the raw mate­ri­als need­ed to make the sorts of devices that would allow some­one to pain­less­ly and fair­ly quick­ly end their life if they were of sound mind—it becomes so dif­fi­cult to even just do the work; the research or the devel­op­ment in that space. Whereas every­thing else seems like if you’ve got enough mon­ey and enough tech­nol­o­gy and enough impe­tus you can make this thing hap­pen, but with death it just feels like there’s many arti­fi­cial bound­aries to allow­ing inno­v­a­tive approach­es to that—I don’t want to call it a prob­lem, but that cir­cum­stance—to be devel­oped.

Kleeman: The point is you just don’t need any of these bits of kit or any of these ideas or inven­tions or bits of tech­nol­o­gy. In many ways, these inven­tions are there to insu­late the per­son who’s cre­at­ed the inven­tion from get­ting in trou­ble, legal­ly. They’re a way of deper­son­al­is­ing death so that the per­son assist­ing your sui­cide isn’t assist­ing your sui­cide, because you got dif­fer­ent bits of kit from dif­fer­ent places. Somebody might have told you half of how to do it and then some­body else has told you the oth­er half. It’s ridicu­lous, because there are ways of giv­ing some­one a con­trolled and dig­ni­fied and respect­ful and pain­less death that we’re just not giv­ing peo­ple access to.

For me, what was sad was the extent to which peo­ple are pre­pared to go in order to have con­trol over their own deaths when they’re denied access to a legal assist­ed sui­cide, and the amount that that’s open for exploita­tion.

Mason: The indus­tri­al­i­sa­tion of death is what it’s point­ing towards, and that could be more dan­ger­ous than any­thing else. As soon as this stuff becomes pro­duc­tised again; as soon as there are devices that you can pur­chase or sub­scrip­tion mod­els for when you want to die; as soon as all of that frame­work comes into play, that’s when that dis­cus­sion becomes even more dif­fi­cult, because there’s vest­ed inter­est. There’s a large, or poten­tial­ly large cor­po­ra­tion that will inno­vate in the…let’s call it the indus­try of death. The ques­tion is, I mean one: If we don’t have this con­ver­sa­tion now, then we’re going to lose the oppor­tu­ni­ty to have this con­ver­sa­tion, and two: Who’s going to start the con­ver­sa­tion? When it comes to future tech, we often point at the next gen­er­a­tion. The next gen­er­a­tion could­n’t give a fly­ing toss about when they’re going to die because they think that they can live for­ev­er. 

Kleeman: It’s true. Exactly, because it’s so far off. I would say the issue is it’s about the de-medicalisation of death. The peo­ple who are pro­duc­ing their technologies—it’s part of this whole mind­set of I’ve had enough of experts. It’s the same as the kind of anti-vaxxer move­ment which is, I don’t need a doc­tor to tell me or an expert to tell me who is right for me. I can find out every­thing I need from the Internet and I can do it all myself. I am not a fan of that mind­set but again, maybe I’m a per­son­i­fi­ca­tion of the met­ro­pol­i­tan elite and I’ve had a nice edu­ca­tion, and I like experts. The de-medicalisation of death which is: You can have this pain­less, dig­ni­fied death with­out a doc­tor giv­ing their bless­ing is what’s wor­ry­ing, because when you get to that stage, you are allow­ing for the com­mer­cial­i­sa­tion of death. There have been sur­veys of the GMC where many doc­tors believe in assist­ed dying. It requires doc­tors to have the courage to speak out and speak pub­licly and say in the face of what they have seen, in the face of pub­lic opin­ion, they feel com­fort­able pro­vid­ing the means to give peo­ple a peace­ful death and that they can think of a frame­work that would be not so open to exploita­tion. If it is pre­sent­ed in a med­ical con­text as some­thing that can be achiev­able legal­ly, then I think it will be much eas­i­er to go through par­lia­ment, per­son­al­ly.

There will always be peo­ple who will say, It’s my life, I should have the right to choose how to end it.” but if there is a med­ical mod­el that is broad­ly accept­ed, those peo­ple who are still deter­mined to go their own way will be a very small minor­i­ty. 

Mason: I mean, the prob­lem that comes is that it just goes against all med­ical ethics to advo­cate for dying and then nobody wants to be treat­ed by the doc­tor who is known for being Doctor Death.

