Wired’s Cofounder Predicted the Digital Revolution—Now She Wants to Talk About the Impact of Biotech
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Jane Metcalfe's NEO.LIFE introduces readers to the latest developments in biology and technology, and what they might mean for the future of our species.
In 1993, Wired magazine saw what so many others didn’t: the dramatic effect digital technology would have on our lives. Its founders, Louis Rossetto and Jane Metcalfe, called it the “digital revolution.”
Twenty-five years later, Metcalfe felt the rumblings of another tectonic shift. “I got a chill when I realized, I’m seeing this again,” she says. “It's the second time in my life I see something I know is going to completely transform our society, and most people don't recognize it yet.”
She founded the online publication NEO.LIFE in 2017 to explore and contextualize this transformation; her first book, Neo Life: 25 Visions for the Future of Our Species, live on Kickstarter now, will serve as a standalone introduction. Many of the biological and technological developments NEO.LIFE covers are still theoretical, or just in their infancy—but if the rapid evolution of digital technology is anything to go by, they won’t be for long. We’ll need to start grappling with their implications now.
“We now have the power to transform our species,” Metcalfe says. “How are we going to deploy that power, and who is going to be making those choices?”
The neobiological revolution will be democratized
Metcalfe wants NEO.LIFE, both the book and the site, to serve a need that “Dr. Google,” with its alarmist cancer diagnoses and pseudo-treatments peddled by self-appointed wellness experts, can’t quite provide. “We know social media platforms and the web in general is a great place to find the truth. But it's also a great place to find really profound distortions of the truth,” she says. “Translating advanced science into layman's terms—not talking down to people, assuming they'll do a little bit of work to understand what's going on—is a big missed opportunity.”
Metcalfe describes NEO.LIFE as “Wired meets Orphan Black”: Deep dives into new frontiers in science, like plastic-eating microbes and DNA writing, pair with roundups of pop-culture products that tackle topics like human cloning and genetic hacking.
“We’re looking for the people and companies and ideas that are building our future,” she says. “We’re looking for the kinds of technologies that will open up new fields of research, enable new ways of thinking, and ultimately have an impact on individuals and societies. I’m also looking for personalities, because the leaders of these revolutions—the scientist, the entrepreneur, the investor—are the people who are making the decisions about which technologies to deploy and how. So understanding who they are and what their motivations are is really important.”
Metcalfe describes Neo Life: 25 Visions for the Future of Our Species as a time capsule—a snapshot of the neobiological revolution’s infancy. It will include essays, interviews, fiction, and visual art that explore the ideas, tools, and technology shaping the future of biotechnology. In it, you’ll find a conversation between a science-fiction author and the pioneering bioengineer George Church, learn about a project to resurrect the smell of an extinct flower using its DNA, read an overview of a neuroscientist’s research into retrieving lost memories, and more.
But in a digital age, why produce a physical book? “I wanted to tie these ideas down to Earth; I wanted to snatch them out of the ether and ground them on paper,” Metcalfe says. “I want to create an artifact, something that we can look back on in 20 or 30 or 40 years.”
Learning from tech media’s mistakes
In the 1990s and early aughts, tech media took a pretty rosy view of the digital revolution. The internet would empower and inform citizens, putting all the world’s information at our fingertips; social media would bring people closer together. Few anticipated the ways they could be harnessed for ill—disinformation campaigns, trolling and abuse, companies hoovering up user data to sell to the highest bidder.
Metcalfe doesn’t want us to make that mistake again. NEO.LIFE aims to paint an optimistic portrait of the neobiological revolution without whitewashing the profound ethical questions it raises. “Being in Silicon Valley and seeing some of the backlash against the tech community [right now] is really interesting,” she says. “I also find it a little scary, because some people feel so disenfranchised that they just think technology is bad. I think they're going to feel very threatened by the transformation of our food and medicine and energy and materials.”
That’s why she hopes to emphasize “positive visions of our future; a vision of what we want. What would we like our future to look like? Let’s work toward that.”
But how to avoid propagating another Pollyannaish misunderstanding of biotech? The answer, she says, is to start simply, by educating and engaging people—not just researchers, not just biotech CEOs, but everybody.
“We know there's going to be enormous disruption. We know there are incredible opportunities to cure diseases, to prevent inherited diseases, to dramatically clean up our environment, to substantially reduce the inputs required for agriculture. There are so many positive opportunities ahead to significantly reduce the burden of bad health on our society. But along with that are lots of opportunities for things to go wrong. My goal is to get people involved, because there are a lot of choices that we have to make.”
With any luck, when we unearth the Neo Life time capsule in the next decade or five, we’ll have used the information therein to make those choices, and make them well.
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