The PEN Pod: Reimagining the Future with Jamie Metzl
Today on The PEN Pod, we spoke with technology and health futurist, geopolitical expert, novelist, and media commentator Jamie Metzl, who’s the author of Hacking Darwin: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humanity. Jamie spoke with us about reconfiguring our ideas of community and emotional connection, the psychological and sociopolitical impacts of social distancing, and how we can start thinking about building a better world in the aftermath of the public health crisis.
How prepared do you think we were for this moment of social distancing and for this global moment of hunkering down amidst uncertainty?
In terms of social distancing, we’ve been social distancing; we’ve been virtualizing our lives since at least the advent of the telegraph in the 19th century. We have this idea of distance even now, where we’re communicating from away and communicating to others. But we also, as humans, have this deep need for physical connectivity. We are not virtual beings. And so, emotionally, we’re not ready for it. All of these structures for physical connectivity are gone, at least temporarily. We’re almost in this “Battlestar Galactica” remake moment where we’re having to reconceptualize space and community. It’s not that we will become un-physical beings, but we’re gonna have to figure out different ways of virtually sharing emotion and connectivity, at least until this danger passes.
“That’s why organizations like PEN that are so focused on values are so critical, because these are the conversations that we have to have. We’re going to have this incredible technology, but it’s up for grabs whether these technologies will be used to help or harm us.”
You wrote at CNN.com about the human need for intimate physical connectivity. Can technology be a substitute for that? It seems like probably not.
It can’t be a substitute, but it can be a complement. And again, in our best possible world, I, for one, would love to live in some kind of hippie commune with real people there, and I also live, like many people, this global life where my friends and contacts are distributed around the world. I think we need to find that balance. But at times like this, our lives are becoming and feeling more virtual. And yes, there’s a loss, and I think many of us are mourning that loss. But this is the world that we have now, and we have to make the most of it. There’s a lot of simple things that people can do. Make a list of all the people who you love and care about in your life, all the people who you think may be feeling isolated or alone, and just create a schedule of reaching out to them. My girlfriend and I are doing a virtual tea party with friends on Sunday where we’re gonna make tea, they’re gonna make tea, we’re gonna connect on FaceTime. We have to think of how we might do things differently. But it’s also not the case that when this crisis ends, society is just going to snap back to where it was, and we’re going to say, “Wow, that was a crazy experience.” There’s something happening now that is going to last beyond this.
What are some things that could be irrevocably different about our culture and the way we work and live, as a result of this moment?
We’re for sure not going fully back on virtualization. We’re going to do things differently. Our sense of space is going to be different. A lot of people who are now working from home aren’t going to go back to physical offices because once companies figure out how they can work in this way, it’ll just be cheaper to have people stay at home. We’re certainly going to change the way we think about global public health. If you asked a regular person, “Wouldn’t it make sense to have a super empowered World Health Organization with a global surveillance system that whenever any trip wire was hit, you’d have an emergency response team that would fly to wherever that was and they would set up a command center and do what needed to be done?” They would say, “Yeah, don’t we have that?” And the answer is we don’t. Because we have starved organizations like the WHO, because we have states that are demanding a level of control that doesn’t make sense in our world of global challenges. One of the things that I’m working on very, very actively now is imagining a third leg of the global political stool in addition to states and international institutions, and that is the democratic expression of the needs of our common humanity. It seems like it’s this big, crazy idea. But in these negotiations, no one is saying, “Hey, climate change affects all of us; destroying our oceans affects all of us; global pandemics affect all of us.” Who is standing up to help humanity? And that’s what I think we need now.
“I feel like I’m at war from the battlestation of my office here on 81st Street in New York, so I’m pretty focused on reading what I need to read now.”
In Hacking Darwin, you wrote about genetics, you wrote about changing our genetic identity, perhaps to yield cures for diseases. Are you more or less optimistic about the potential for genetic science and cures than you were before?
I’m extremely optimistic. We are facing an enormous challenge today, but we now have almost godlike capacities to read, write, and hack the code of life. And those tools, I’m firmly convinced, are going to save us, and we’re going to figure out treatments and we’re gonna have a vaccine not just for this, but for all kinds of challenges in the future. But these technologies don’t come with a built-in value system. All technologies are value-neutral. It’s up to us to determine what are the values that will guide the application of our most powerful technologies, and that’s the issue. That’s why organizations like PEN that are so focused on values are so critical, because these are the conversations that we have to have. We’re going to have this incredible technology, but it’s up for grabs whether these technologies will be used to help or harm us.
Finally, what are you reading, watching, or listening to right now?
I would advise people at times of crisis like this to read poetry and literature. I’m trying to do a little bit of that, but I’m just all in and obsessed. Just last night I finished this incredible book, Spillover, by the amazing journalist David Quammen. And that’s about zoonotic viruses like this, and our experiences in the past. I’m now reading Betrayal of Trust by Laurie Garrett, which is about the destruction of our public health infrastructure. So when this is done, I’m just going to be—and I myself am a novelist—back to reading the novels that I love so much. Maybe I’ll read Proust and start thinking about Maman and her madeleine. But for now, I feel like I’m at war from the battlestation of my office here on 81st Street in New York, so I’m pretty focused on reading what I need to read now.
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