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Review: Meat Planet (2019) by Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft

In the words of the book’s author, Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft, Meat Planet: Artificial Flesh and the Future of Food (2019) is “not an attempt at prediction but rather a study of cultured meat as a special case of speculation on the future of food, and as a lens through which to view the predictions we make about how technology changes the world.” While not serving as some crystal ball to tell us the future of food, Wurgaft’s book certainly does serve as a kind of lens.

Our very appetites are questioned quite a bit in the book. Wondering about the ever-changing history of food, the author asks, “Will it be an effort to reproduce the industrial meat forms we know, albeit on a novel, and more ethical and sustainable, foundation?” Questioning why hamburgers are automatically the default goal, he points out cultured meat advocates should carefully consider “the question of which human appetite for meat, in historical terms, they wish to satisfy.”

Wurgaft’s question of “which human appetite” – past, present, or future – is an excellent one. If we use his book as a lens to observe other emerging technologies, the question extends well beyond our choices of food. It could even have direct implications for such endeavours as radical life extension. Will we, if we extend our lifetimes, be satisfactory to future people? We already know the kind of clash that persists between different generations, and the blame we often place on previous generations for current social ills, without there also being a group of people who simply refuse to die. We should be wary of basing our future on the present – of attempting to preserve present tastes as somehow immutable and deserving immortality. This may be a problem such futurists as Ray Kurzweil, author of The Singularity is Near (2005) need to respond to.

If we are to justify the singularity at which we or our appetites are immortalized, we should remember technology changes “morality’s horizon”, as Wurgaft observes. If, for example, a new technology arises that can entirely eliminate suffering, our choice to allow suffering is an immoral one. If further technologies then emerge that can eliminate not just suffering but death, it will become immoral on that day to permit someone’s natural death – at least to the extent it is like the crime of manslaughter. I argued in my own book that it will be immoral to withhold novel biotechnologies from impoverished countries, if we know such direct action will increase their economic independence or improve their health. Put simply, our inaction in a situation can become an immoral deed if we have the necessary tools to stop suffering.

Beyond the way they alter our moral structures and expectations, Wurgaft notes that much fear over emerging technologies stems from the belief “technology might introduce a new plasticity into our concept of what it is to be human.” This is already expected to be the case with potential transhuman technologies, which critics of transhumanism find greatly troubling. Fully respecting the sanctity of animal life may ultimately coincide with respecting the same for all sentient beings, such as artificial and posthuman beings. Alternatively, the plasticity being described may ultimately undermine all our rights, leaving sentient life open to a whole new range of abuses, which certainly is the outcome critics of transhumanism fear. The fear of human rights being only more easily degraded and devalued by technology, or the notion technology will broaden the scope of all things morally wrong, is frequently expressed in the British dystopian Netflix series Black Mirror.

The moral appetite of the advocates of cultured meat is clear. They seek increased animal protection primarily, followed by environmental protection, but much rarer are their appeals to food security and human health. Wurgaft points out there is no apparent compelling philosophical defence or apologetic for the eating of animals. Perhaps the aforementioned plasticity of our morals to align with our species’ technological abilities, however, means most of us will remain unable to develop an acceptance of the sanctity of animal life until it becomes more broadly convenient to do so.

A chapter of Meat Planet addresses promises, noting how hopeful expectations often reinforce each other. The author also discusses “hype”, noting it is both necessary to the success of, and yet also a component leading to eventual (in Wurgaft’s view inevitable) disillusionment with any emerging technology. Such lessons may seem dissatisfying to those of us who are more enthusiastic about the future, but they seem necessary. Those of us who write science fiction know it is still fiction, and at best can only inspire some small part of the real future.

Wurgaft acknowledges “physical technologies (in energy, in transport, in medicine, in manufacturing) have lagged behind our digital ones”. This is regrettably true. Far too much effort in the tech sectors goes into software and smarter approaches to old problems rather than achieving real breakthroughs or actually inventing something. This only adds to the disappointment many feel. Rather than entering a sci-fi world filled with new domains of advanced technology, we are striding into a world only filled with new gimmicky apps and ever more efficient ways of doing whatever we already did.

