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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