Sex robots and vegan meat

Image: Oto Vale


Commentary on the controversial book by Jenny Kleeman

What would a world be like where pains and constitutive limits of the human condition were suppressed? The question does not refer to overcoming poverty, reducing violence and inequalities, but to something that forms humanity since, at least the Old Testament.

A world in which, contrary to the curse thrown at the gates of Paradise, birth would be emancipated from the pain of women and where machines would take care of providing for our death, in an organized, predictable and painless way. A world in which our sexuality could dispense with conflicts and the risk of rejection in favor of contact that corresponds exactly to what we want. And, finally, a world in which we could continue eating meat as we do today, without, however, the need to raise animals for slaughter, with all the socio-environmental problems that this leads to.

No one knows if such a world will emerge, but it is dedicated to it by countless companies, generally based in Silicon Valley — and which were studied in a book-report whose title certainly places it as one of the most striking of the year: Sex Robots and Vegan Meat. Adventures at the Frontier of Birth, Food, Sex and Death (in free translation, Sex Robots and Vegan Meat. Adventures on the Frontier of Birth, Eating, Sex and Death).

Its author, Jenny Kleeman is a journalist, award-winning documentary filmmaker and columnist for some of the most important organs of the global press.

Kleeman invites us to reflect on what the great German philosopher Hans Jonas called the ethics of technological civilization. There is no doubt that science and technology are extremely useful and beneficial in the way we are born, in the ways we eat, in treating our sexual difficulties, and in alleviating painful death. Problems arise when each of these dimensions that form what Hannah Arendt called our “human condition” is captured by devices that, ultimately, end up separating us from experience, uncertainties and the difficulty of human decisions. The idea that we can control and minutely plan our lives gives technologies a power that ultimately distances us from ourselves.

The four themes studied by Kleeman involve dimensions that go far beyond science. It is clear that science is fundamental to understanding how we were born, what we need for a healthy life, what interferes with our sexuality and the reasons that lead individuals to death. What science does not and will never be able to do is provide us with the meaning (for ourselves and for others) of our birth, our death and our encounters. The scientific explanation is not able to teach anyone the meaning of his life, much less of his death. However, these are the themes that many Silicon Valley companies are working to understand, predict and, above all, control — replacing their human nature of uncertainty and pain with predictability and happiness. Scientifically designed happiness.

Why torture myself by looking for a company that might not like my idiosyncrasies or the way I am when I can have a robot that, endowed with artificial intelligence, learns over time who I am, what my tastes, my inclinations are and goes on adapting himself perfectly and peacefully to the satisfaction of my desires? The manufacturers of these machines (which do not yet exist, but in which large resources are invested that accelerate research so that they are on the market in a relatively short time) justify their innovation as a good that they are bringing to the human species, providing pleasant company to those who have relationship difficulties.

The companies would, of course, be profiting from this meritorious action — since, without artificial intelligence, a doll (there are few male specimens manufactured) in which the silicone gives a real sensation to the skin, has a minimum price of US$ 6.000,00 and can, depending on the model, go much further than that. The one that Kleeman visited — and which will be equipped with artificial intelligence — was named Harmony. What is sold is not a masturbation device, but what ends up being experienced as a true substitute for human presence. All this based on the most advanced technologies.

In the name of women's emancipation, their comfort and the defense of their place in the labor market, nothing better than avoiding the discomfort of pregnancy through technologies that allow the fetus to develop in an artificial environment outside the body, known as ectogenesis.

But why does Kleeman place the technologies for manufacturing meat from animal cells (and which do not need to be slaughtered) alongside those that focus on birth without pregnancy, planned death and the robotization of sex life? It's just that, in all these cases, technologies serve to circumvent human difficulties without actually having to face them. Instead of significantly reducing meat consumption, why not offer people meat whose intake is harmless, from the point of view of the socio-environmental problems brought about by the contemporary world food system?

The result, in the case of meat, is that instead of encouraging the consumption of more fresh food, greater food diversity, people's human relationship with the preparation of what they eat, with the resulting family socialization, clean meat transfers this responsibility for the industry. And of course, as Kleeman's book clearly shows, the product offered has to undergo the addition of chemical ingredients that have nothing to do with food in order to become palatable.

There is no doubt that the world needs to transform the global food system towards a much healthier diet than the current one. That science plays a decisive role in this transformation is equally certain. What is worrying is the commitment to prevent people from exercising their responsibilities, expanding their capacity to choose, replacing these human attributes with technical devices over which they have no control.

Biologist Edward O. Wilson begins his reflection on “The social conquest of the earth”, showing that “we created a star wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions and divine technologies”.

More than ever, today's societies need not simply more technology, but a serious and democratic discussion about the meaning and, above all, the ethics of technological civilization.

*Ricardo Abramovay is a senior professor at the Environmental Science Program at IEE/USP. Author of Amazon: For a Knowledge Economy of Nature (Elephant/Third Way).



Jenny Kleeman. Sex Robots and Vegan Meat. Adventures at the Frontier of Birth, Food, Sex and Death. London, Picador.


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