Staying on the issue of technological disappointment, many problems are especially frustrating because they are the result of our culture rather than hurdles in engineering itself. Wurgaft makes a good point that privately funded labs don’t share their research and are “at risk of reinventing the wheel”. If we are to imagine a solution, it may be that governments should purchase the research of failed biotech start-ups, then hand it out freely with a goal to reduce any duplicated work and accelerate research.

It is my own observation that states are often capable of a significant amount of heavy lifting on the way to new technologies where private companies were not willing to take risks. Companies focused on new experimental technologies often leave it to engineers to solve the problem of scaling – work that too often simply doesn’t get done, as was the case with a lab-tested fuel production method using bacteria. It is possible that a state could learn best when to step in and could compensate both for the poor communication between innovators and the lack of engineering expertise and funding necessary for scaling.

On the topic of cultured meat specifically, maybe the focus should not currently be on replacing the most desired forms of meat (e.g., burgers and steaks) with cultured meat but in replacing at least a substantial percentage of lower-quality meat products with cultured meat. This, of course, depends on government adopting an agenda of phasing out industrial animal slaughter in much the same way carbon reduction targets were adopted.

A final consideration, for me, is that there may be alternative ways of achieving the same goals as cultured meat proponents. If genetic engineering could produce animals that efficiently yield greater quantities of meat, and of better quality, this may result in fewer individual animals suffering. Better yet, if synthetic biology is what it claims to be, it may eventually be possible to remake our favourite meats using the body of some wholly engineered or cognitively suppressed animal that does not experience suffering and exists its whole life as a steak.

To conclude, Wurgaft’s Meat Planet is quite nutritious food for thought. Beyond directly addressing and critically examining the hopes behind cultured meat, it raises a number of questions that should be asked of the advocates of other emerging technologies. The most important lesson is that we should not view new technology as morally neutral. It is almost certain to reconfigure our morality, whether it is for better or worse. I like to think technology only better supports us to make good moral choices in the long-term, even if there are short-term instances of abuse, as can be seen by looking at the overall course of human history.

More from me: Catalyst: A Techno-Liberation Thesis

Predicting an economic “singularity” approaching, Kevin Carson from the Center for a Stateless Society writes in The Homebrew Industrial Revolution (2010) we can look forward to a vibrant “alternative economy” driven less and less by corporate and state leviathans.

According to Carson, “the more technical advances lower the capital outlays and overhead for production in the informal economy, the more the economic calculus is shifted” (p. 357). While this sums up the message of the book and its relevance to advocates of open existing and emerging technologies, the analysis Carson offers to reach his conclusions is extensive and sophisticated.

With the technology of individual creativity expanding constantly, the analysis goes, “increasing competition, easy diffusion of new technology and technique, and increasing transparency of cost structure will – between them – arbitrage the rate of profit to virtually zero and squeeze artificial scarcity rents” (p. 346).

An unrivalled champion of arguments against “intellectual property”, the author believes IP to be nothing more than a last-ditch attempt by talentless corporations to continue making profit at the expensive of true creators and scientists (p. 114–129). The view has significant merit.

“The worst nightmare of the corporate dinosaurs”, Carson writes of old-fashioned mass-production-based and propertied industries, is that “the imagination might take a walk” (p. 311). Skilled creators could find the courage to declare independence from big brands. If not now, in the near future, technology will be advanced and available enough that the creators and scientists don’t need to work as helpers for super-rich corporate executives. Nor will the future see such men and women kept at dystopian, centralized factories.

Pointing to the crises of overproduction and waste, together with seemingly inevitable technological unemployment, Carson believes corporate capitalism is at death’s door. Due to “terminal crisis”, not only are other worlds possible but “this world, increasingly, is becoming impossible” (p. 82). Corporations, the author persuades us, only survive because they live off the subsidies of the government. But “as the system approaches its limits of sustainability”, “libertarian and decentralist technologies and organizational forms” are destined to “break out of their state capitalist integument and become the building blocks of a fundamentally different society” (p. 111–112).

Giant corporations are no longer some kind of necessary evil needed to ensure wide-scale manufacture and distribution of goods in our globalized world. Increasingly, they are only latching on to the talents of individuals to extract rents. They may even be neutering technological modernity and the raising of living standards, to extract as much profit as possible by allowing only slow improvements.

