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The sterile human and the biomedical disease model

Macroscope written by Sebastiaan Crul
October 7, 2020

Viruses and bacteria don’t have the best of reputations. They’re dangerous pathogens and in the past century, they’ve mostly been known as the culprits in virus pandemics and well-known infectious diseases. This image is characteristic of the biomedical disease model, according to which intruders threaten our health. The biomedical disease model has led to great progress but is also subject to much criticism. In the past decades, there has been growing interest in alternative disease models with a new outlook on what it means to be a healthy human being.

Our observations

  • Microbiologists are gaining insight into the complex relationships between us and micro-organisms. From these studies on the microbiome, a more positive image of micro-organisms is emerging than the one common to the dominant biomedical disease model. More and more studies highlight the useful or even crucial aspects to our health of viruses, bacteria and fungi. Consequentially, researchers and medical professionals are calling for a better distinction between the normal, good elements of the microbiome and those that are detrimental to us humans.
  • Scientists are also beginning to view nutrition in a different light. Besides a merely mechanical perspective on food, we’re becoming susceptible to a communicative and informative outlook. Dominant in our view on food are metaphors in which food represents nothing more than energy: food as fuel to keep the engine of our bodies running. In an informational perspective on nutrition, food is seen more as a conversation, and is attributed, besides energizing properties, autonomy and communicative skills. For instance, the genes our food contains can regulate our own genes.
  • In psychiatry in the ‘80s, a strong conviction became prevalent that mental disorders could be captured in a biomedical model as brain diseases. The progress that had been made in the neurosciences had created the expectation that, in the near future, it would be possible to classify all disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) as brain disease with a clear cause. Because of disappointing results, after the turn of the century this neuro-centrism was widely criticized, paving the way for alternative disease models that ascribe more importance to psychosocial factors.

Connecting the dots

Of course, that bacteria can be beneficial to our health isn’t new information in medical science. And yet, the history of medicine in the 20th century can be read as mostly a battle against bacteria, which began with the germ theory of disease and the discovery of penicillin. The germ theory of disease was partly responsible for the dominance of a biomedical disease model in modern medicine.
According to this model, there is a straightforward relationship between cause and condition and a clear course of disease, clearly summarized in Koch’s postulates. This functionalist disease model encompasses a mechanical perception of the body. Disease is naturalistically understood as the dysfunction of organs and therapy is focused on recovery and restoring the affected functions. Health then simply comprises the absence of disease; the machine functioning as it should.

Historically, the dominance of the biomedical and functionalist disease model has led to great progress. Sterilization techniques were developed, as were medicine and therapies to effectively debilitate invaders, we learned to disinfect and keep our environment “clean”. Our current life expectancy would have been unthinkable without the biomedical disease model. This “sterile human” has a resistance to infectious diseases and a general level of health unparalleled in human history.
Despite these successes, the biomedical and functionalist disease model has been under fire for decades. Critics argue that the model is too unilateral and unable to explain a plethora of illnesses and phenomena. Auto-immune diseases, for instance, are difficult to classify within the model, hormone diseases are more likely to be the result of disrupted homeostasis and we underestimate the role of our emotional life in the course of physical disease.

Moreover, the dominant biomedical and functionalist disease model still seamlessly fits an anthropocentric worldview, in which the human as a ruling subject is cut off from his environment and is especially attuned to the menacing side of external nature, a nature which can be used for human gain if we so desire. This view of humanity has long been under fire too. New insights from (among others) modern biology, integral medicine, psychiatry and ecology are difficult to reconcile with the dualism of anthropocentrism.
In the past decades, these sciences have shed new light on what it means to be human. A different worldview is emerging in which the world is no longer seen as a large mechanical clock, but as an organic whole in which continual mutual interaction and transference of information take place on different levels of existence. “Subjects” then are not cut off from the world, but only are or become something or someone in relation to others and the environment.

