I can only promise you that it's going to get weirder
Technology is always changing the nature of human life.
“The past is a foreign country.” — L.P. Hartley
“Acetaminophen/ You see the medicine” — The White Stripes
Every day on Twitter it’s an all-new magical world of new things to get overly mad about. Yesterday’s kerfuffle involved some prominent tech figures speculating that artificial wombs might reduce the burden of child-bearing and thus help stabilize fertility rates:
Predictably, this produced the usual torrent of knee-jerk petulant anger toward technologists, but it also produced a fair amount of interesting commentary and thought surrounding the idea of artificial wombs. As Hollis Robbins pointed out, it’s pretty unlikely that artificial womb technology would substantially reduce the cost of raising a child, since almost all of this work happens after the child is born. And thus it’ll be unlikely to significantly increase fertility rates. If you really want to imagine a technology that would make people more eager to have kids, imagine robot nannies.
But as Grimes noted, artificial wombs would significantly reduce the physical strain that pregnancy places on women’s bodies:
We don’t talk much about this “violence”; it’s one of our last remaining taboos. Instead, we relegate the gory details to the realm of parenting classes and raunchy comedy. But it’s absolutely real. We’ve eliminated many of our burdens through the magic of technology — carrying water all day, washing laundry by hand in the river, chopping firewood to heat our homes — but pregnancy remains.
Unless you’re rich, of course. My wealthy friend, whose first pregnancy required a hysterectomy due to placenta accreta, will have her second child via a surrogate, using pre-frozen embryos. This costs upwards of $100,000, which is approximately equal to the entire median wealth of an American household.
Who would begrudge my friend this? And even if she were able to bear a second child herself, who would begrudge her the opportunity to outsource it? Artificial wombs are simply a way to take a privilege for the upper class, and make it possible for other classes of society to enjoy it as well.
And this is how it’ll almost certainly be received. Angry Twitter people always seem to envision new technologies as something that government imposes on the populace, possibly at the behest of mad billionaires. In the real world, what usually happens is that people simply adopt a new technology because they realize it makes life easier for them. Roon has a good thread about how this is likely to proceed:
Maybe in China the government will try to force womb tanks on people to try to raise the birth rate; in America, it’ll start out as a luxury purchased by the rich and the infertile, and then in a few years we’ll have online socialists angrily demanding that the tech be provided free of charge to all via a program of universal health care. Eventually we’ll wonder how we ever did things any other way.
And there’s a chance we may see this change within our lifetimes. People are already working on similar technologies from animals. And some friends of mine have already started to think concretely and hold discussions about the technical, practical, and philosophical issues involved in creating and marketing human womb tank technology. (Update: Here is a good article about artificial womb technology by Aria Babu.)
In fact, I’ve been hoping for womb tanks for a very long time, because of science fiction. One of my favorite sci-fi authors, Lois McMaster Bujold, includes “uterine replicators” as a prominent feature of her futuristic “Vorkosigan” universe (which you should definitely read if you haven’t already). The tech is initially reviled as unnatural by the conservative inhabitants of the somewhat backwards planet Barrayar, but eventually it turns out that everyone loves it and it just makes life a lot easier. Like Grimes, Bujold envisions womb tanks helping push the world toward greater gender equality.
I love that kind of optimistic vision of the future; it fits all of my three criteria. In Bujold’s world, womb tank technology creates material abundance by allowing people to avoid the time and physical hardship of pregnancy if they so choose. It demonstrates human agency, because it’s a product of human ingenuity. And it’s egalitarian, because the government makes the technology available to all who want it, instead of reserving it for the rich.
Artificial womb technology is bound to face plenty of pushback on the somewhat backwards planet Earth, just as it does in the fictional Barrayar. Because, well, it’s artificial. The idea of abruptly mechanizing such a basic and fundamental part of human life as pregnancy causes some people to recoil in future-shock. Even when it becomes relatively commonplace, some will probably continue to argue that it’s unnatural, some on religious grounds. In fact, as innovation shifts from gadgets and code to biotech and wetware in general, I expect such pushbacks to increase.
But in order to embrace biotech innovation, we need to understand that it’s not really any weirder or more unnatural than the kinds of innovation we’ve been almost continually embracing for a century and a half now. Technology isn’t becoming weird; technology has always been weird. In fact, in a very deep sense, that’s what technology does — by increasing human capabilities, it changes the fundamental shape of human life.