Kleeman: I would say that, but then again there is a very long his­to­ry of doc­tors euthanis­ing their patients with their patien­t’s per­mis­sion. There used to be fam­i­ly doc­tors who would come to the house and just give patients at the end of their life a rather large dose of mor­phine. I think there’s always been a very long tra­di­tion of this, and yeah that does mean putting a lot of pow­er in the hands of doc­tors. I don’t feel com­fort­able with that, but I feel more com­fort­able with that than with the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion which is just allow­ing cow­boys to come in and make big promis­es to des­per­ate, wor­ried peo­ple. 

Mason: Do you think we need more reg­u­la­tion or do you think we need dereg­u­la­tion? What do you think will encour­age inno­va­tion in these spaces?

Kleeman: I don’t think reg­u­la­tion is the answer in any of these areas because we don’t have glob­al reg­u­la­tion and we might have reg­u­la­tion in this coun­try that will not stop anoth­er coun­try from devel­op­ing these tech­nolo­gies. Once they exist, they will have the impacts that I write about in the book. As soon as they’re achieved, they will begin to change the way we live. So yeah, I don’t think reg­u­la­tion is the answer. I think the answer is hav­ing these con­ver­sa­tions before these tech­nolo­gies exist and refram­ing our ideas in terms of the right of a woman to have an abor­tion. Should we be fram­ing it in terms of the right to choose what hap­pens to your body? There may be a time where it does­n’t have to hap­pen to your body. Do we want our rights to be based on that or should we be able to explain them in a dif­fer­ent way? I think the impor­tant thing comes from hav­ing these mature con­ver­sa­tions and not being daz­zled by shiny new things. This is the thing—when these tech­nolo­gies come out, peo­ple accept them so uncrit­i­cal­ly. We need to be crit­i­cal before they come out.

Mason: It does feel like we need new lan­guage to deal with these aspects of life and to devel­op either new frame­works or new ways of talk­ing open­ly about some of these pos­si­bil­i­ties. I am just per­son­al­ly inter­est­ed in…given the explo­rations you made across the course of five years, how has it changed your approach to think­ing crit­i­cal­ly about the future?

Kleeman: Two things: you need to ask real­ly basic ques­tions and not be scared of being embar­rassed because you might look like an idiot, because always the best answers come from those basic ques­tions. The sec­ond thing is the impor­tance of real­ly lis­ten­ing prop­er­ly in a world where we are bom­bard­ed with mes­sages. The pow­er of actu­al­ly lis­ten­ing to peo­ple is one that we are los­ing. If you want a super­pow­er in life, real­ly lis­ten to peo­ple, and con­cen­trate, and focus, and engage.

Mason: It’s inter­est­ing. We did a lit­tle bit of work a cou­ple of years ago around prosthetics—3D print­ed pros­thet­ics. I did a series of events in London called Prosthetic Envy, and it was real­ly at the tail end of all of the enthu­si­asm about 3D print­ing in pros­thet­ics. 

The more you spoke to the indi­vid­u­als who are actu­al­ly using the print­ed pros­thet­ics that they were get­ting giv­en by these very well mean­ing indi­vid­u­als who had bought a maker-bot, print­ed a cou­ple of things, then realised they did­n’t know what else to make with their maker-bot, went online, realised they could print a limb for a kid, went into their garage and 3D print­ed a pros­thet­ic limb and sent it to a child. It was a won­der­ful idea in prin­ci­ple but giv­en that these were hob­by­ists, by the time the child got the pros­thet­ic limb it was bro­ken, it was falling apart, it was brit­tle and it was rub­bing against the skin.

The press sto­ry was, It’s amaz­ing, it’s incred­i­ble. People across the world are 3D print­ing pros­thet­ics for chil­dren.” The real­i­ty on the ground was that a lot of these chil­dren were actu­al­ly suf­fer­ing even more because of the ill-equipped way in which these things were pre­sent­ed.

We got push back from these very well mean­ing organ­i­sa­tions who were doing this 3D print­ing, say­ing, Look, what we need is a pos­i­tive out­look, a pos­i­tive pre­sen­ta­tion of this stuff. Yes, we know it does­n’t work, but if we don’t espouse it or evan­ge­lise it, then it won’t hap­pen.” You’re con­stant­ly caught with some­one who is look­ing at this stuff from an out­side eye in how do you find the right bal­ance between allow­ing for a degree of evan­ge­lism as a jour­nal­ist, with also pro­vid­ing a lit­tle bit of crit­i­cal analy­sis so the sto­ry is sparky enough for a gen­er­al read­er, but also does­n’t do a dis­ser­vice either to the indi­vid­ual you’re fea­tur­ing or to the future itself.