This new worldview lays the groundwork for a different understanding of disease and health, which have received more attention in the past decades. In this transition from the Anthropocene to what we could call “the Microbiocene”, we are given the impression that being healthy demands continual exchanges between humans and their environment. Our kind is not just in danger, we would also benefit from this continuous exchange between us and, for example, the bacteria and viruses in our surroundings. This exchange, however, encompasses far more than we can comprehend and control. In this view of humankind, the ability to self-heal of nature and the ecosystems in which we live, are highly valued and trusted.
Key concepts around this idea of health are balance or homeostasis, self-regulation, adaptation, motivation and adjustment. The phenomenon of being ill also becomes more complicated than in the unilateral biomedical model. Disease arises from an interplay of a number of relationships that are impossible to oversee for us humans, which is why we always overlook some of them.

This new perception of disease and health results in contrasting ideas about medical intervention. Intervention and sterilizing humans and their environment can lead to immediate and quantifiable gains for the sterile human, but in accordance with the new worldview, it can also result in imbalances and vulnerabilities in the long-term. One of those new vulnerabilities has come to light in studies on antibiotics. Medics have been expressing increasingly vehement concerns over the unbridled growth of antibiotics, which is leading to antimicrobial resistance, now globally recognized as a serious problem.

Should medical practitioners then intervene less, as advocated by the anti-vaccination movement? On the one hand, the new worldview appears to implicitly call for more laissez faire and restraint when it comes to medical intervention. Human hubris regarding nature should make way for more modesty. The worldview prevents us from suffering iatrogenesis, harm caused by medical treatment. On the other hand, the common purpose of medicine lies largely in therapy through intervention, interventions have proved extremely successful (e.g. in the treatment of measles and pox), and the possibility of treatment causing harm is not sufficient reason to refrain from intervening.
The question therefore begs nuance: how do we retain what led to progress in the unprecedentedly successful functionalist and biomedical medicine, while also being more attuned to the vulnerabilities and imbalances it may cause?

The embedding of biomedical intervention in a more complete disease model that’s better suited to the complexity of disease and health appears to be the right way forward. The more dynamic and procedural disease models found in psychiatry might be a good starting point. In these models, disease and health are not discrete entities but located on a continuum.
They often do not have a clear-cut beginning or end, and there is often no apparent distinction between cause and effect or pathogen and symptom. In this ecological perspective, when designing a therapy, all manner of biological, psychological and social factors are weighed against each other. From this perspective, the biomedical model generally fixates on only one point or temporary condition in this complex relational field, such as the point when a virus in a human body begins multiplying uncontrollably, thereby damaging the organs. This interventionism of the biomedical model is an indispensable tool of medicine but is thus also viewed from a broader perspective on health.

Implications

  • The current battle against the coronavirus shows the implications of the contrasting disease models and worldviews. The biomedical model is particularly suited to answering the question how to intervene now, how to contain the spread of the virus and develop an effective vaccine. But if we want to answer the question how to maintain a healthy relationship with viruses in the long term, we need a disease model that is more attuned to the broader ecological embedding of humans and the everyday relationship we have to viruses. Both questions will have to be taken into consideration, even if they invite contrasting answers and thus fail to provide governments and medical institutions with a clear direction for policy.

Blurring boundaries with mixed reality toys

Written by Arief Hühn, september 9 2020

What happened?

In the past few months we have seen the launch of a range of toys that aim to introduce digital elements in the physical realm and vice versa. After the introduction of Nintendo Labo, which allowed gamers to build their own card box interfaces with which they can play digital minigames, the company has launched Mario Kart Live, which combines virtual racing with a remote-controlled physical toy car. Additionally, the car records video, which is blended into the virtual gaming world on the console screen. Nintendo and Lego have also launched Lego Mario, which integrates screens, sensors and connectivity to physical Mario-themed Lego pieces, allowing the player to reenact the platform game physically. Previously, Lego also introduced its Hidden Side series, in which its Lego sets are enriched with AR content through a mobile app. Soon, the company will also launch the next generation of programmable Lego Mindstorms with improved sensors and actuators. It is noteworthy that Nintendo and Lego, who have a track-record in innovating gameplay, once again seem to be the main drivers in this mixed reality toy market.

