Questions to ask of any new technology

Yesterday I wrote about the latest development in food technology, the advent of synthetic meat. My general view is that it is good news, though too far from practical application to make any difference right now. But I am aware that I’m an optimist and my views aren’t necessarily shared.

In one more extreme example, Joanna Blythman damns “frankenburgers” as “a poor imitation of meat” in the Daily Mail. “Every feature of it is bogus”. She goes on to predict it will be tough and tasteless, and questions its nutritional properties. She says the arguments for it are Malthusian and misguided, and that it will “probably turn out to be another cynical, profit-driven piece of marketing.”

Most reports were more balanced, but it’s interesting to see how a news item can yield such divergence of opinion. I thought it might be worth pausing on reflect on perspective, because there are at least two different approaches to a new technological development like this one.

The first is to measure the distance between The New Thing and the ideal we have in our head, and take our guidance from there. So in this case, the ideal is that everybody eats a balanced diet and enjoys organic and local grass-fed beef on special occasions. The gap between this vision and pressed patties of lab-grown meat cells is indeed capacious.

The other way to look at it is to look at what we have today, and see how The New Thing compares. The current global beef industry is huge and distant, mass producing feedlot cattle so cheaply that beef can be used in catfood. Against a backdrop of high ecological footprints and low animal welfare, cultured beef looks like an ethical no-brainer.

So where’s the balance? I think there are a number of questions to ask when considering a new breakthrough technology, whatever it might be. Here are some of them, and there are plenty of others:

  • Who will control this technology? Who is served? Who is empowered and who is dis-empowered?
  • No technology is neutral. What’s the trade-off? What freedoms are gained and what is surrendered in return?
  • Will this new technology make things simpler or more complicated?
  • Will there be more or less violence, in the full sense of environmental and social damage?
  • What forces of ‘creative destruction’ will this trigger? Ie which businesses will be negatively affected, where will jobs be lost?
  • Will I be able to choose differently for myself, according to my conscience, or is the application of the technology out of my hands?

8 Comments on “Questions to ask of any new technology”

  1. Richard Murray (@agreenthought) August 7, 2013 at 4:05 pm #

    An interesting set of questions but did you ask them of yourself yesterday? The questions which immediately came to my mind were e.g. why did the meat have to be sexed up with taste additives? How were the cells ‘fed’? What would ‘big business’ do with this technological opportunity given its current reputation? Why is it always ‘organic’ v all other farming methods? I am open to technology and I am not an organic exclusivist but I am concerned about farming methods particularly industrialised farming which is not feeding the world and is hugely wasteful, quite apart from environmental and animal husbandry concerns. We can feed 7 or even 9 billion and we can do this through sustainable and compassionate farming geared to feeding all people not just those of us in the West. Yesterday was just a media stunt. The future is not lab-grown meat.

    • Jeremy August 7, 2013 at 9:11 pm #

      Yes, and the answers are not overwhelmingly positive. Like I say, nothing is. But as I explain, it’s a whole lot better than the status quo. It might never happen. It might be impossible. It’s certainly a whole lot simpler to eat less meat. But if it is possible, I don’t think it’s something we should reject on principle. That’s the main point really.

      As for the big corporations, it’s the same principle. Would this serve big corporations? Yes it would. But so does the current industry, and this would serve big corporations without the ecological devastation.

      I wasn’t troubled by the additives. If I were making a burger with fresh beef, I’d have flour, egg, spices, salt and pepper in there. I don’t see any harm in that. The admission that it’s natural colour is white is a little off-putting, I’ll give you that.

      And I take your point that yesterday was a stunt. This is still science fiction, and years away from reality if it ever happens at all. That’s why I ended yesterday’s post by saying that we still need to reduce our meat consumption.

  2. Jim August 7, 2013 at 8:24 pm #

    I find this a really really interesting subject, I mean growing beef in a lab, it’s almost sci-fi for goodness sake. Actually the first time I read about this technology was probably about 30 years ago, and yes it was in a sci-fi book. The truth of the matter is that a lot of our lifestyles today are the imaginings of sci-fi from many years ago.

    I like to make my opinions of new technology based on how I think the future should be and if the new technology gets us closer to that Utopian future or not. My Utopian future has many aspects that are not really relevant here but some of the things are that we have a plentiful and cheap(free) source of food, something that dosn’t have a negative effect on the environment, is secure, easy and good for us. Not asking much am I. Our current system is barely able to cope in the west but in some 3rd world countries it is failing altogether.

    Imagine in 50 or 100 years or maybe 200 years if we continue with our current course, say the population is 2 or 3 times the current level, the environmental problems are messing up the weather and the seasons, we will find that our ability to produce food will be diminishing fast. This is not a situation we want to have, we need to do something about it.

    In the past there were all sorts of practices to do with our food that were commonplace that we would find horrific now, likewise in our futures we will think that some of our current commonplace practices are horrific. Our great great grandchildren will be studying history about us and they will not believe that we did the things that we do. They will then get there customized, nutritionally balanced, and tasty meals that will be produced by their automated food replicator.

    So, is lab grown beef a step closer to the Utopian vision, I think so, but by the look off the lady eating the burger it wasn’t a very tasty first step :-)

  3. EAT August 8, 2013 at 12:30 am #

    I think your list is a reasonable start at an assessment of appropriate technology. It does seem that this synthetic food fails on the question of “does it make life simpler or more complex” amongst other things and this failure is signficant as we move into a carbon constrained world where local communities will need to become more self sufficient in order to survive.

    • Jeremy August 8, 2013 at 9:12 am #

      It fails a number of those questions, that one most dramatically. The problem is that nothing passes all of them, so it’s a matter of balancing the pros and cons.

      It’s also worth noting that the technology isn’t as useful in some places as others. In land-scarce countries like Japan, this is far more useful than in New Zealand, for example. We’ll have different criteria depending on where we are.

  4. DevonChap August 8, 2013 at 2:54 pm #

    Why is ‘creative destruction’ a problem? Without it there isn’t space for new ways of working and business to grow. Jobs are a cost, not a benefit, otherwise we should make all labourers work with spoons rather than spades.

    This is a list of questions to which the answers are unknowable in advance and would change over time anyway. It seems like a list designed to come up with negative conclusions.

    Aside from that who would be asking these question, who would be answering them and who would be enforcing them. Sorry, that invention doesn’t pass my arbitrary tests, you can’t make it.

    • Jeremy August 8, 2013 at 3:24 pm #

      I didn’t say creative destruction is a problem, but we’re being idiots if we don’t think about it in advance. Jobs are a cost to business, but a benefit to society, so it’s about striking a balance and managing change.

      Why do you think this is a list bound to come up with negative conclusions, when I’m explaining my logic for supporting the idea of synthetic meat? Neither are these questions arbitrary – they’re about the wisdom to know what’s going to lead to greater human flourishing and what is not. You’re entitled to different questions. These are simply mine.

      And these are questions for us to answer both collectively and individually. We all have a choice about if and how we’re going to participate in new technologies, but the same is true of society. There are plenty of examples of technology that we choose to restrain, like gun control, or GM crops in Europe, or human cloning.

  5. theconsciousaim August 18, 2013 at 8:57 pm #

    Reblogged this on The Conscious Aim.

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