Kleeman: I think the way you do it is by gen­uine­ly prob­ing what peo­ple’s moti­va­tion is. Are peo­ple com­ing from a good place and this tech­nol­o­gy just isn’t quite there yet but if it was they would be doing some­thing mar­vel­lous, or are they some­one who just wants to make mon­ey and just wants to be famous and is cut­ting cor­ners? That’s quite easy to tell. When peo­ple don’t like you ask­ing dif­fi­cult ques­tions, that should raise your shack­les. In the book, there are quite a few peo­ple I speak to where you can tell that I real­ly think…I might not nec­es­sar­i­ly agree with what they’re doing; that it’s the big solution—but I think they’re good guys. That’s because they’re quite open to me ask­ing them any­thing, and they are hap­py to prob­lema­tise what they’re doing and talk about what’s lack­ing in it.

Quite often, so much of the book—as I was say­ing before—is about the sto­ries we want to tell and the sto­ries we want to hear. That’s a real­ly good example—that pros­thet­ic limb story—I can total­ly see that. For me, what’s inter­est­ing about that is the human awk­ward­ness of, You’ve giv­en me this limb, thank you but no thanks.”—kind of thing. That’s what’s inter­est­ing for me. For a gen­er­al audi­ence, it’s a good news sto­ry. That’s because we look at technology—technology is either some­thing amaz­ing and pos­i­tive or it’s the Terminator. There’s noth­ing in between. We don’t do grit­ty tech­nol­o­gy sto­ries. With human sto­ries, we tend to look at human beings as fal­li­ble and tech­nol­o­gy as shin­ing and fan­tas­tic, where­as the real­i­ty is much more nuanced. 

Mason: Well it feels like with some­thing as per­son­al as these aspects, trans­paren­cy is the key. The only way in which you hon­est­ly allow for either a gen­er­al pub­lic or investors or jour­nal­ists or oth­er vest­ed inter­est to trust the right per­son to car­ry the torch into the future is to have an entire degree of trans­paren­cy in the way in which you present your inno­va­tions and show your inno­va­tions. Again, that can be chal­leng­ing because if you’re too trans­par­ent, you don’t get to raise the sorts of mon­ey that makes your vision a real­i­ty. 

Kleeman: Yes, but jour­nal­ists don’t want to know the sorts of things that are going to be use­ful for your com­peti­tors, you know? A good exam­ple of this is when I went to the Abyss Creations fac­to­ry, I was allowed to go on the floor where they make these hyper-realistic sex dolls and they let me see every­thing. I could see any­thing I liked, because they’re real­ly proud of these dolls and these dolls are amaz­ing­ly made. There’s a lot of crafts­man­ship in them. I could pho­to­graph some things for my own note tak­ing there. There were cer­tain things that they did­n’t want me to photograph—like the moulds of how they mould them—because their com­peti­tors could get an advan­tage. But you could tell they were real­ly proud of those dolls, because I was allowed to see every­thing.

It’s inter­est­ing what you say about trans­paren­cy because you’re right, and some­times peo­ple feel like they’re being trans­par­ent by let­ting you in the build­ing, but it’s actu­al­ly not about that. It’s about not putting on a show for you and hav­ing enough con­fi­dence in their prod­uct that they’re going to let you inves­ti­gate it through your own ques­tions and with your own eyes. You can tell in peo­ple’s demeanour, you know—how much they are gen­uine­ly proud of what they’ve got and how much they are putting on a show for you.

Mason: You meet all of these incred­i­ble indi­vid­u­als and very enthu­si­as­tic indi­vid­u­als who both desire a degree of escapism from the present but have a real, clear ded­i­ca­tion and vision when it comes to think­ing about the future. Were there any indi­vid­u­als who real­ly sold to you? Did any of them make you think: yes, this future is inevitable. What do you think is most like­ly from the sto­ries that you cov­er in the book?