What does this mean?

Although the combination of physical toys and digital elements is not necessarily new, it seems that toymakers and game developers are exploring the possibilities of this new generation of mixed reality toys in a more creative way. Whether it be by revaluing physical properties (e.g. tactility, scarcity, friction) within a virtual context (i.e. augmented virtuality) or by further experimenting with how the virtual can augment the physical (e.g. augmenting storytelling, expressions, social sharing, programmability, etc.). On the other hand, mixed reality toys also open the door to hacks, surveillance and data misuse.

What’s next?

Toy makers will increasingly experiment with the boundaries between the digital and the physical. Currently, the playful interaction between the virtual and physical seems to be limited to small-scale objects. However, as mentioned earlier, these interactions, with the right enabling technology in place, could also involve everyday objects in our homes and cities. On a more fundamental level, these playful experiments could implicitly nurture a different understanding and experience of the digital world among younger generations, in which the distinction between the digital and the physical might be replaced by a more integrated hybrid worldview.  

My plant the therapist

Written by Jessica van der Schalk, august 26 2020

What happened?

Among young adults, who often live in small spaces in cities, the popularity of indoor plants has grown strongly in recent years worldwide. Internet search data shows that interest has increased tenfold since 2010. The sales of indoor plants has also increased strongly, especially among millennials. So-called plant influencers on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube are getting more and more followers and offers from major brands in the plant sector. The Covid-19 lockdown has given this interest an extra boost, because people have started to pay more attention to home.

What does this mean?

Several reasons are given for the growing popularity of indoor plants. For example, research shows that the presence of greenery, even if it is only a few plants in the house, can reduce stress. What is more, plants have the ability to lower the carbon dioxide content and remove pollutants such as formaldehyde, trichlorethylene. Finally, it is indicated that plants offer millennials, who often start a family later and live in small houses without a garden, the opportunity to take care of a living being, which gives a sense of homeliness.

What’s next?

The growing popularity of indoor plants among millennials in particular, fits in with a broader trend of healthy eating and activities that reduce stress such as yoga and mindfulness. With the global pandemic, an economic crisis and climate change, the need for things that offer peace of mind in everyday life will persist. This trend is also consistent with the idea that people will never get used to an environment in which little nature is present, such as in cities.

Gen Z in The Fourth Turning

Gen Zers are experiencing their formative years against the backdrop of the former financial crisis, the corona crisis and the climate crisis. In the famous book The Fourth Turning, the authors posit that in this time, the last turning of a generational cycle is unfolding. A period marked by crisis. According to this model, a generation growing up in this kind of time will develop in a certain way. How does Generation Z fit into this theory?

Our observations

  • Gen Z was expected to enter an economy characterized by growth and historically low unemployment. Because of the corona crisis, this image was suddenly turned on its head as it is now predicted that a huge economic crisis will unfold with historically high unemployment, in which young people will be hit hardest, according to Pew Research.
  • Traditions give a society something to hold onto, but precisely in these uncertain times, traditions, some of which centuries old, cannot proceed. Traditions such as Easter celebrations, Ramadan, and weddings, funerals, birthdays, graduation ceremonies and cultural festivities (such as the Dutch Kingsday or 4th of July in the U.S.) have not taken their usual form because of the corona crisis. In addition, many cultural events such as music festivals, art events and theatre shows have been cancelled altogether.
  • Naomi Klein holds that this crisis has made us more aware of interconnectivity, giving rise to more compassion and a sense of communion. According to Business Insider, this especially applies to Generation Z, 87% of which claim to be feeling more connected to others because of the pandemic.
  • We’ve written before about The Fourth Turning (1997) by Strauss and Howe, in which predictions are made based on cyclical patterns they perceive in modern Western history. According to this model, there would be a crisis around 2005; in 2007-2008 a global financial crisis occurred. A crisis mentality would be maintained until a new cycle begins in 2027. Especially in light of Brexit, populism, growing isolationism, protests, the climate crisis and of course the corona crisis, this theory seems worth considering.
  • Before the pandemic, we already wrote that Generation Z would grow up in a time of crisis. Initially, the financial crisis of 2007-2008 was identified as this crisis. However, now that the corona crisis and the climate crisis are here, notwithstanding the fact that the timing of these events is arbitrary to a certain degree, the members of Generation Z appear to be in the midst of an even larger crisis than was predicted.