Consider if you could watch an average American human being go about their day in 2022. Much of their time would be spent silently staring into one of two smallish glowing screens — one on their desk or lap, the other in their pocket or bag — and typing on the screen or a connected keyboard. Now consider going back and shadowing an average American in the 1980s. They’d still spend some of their time watching a screen, but this time it wouldn’t be an interactive one — just something that showed them pictures. At other times they’d be writing on pieces of paper, typing on typewriters, or talking to the people in their close proximity. Some would do manual jobs in construction or manufacturing. But go back even further, to 1900. Now, the average person would spend a great deal of their time doing menial or manual labor, either housework or in a factory or farm. And some significant amount would be spent in religious observance. The basic experience of human life — what we spend our time doing from day to day — has changed utterly, several times, as technology has progressed.
Or consider how people meet their romantic partners — certainly a core, important part of life. In 2022, people meet their partners mostly online. In 1980, it would have been through friends, college classmates, coworkers, or people who shared the same hobbies. In 1900 it would have been primarily high school classmates, family friends, people who lived in the same small town, etc.
In other words, what it means to live a human life — at least in a technologically advanced country — has fundamentally and radically changed over the years. The lives of 1980 would seem as bizarre to someone who grew up with social media and cell phones and the lives of 1900 would seem to someone who grew up with cars, television, and electric appliances.
Technology doesn’t just increase human capabilities. Technology weirds the world.
Just to drive this point home, I thought I’d make a list of some human experiences that were very basic and normal — almost universal — in 1980, but which are now so rare as to be almost unimaginable for much of the population.
1. Getting lost. Remember when you could wander off into a city or a forest and have no idea where you were? If you grew up in the time of cell phones, then this is basically impossible unless your phone runs out of battery. As long as you have phone reception, you can call someone at any time. Even without reception, your GPS can show you where you are on the map and help you find your way to where you want to go. In 1980, wherever you went, you had to think about how you’d be able to find your way back. Now, you essentially never do.
2. Not knowing what things looked like. Before Google Images and other search engines, if someone told you that there was a very pointy mountain in Switzerland called the Matterhorn, you could sit there wondering all day what it might look like, and not know. If you had access to an encyclopedia or other relevant book you might find a picture of it, but chances are you’d just have to rely on your imagination. Now, with a few button presses, you know the Matterhorn looks like this:
This takes a significant amount of the mystery out of the world.
3. Forgetting what things looked like. In 1980, some people had cameras, and a very few people had video cameras. But film was expensive, and cameras were bulky, and people generally weren’t able to go around taking pictures of everything in their lives. Now, thanks to ubiquitous miniaturized digital cameras in every phone, we can go around preserving images and video of everything we encounter — food, people, buildings, landscapes, etc.
4. Losing touch with people. Plenty of people still fail to keep in touch with their friends, colleagues, or even family. But in 1980, oftentimes you just wouldn’t have any idea how to get in touch with someone even if you wanted to. You might not know their mailing address or their phone number. And as a result, sometimes you’d want to keep in touch with someone and just not be able to do it. Bob Dylan had a song about not knowing how to get in touch with his old gang of friends, and how he’d give anything just to reunite with them. Even on a more daily basis, unless someone happened to be near a landline phone, you just wouldn’t be able to contact them at any given time. Now, thanks to cell phones, social media, and the web, people are pretty easy to find and contact in a very short period of time, unless they really don’t want to be found.
5. Not being able to know basic facts. Who commanded the U.S.S. Enterprise at the Battle of the Philippine Sea? What’s the molar mass of aspirin? What’s the collective noun for a group of doves? How many days does it take Saturn to orbit the sun? Who directed the anime Kimagure Orange Road? In 1980, if you had a very good set of encyclopedias and other reference books in your house, you’d be able to find the answer to some of these questions, with difficulty. Maybe you could ask some knowledgeable person — your dad, or the local nerd — and maybe the answer they gave you would be made up. Now, all of these answers are just a few button presses away.
6. Enforced boredom and loneliness. People still experience the emotions of boredom and loneliness, obviously. But in 1980 there would be stretches of time when there was just no one around to talk to, leaving you bored and/or lonely by default. Watch old movies, and you’ll see bored people vegetating in front of the television, or going out and looking for trouble because there’s just nothing to do. Now, thanks to social media, you can just go online and talk to people any time, and maybe even yell at some famous tech CEOs about womb tanks!
7. Not being able to get porn. Watch old movies or TV shows, and you’ll see jokes about teenagers wanting to look at porn but not being able to buy or access it. When they finally find the porn, they’re always very excited. Now, for better or for worse, infinite porn is just a few button presses away for pretty much anyone.
