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.
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