Kleeman: There were many peo­ple I spoke to who sur­prised me. The trans per­son who I spoke to—I was very sur­prised that some­one who was­n’t born female was able to artic­u­late so much of what I had felt was such a unique­ly female thing, which is why you would want to be preg­nant and give birth. That real­ly sur­prised me. I learnt a lot about myself and my own pre­con­cep­tions in those inter­views. Generally, whilst the peo­ple who are very ide­al­is­tic I real­ly lis­tened and was present with them in those con­ver­sa­tions and took what they said seri­ous­ly, none of them have been able to con­vince me that any of these tech­nolo­gies are ulti­mate­ly an answer or a solu­tion when we could just change our behav­iour. Obviously in the case of arti­fi­cial wombs there is a place for them. There is a place for them in sav­ing pre­ma­ture babies and giv­ing hope to peo­ple who can’t car­ry their babies for bio­log­i­cal rea­sons. Even then, in order for us to use them, we have to real­ly make sure they are not abused in the same way. 

Mason: So whether we’re excit­ed or out­raged by the sto­ries that you tell us in the book, what do you think we should do as a cul­ture and as a soci­ety to ensure that we actu­al­ly see desir­able out­comes in the end?

Kleeman: I think that we should not look to tech­nol­o­gy to pro­vide us with easy fix­es and we need to have the courage to look at our behav­iour and see if we need to change to make those changes. So much activism at the moment is com­plete­ly super­fi­cial. Changing your Instagram tile to show sol­i­dar­i­ty with Black Lives Matter or using the #MeToo hash­tag: I think all of these things are real­ly dan­ger­ous. To actu­al­ly change the world, you actu­al­ly have to put your com­put­er away and go and organ­ise with real peo­ple. You have to engage with the polit­i­cal sys­tem. You have to know who your local MP is and what their vot­ing record is, and lob­by them. You actu­al­ly have to do stuff. At the moment I think tech­nol­o­gy is dis­tanc­ing us from each oth­er. It allows peo­ple to con­nect, but what is the qual­i­ty of that con­nec­tion? 

There’s a metaphor that comes through my book which is the strongest metaphor for me. When I was in Las Vegas inter­view­ing this very dodgy sex robot inven­tor, I went back to my hotel and the hotel was pump­ing real­ly loud music from speak­ers on the exte­ri­or of the build­ing to try and get peo­ple to come in and gam­ble at the casi­no. I was exhaust­ed and I thought, oh my God, how am I ever sup­posed to sleep? I went up to my room and I saw that in this dish next to the bed, there was a pro­fu­sion of dif­fer­ent kinds of earplugs. It just seemed like this per­fect metaphor. The man­age­ment, instead of turn­ing the music off, gives you this lit­tle piece of tech­nol­o­gy so they don’t have to. They’ve caused this prob­lem, they could solve the prob­lem by turn­ing the music off, but instead they’re going to give you an extra free­bie, so they can have their cake and eat it. I think that’s how we use tech­nol­o­gy quite a lot now.

There’s so many exam­ples of this. Meditation apps that help you meditate—which I know a lot of peo­ple find very useful—but you could just med­i­tate, and you could just put your phone away. There’s an epi­dem­ic of sleep­less­ness because we’re all addict­ed to our phones and all the blue light from our phones. In America, there’s a huge indus­try of sell­ing melatonin—the hor­mone that makes you sleepy—and so peo­ple are on their phones and tak­ing this stuff. You could just put your phone away. You may think: what’s the harm in putting some earplugs in or get­ting the app, or buy­ing the mela­tonin? The harm is that you’re rely­ing on some­thing exter­nal to pro­vide an answer that you could just pro­vide your­self. It’s ulti­mate­ly dis­em­pow­er­ing you. 

If there’s one take­away, it would be to get peo­ple to ques­tion how much tech­nol­o­gy empow­ers you and how much it’s actu­al­ly remov­ing you from your agency. 

Mason: And on that note, Jenny Kleeman, thank you for your time.

Kleeman: Thank you so much, Luke. This has been great. 

Mason: Thank you to Jenny for shar­ing her insights into a wide range of soon to be realised tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ments

You can find out more by pur­chas­ing Jenny’s new book, Sex Robots and Vegan Meat: Adventures at the Frontier of Birth, Food, Sex and Death, avail­able now.

If you like what you’ve heard, then you can sub­scribe for our lat­est episode. Or fol­low us on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram: @FUTURESPodcast. 

More episodes, tran­scripts and show notes can be found at future​spod​cast​.net. 

Thank you for lis­ten­ing to the Futures Podcast.

Further Reference

Episode page, with intro­duc­to­ry and pro­duc­tion notes. Transcript orig­i­nal­ly by Beth Colquhoun, repub­lished with per­mis­sion (mod­i­fied).


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