8. Being able to move and start a new life. Most people in 1980 didn’t uproot their lives, move to a new town, and start all over in a place where no one knew anything about them, free to craft a new social role and personality for themselves. But some did, and people knew they always could. Now, unless you create a whole new fake identity, your personal history will follow you via the internet, and people you meet can always Google you to see what you were up to a few years ago. So that extreme option of escape is basically closed off.
9. Getting chicken pox. This was a rite of passage for every kid. You got chicken pox, you itched like crazy for a week, and then you were done with it. It was so inevitable, and so safe, that some people would even intentionally infect their kids with it, just to get it over with. Now, thanks to the varicella vaccine that was introduced in 1995, almost no one gets chicken pox.
10. Not knowing what sex your baby was going to be. Now, everyone knows.
So there you have it: Ten things that were basic, regular, near-universal experiences for most people in the world’s most technologically advanced societies just four decades ago, all of which are either rare or almost unimaginable today. And go back decades further, and you’ll find even more experiences like this — things that were mainstays of the human experiences, that were then just gone. At a fundamental level, technology changes what it means to live a human life.
But surely, biotech is different, right? Changing how people spend their time and find information and work and find romance etc. is one thing, but changing the basics of the physical human experience is something else, no?
Well, first of all, no, I don’t think it’s that different; I think our experiences of life are what count, and whether these experiences change because of things that affect our bodies or things that affect the world around us doesn’t make a huge amount of difference. But that’s a bit beside the point, because technology is already changing our bodies and our physical experiences of life, and indeed has already changed it deeply.
There was a time when dangerous, crippling, and potentially deadly infectious diseases ran rampant; now, with antibiotics and vaccines, they’re relatively rare experiences. People in advanced societies have gotten much taller, stronger, and fatter due to increased caloric intake. Tools like wheelchairs and hearing aids for the disabled have become ubiquitous. Just think what the world would be like without eyeglasses.
And yes, this is also true of pregnancy. One in three American babies is now born via C-section. In vitro fertilization is widely available, and accounts for 1-2% of all conceptions. With numerous forms of widely available birth control, a lot more of those conceptions are voluntary, even when done via the traditional method. Egg freezing and embryo freezing now allow many people to delay child-bearing until much later in life if they choose. Fertility drugs help this as well. There’s embryo screening now, for people who want to make sure their kid isn’t born with certain diseases. Ultrasounds and other scans are able to tell parents much more about their child before it’s born. They’re also able to detect many complications of pregnancy, such as the placenta accreta that would surely have killed my friend in an earlier time.
And for babies born prematurely, we now have incubators and other advanced tools that can often save their lives and allow them to grow up healthy.
This is sort of an artificial womb already. It’s not quite a uterine replicator from a Lois McMaster Bujold novel, but it’s a step down that road. Womb tanks might not start out as full conception-to-birth machines; instead they might be something that mothers can transfer a fetus to, partway through their pregnancy. That’s really just a longer incubator. If and when the full uterine replicator vision is realized, it’ll feel like more of an incremental step than people realize.
Ultimately, that’s how technology changes human life — step by step, piece by piece. You barely realize how much life has changed until decades later you look back and can barely remember what it was like before the changes. For better or for worse, that’s the course that modern industrial innovative scientific society has set us on. Our lives have been continuous processes of technological change since we were born, and that will be true for the rest of our lives. We can and should do our utmost to make sure that those changes create a better society — one that’s more prosperous, equal, happy and free — instead of a dystopia. We get to choose whether our future is more like Aldous Huxley’s or more like Lois McMaster Bujold’s.
But one thing’s for certain: There’s no stopping this bus. I can only promise you that it’s going to get weirder.
Online socialists a couple years ago were already demanding free uterine replicators for all: “Full Surrogacy Now” by Sophie Lewis, Verso Books in 2019.
I wonder how many of the people angry about the concept as proposed by Silicon Valley guys were in favor of this book at the time.
As a mental exercise I try to imagine how my med student self would perceive my current practice. 20 years (around where I am now) is just about right to make it feel like a completely different era. I think I'd feel like a museum piece after 40.
I'm in a tech-heavy specialty so it's especially noticable, especially since I intentionally tried to learn a few "legacy" techniques from very senior practitioners when I first trained. Unfortunately, people seem more unhappy than ever despite medical tech having so many ingredients to meet your futurism criteria (probably due to frustration in the delivery systems evolving far too slowly).