Connecting the dots

According to the theory of William Strauss and Neil Howe, a generational cohort meets three criteria. First, they are in the same age stage (from child to young adult) when an important historic event and/or social trend occurs. Second, this event or trend shapes the world view of this generation, resulting in certain collective convictions and behaviors. Third, all of this leads to a sense of community. Each generational cohort follows a cyclical pattern with four turnings (The High, The Awakening, The Unraveling, The Crisis) that each last about 20 years. In accordance with the cyclical pattern of Strauss and Howe, Generation Z is growing up in a time of crisis and will therefore be categorized as the archetype of “The Artist”. Previous generations of this type were the Silent Generation (who grew up during, or right after WWII) and before that the Progressive Generation (who grew up during or right after the American Civil War). What these generations have in common is that they are known for their quiet image as children and young adults. This is because their parents are overprotective and they are consumed with worry about the crisis that’s unfolding. Generation Z has indeed been characterized as responsible and virtuous. A generation that prefers to stay home, uses drugs less, has sex at a later age and is more environmentally conscious than previous generations. The way they were raised and circumstances have made the “Artist” generation a sensitive generation. Generation Z has been characterized as a generation with mental health problems such as depression, anxiety disorders and loneliness. The frequent use of social media especially is identified as the cause of this sensitivity. It makes members of this generation aware, at a young age, of global problems such as climate change, inequality and scandals involving large-scale abuse, more so than previous generations. Now that the corona crisis poses a threat to their dreams and opportunities, their mental health problems seem to be getting worse.

If the archetype is correct, members of Generation Z will become flexible, consensus-seeking adults. They will aim to solve the crisis they find when they leave the nest, being conscience of co-dependency. The most positive attributes of this generation will be pluralism, expertise, a preference for fair play and political inclusivity. Their most negative attributes will be a sentimental personality with an inclination to complicate matters, and a certain degree of indecision. How would these attributes apply to the current Generation Z? What specific convictions will they display when it’s their turn to shape the world?

Elements of the fourth turning currently taking place leave Generation Z to clean up the mess made by the previous generations and their lifestyles. An economic system geared towards ever-more growth, which mainly benefited baby boomers, has turned out to be detrimental to the environment and the division of wealth. Previous generations are held responsible for the overheated housing market, insecure retirement benefits, student debt and the climate crisis Generation Z is presented with. And the coronavirus outbreak is attributed to an uncontrolled and thoughtless form of globalization and an irresponsible way of dealing with nature. Values that were crucial in the crisis, could therefore be reassessed by Generation Z. The collective conviction of this generational cohort could be that an economic system should not be geared towards growth but towards circularity, with respect to both humans as well as nature. Freedom of the individual, which was long held to be the highest good, may have to give way to solidarity. Generation Z has shown solidarity with those confronted with racial discrimination, gender discrimination, but also with future generations when it comes to the environment. Because both the corona crisis and the climate crisis are global, young people around the world seem to be feeling more connected and therefore feeling more solidarity with each other than with previous generations.