And why should corporations milk anyone, if those creators are equipped and talented enough to work for themselves?

The notion of creators declaring independence is not solely a question of things to come. While Kevin Carson links the works of Karl Hess, Jane Jacobs and others (p. 192–194) to imagine alternative friendly, localized community industries of a high-tech nature that will decrease the waste and dependency bred by highly centralized production and trade, he also points to recent technologies and their social impact.

“Computers have promised to be a decentralizing force on the same scale as electrical power a century earlier” (p. 197), the author asserts, referring to theories of the growth of electricity as a utility and its economic potential. From the subsequent growth of the internet, blogging is replacing centralized and costly news networks and publications to be the source of everyone’s information (p. 199). The decentralization brought by computers has meant “the minimum capital outlay for entering most of the entertainment and information industry has fallen to a few thousand dollars at most, and the marginal cost of reproduction is zero” (p. 199).

The vision made possible by books like Kevin Carson’s might be that one day, not only information products but physical products – everything – will be free. The phrase “knowledge is free”, a slogan of Anonymous hackers and their sympathizers, is true in two senses. Not only does “information want to be free”, the origin of the phrase explained by Wired co-founder Kevin Kelly in What Technology Wants (2010), but one can acquire knowledge at zero cost.

If the “transferrability” of individual creativity and peer production “to the realm of physical production” from the “immaterial realm” is a valid observation (p. 204–227), then the economic singularity means one thing clear. “Knowledge is free” shall become “everything is free”.

“Newly emerging forms of manufacturing”, the author indicated, “require far less capital to undertake production. The desktop revolution has reduced the capital outlays required for music, publishing and software by two orders of magnitude; and the newest open-source designs for computerized machine tools are being produced by hardware hackers for a few hundred dollars” (p. 84).

Open source hardware is of course also central to the advocacy in The Homebrew Industrial Revolution, especially as it relates to poorer peripheries of the world-economy. It is through open source hardware libraries of the kind advocated by Vinay Gupta that plans for alternative manufacture as the starting point in an alternative economy for the good of all become feasible.

As I argued in my 2013 Catalyst booklet, not only informational goods will face the scandals of being “leaked” or “pirated” in future. The right generation of 3D printers, robots, atomically-precise manufacturing devices, biotechnology-derived medicines and petrochemicals will all move “at the speed of light” as the father of synthetic biology J. Craig Venter predicted of his own synbio work.

The fuel of an economic singularity, those above creations should be of primary interest in the formation of an alternative economy. They would not only have zero cost and zero waiting times, but they would require zero effort. Simply shared, they must be allowed to raise the living standards of humanity and allow poor countries to leapfrog several stages of development, breaking free of the bonds of exploitation.

One area to be criticized in the book could be a portion in which it reflects negatively on the very creation of railways or other state-imposed infrastructure and standards as a wrong turn in history, because these created an artificial niche for corporations to thrive (p. 5–23). It seems to undermine the book’s remaining thesis that the right turn in history consists of “libertarian and decentralist technologies and organizational forms”. “Network” technologies and organizational forms only exist due to that wave of prior mass production and imposed infrastructure the author claimed to be unnecessary. Without the satellites and thousands of kilometers of cable made in factories and installed by states, any type of “network” organizational form would be a weak proposition and the internet would never have existed.

Arguably, now the standards are set, future technological endeavors that connect and bridge society won’t need new standards imposed from above or vast physical infrastructure subsidized by states. The formation of effective networks itself now produces new mechanisms for devising and imposing standards, ensuring interconnectivity and high living standards should continue to flourish under the type of alternative economy advocated in Carson’s book.

Abolish artificial scarcity, intellectual property, mandatory high overhead and other measures used by states to enforce the privileges of monopoly capitalism, the author tells us (p. 168–170). This way, a more humane world-economy can be engineered, oriented to benefit people and local communities foremost. Everyone in the world may get to work fewer hours while enjoying an improved quality of life, and we can prevent a bleak future in which millions of people are sacrificed to technological unemployment on the altar of profit.