Implications

  • To achieve solidarity or stimulate, for example, a circular economy, young people will indeed, in accordance with their archetype, have to be flexible. They will have to weigh their own interests against those of others. Striving for consensus, also an attribute of the archetype, seems crucial to creating a world where people seek to uphold political inclusivity and responsibility for the environment and each other.

  • The corona crisis has so suddenly and deeply affected the daily lives and traditions of all world citizens that the vulnerability of life as we know it is burned into our minds. Young people are hit especially hard by the corona crisis; they’re losing their jobs, are unable to go to school and are missing out on a lot, such as a graduation ceremony or social events that usually herald the summer holiday. Many of them expect to have slimmer chances of finding permanent employment, and think they’ll have to work freelance. It’s therefore been predicted that Generation Z will strive for security and stability over personal dreams, money or freedom. This could eventually lead to an embrace of, for example, basic income.

What view of humankind should a health insurer have?

What happened?

Technology-driven insurer Lemonade is off to an excellent start on the stock market. Lemonade is sometimes referred to as the insurer of millennials and presents the textbook example of technological disruption; with a frictionless user experience, direct imbursement thanks to A.I. applications and a playful image, it emphatically seeks to align itself with younger generations’ motivations. This way, it’s building strong customer retention, which is often lacking in the established insurers. According to investors and consultants, the health insurance sector is next in line for disruption by these “insurtechs”. However, matters are more complicated in healthcare and digital innovation could lead to more problems and resistance here that could make customer retention more difficult.

What does this mean?

Tech disruptors often embody a new view of humankind, with different motivations. With its strong emphasis on a cheerful and playful interface, Lemonade is also turning against the image of man as homo economicus and focusing more on the homo ludens; the playing human. This strategy of appealing to younger target groups is, however, a risky one for a health insurer; it’s prone to being labeled as risk profiling geared towards young people with low health risks, which is illegal in many countries. After all, it undermines the solidarity of the entire care system. Furthermore, there’s a taboo against the use of health data and an insurer is only allowed to a limited extent to use it for personalizing services.

What’s next?

And yet, it’s understandable that health insurers want to bond more with consumers and to have a more proactive role in the health of their customers. To a health insurer, more data on patients and treatments equals more possibilities to organize care more efficiently and cost-effectively for society. That’s why insurers are seeking alliances to improve their customer retention through cooperation. Big tech companies are crucial in appealing to the homo ludens and promoting a vital lifestyle. Better adjustment to the services and ecosystem of big tech, as for example Vitality health is adjusted to Apple Watches, appears to be a strategic route. To generate trust and security around health data, insurers are more focused on cooperation within the healthcare domain. Digital companies such as CareVoice or apps such as Stresscoach and MS Sherpa could fulfill an important role for the insurer, but caution remains warranted regarding their revenue model and the responsible use of health data.

Today’s class of uncontrollable technology

How can we understand the rising complexity and uncontrollability of technologies? Here, we explore and compare the cases of synthetic biology and artificial intelligence, two disruptive technologies that produce outcomes that are not fully controllable or predictable and whose impact on society will only grow in the following decades. These disruptive technologies will furthermore challenge basic aspects of human self-understanding, including our notion of autonomy.

Our observations

  • “The world is getting more and more complex.” Although it is rather a non-starter, the expression is widely used in different contexts today. As we are trying to get a grip on everyday changes that we witness, the expression needs more specification. In our research, we explore uncertainties in the geopolitical, socio-cultural and technological realm and how they are influencing and reinforcing each other. For instance, how the internet is influencing global power dynamics.
  • When looking at the rising complexity in new technologies in particular, the challenges and fears concerning their complexity are often related to the feeling of losing control over our own technological inventions and the consequences this would have for our society. Science fiction often tells us stories of technological innovations getting out of hand (Frankenstein), computers that are controlling us (The Matrix), or human-made viruses that threaten the entire world population (The Walking Dead). The rising complexity of technology, and more specifically, the uncontrollability and unpredictability of today’s technology is explored here by introducing philosopher Jan Schmidt’s concept of “late-modern technology”. Instead of trying to explain the uncontrollability and unpredictability of individual technologies, the concept helps us to see them in a wider class of technologies showing the same characteristics, such as the seemingly different innovations in AI and in synthetic biology (the scientific domain that involves redesigning organisms for specific uses by engineering them to have new abilities, such as cell factories).
  • According to the classic-modern view of technology, uncontrollable and unpredictable outcomes of technology are undesirable. Man gains control over his environment by making use of technology. Constructability and controllability, including a clear input-output relation, are key in this regard and technology was traditionally equated with and defined by stability. Think of cars that are made in a production line.
  • By contrast, late-modern technologies are a class of technology in which this idea of stability is abandoned. Late-modern technologies confront us with our ideas about autonomy and control over our own inventions. Autonomy can be regarded as the most celebrated outcome of the Enlightenment and makes up the foundation of moral philosophy that is still dominant in today’s moral theory.
  • An entire class of “autonomous” technologies is in the making or has already been deployed, from autonomous vehicles to autonomous weapons. These increasingly guide our behavior at a time when human human autonomy is challenged by the distraction and information overload in our digital age. As we described before, technological decisionism confronts us with the fact that our decisions will increasingly be supported, if not steered, by artificial intelligence. As non-living or non-human things are increasingly actively participating in and shaping our environment, we cannot ascribe autonomy to humans only anymore, as is acknowledged in the theory of new materialism.

Connecting the dots

When thinking or talking about technology, we often use words that describe the mechanical characteristics of technology. Not seldom is technology in books or movies depicted as machines or robots. Indeed, in our language this machine image is also widely present. The machine metonym is closely connected to an ontological assumption: a machine is assembled by humans, built up from parts to a whole, it has controllable and predictable characteristics. This is a classic-modern view of technology.

However, when turning to present cases of technological advances such as synthetic biology, this becomes problematic. Even if the goal was to create synthetic organisms as controllable and predictable entities, a living organism, whether “natural” or a product of human intervention, by definition evolves and interacts with other organisms and the environment in multiple ways. These characteristics do not fit the part-whole view and make organisms less controllable and predictable than machines. This complex interaction of technology with other technological or living systems creates complexity. In addition, organisms reproduce and grow, something that the machine metonym does not imply either. As a result, using machine metonyms might blind us from the implications of creating new life forms, such as synthetic organisms, as happens in synthetic biology. In the case of Artificial Intelligence, similar problems arise when using the machine metonym. AI, and more specifically machine learning, is confronting us with a case of technology that shows more autonomy than the machine metonym suggests. So, what are these cases of technological innovation showing us? How are they different from technologies that better suit our more mechanistic and predictable view of technology?

Already in 1985, philosopher Hans Jonas envisioned a historically new technoscientific era when technologies would show different characteristics than the previous class of technologies, such as a certain degree of autonomy and limited predictability. In current philosophy of technology debates, scholars differentiate between modern technology, or classic-modern technology, and late-modern technology. We can understand synthetic biology and AI as cases of the latter. Late-modern technologies differ from classic-modern technologies in two fundamental ways.

First, they show self-organization, autonomous behavior or agency properties. In the case of AI, an autonomous system goes beyond the behavior programmed in the initial algorithm, as it can learn by itself from data and environment, its behavior transgresses the initial objectives and conditions set by its creators (i.e. human engineers, computer scientists) and therefore gain a lower degree of predictability. Similarly, an organism created by means of synthetic biology, starts to interact with and “learn” from its environment in a way that makes it hard to predict its behavior. In both cases, the technology autonomously interacts with an open-ended and uncertain context, the real-world environment, and is thus less predictable than technological systems that merely react to human input and are otherwise passive. In that sense, technologies are sometimes regarded as “black boxes”, as insight into their input and output processes is difficult to acquire.

Second, in the case of late-modern technology, the technology no longer appears in its modern way, rather, technological traces are disappearing. Culturally established borders and modern dichotomies such as “natural” vs “artificial” are becoming blurred. For instance, a synthetic cell has an artificial pathway, but shows no traces of technology: it cannot easily be distinguished from “natural” cells. Similarly, the thinking of AI can sometimes hardly be separated from human thinking or decision-making. In 2018, Google gave a demo of its voice assistant calling a hairdresser to make an appointment and shocked the audience when the hairdresser did not notice that she was not talking to a human. Indeed, this novel kind of technology appears human or natural to us. This is what is called the naturalization of technology. However, moral debates about these sorts of technology, such as the debate about acceptance of GMOs, are often still framed in modern terms, with a strict distinction between us humans, the technology we use, and the natural environment.

Late-modern technology is thus difficult to predict and control, difficult to separate from the context and environment of its application, it can be said to “have a life of its own”. The fact that human beings are surrounding themselves with more and more technologies that are less controllable and show autonomous features, inevitably gives us the sense that we are facing greater technological complexity, losing control over our technology and that our notion of autonomy, which we regard as a fundamental human trait, is being challenged. Late-modern technologies such as AI could even undermine our autonomy, as its ubiquitous deployment could steer us implicitly and explicitly in our behavior. As is often the case with new technological developments, late-modern technologies force us to define and reframe values and views that used to be implicit and unchallenged.

Implications

  • Seeing advances in AI and synthetic biology in a wider class of technologies is also helpful in discussing the challenges for both. For instance, in both areas, a centralization of knowledge can lead to negative consequences for society, e.g. that not everyone can benefit from or even be involved in their creation. In AI and synthetic biology, there are efforts to organize knowledge and IP in open-source governance structures, such as the OpenAI initiative and open source seed initiatives for (GMO) seeds.

  • The rise of artificial intelligence or technological decisionism might teach us something about our human thinking. Similarly, synthetically created organisms might tell us something about living organisms. In a sense, late-modern technology can give us insights into fundamental concepts.

Humor in the 21st century

The ability to laugh and joke is a human feature that helps us to view issues from a different angle and put things in perspective, making it an important biological-psychological skill. The combination of humor and comedy, as a broader societal phenomenon, reflects underlying societal and cultural values and has corresponding qualities and effects on society and groups. Analyzing the new form of humor that has arisen will give us a better understanding of underlying social, political and cultural developments.

Our observations

  • In the past years, Netflix has invested heavily in stand-up comedy. Besides being a relatively cheap segment compared to pricey drama series and films, comedy is one of the three pillars of the content strategy. The other two are original content and acquiring film licenses.
  • The past years have seen a relatively large number of comedians going into politics. In April 2019, comedian Volodymyr Zelensky won the Ukrainian presidential elections, in 2009, Beppe Grilo began the Five Star Movement currently governing in Italy, Jimmy Morales won the 2015 presidential elections of Guatemala, Marjan Sarec the Slovenian elections and Jon Gnarr was mayor of Reykjavik from 2010 to 2014. Donald Trump and Boris Johnson have both frequently appeared in comedy shows and are ascribed a “clownesque” attitude by many.
  • Last week, we wrote that internet memes are a digital medium that allows for a message to be spread rapidly among large groups of people, and that for that reason, they’re actively used as a campaigning tool. Pepe the Frog is an internet meme that, since the American presidential elections of 2016, is associated with far-right movements and online forums (e.g. 4chan), and is worshipped in the Cult of Kek. This Cult of Kek is an internet religion with its own theology, artefacts and rituals (memes are honored in the official prayers of the Cult of Kek). The use of this meme is of a largely ironic and satirical nature, it’s a vessel for jokes about sensitive topics, that wouldn’t generally be permissible in the current climate of “political correctness”.
  • In 2017, we wrote that, as a consequence of postmodernism, our culture has become saturated with parody, satire, sarcasm and cynicism in the past decades. The naive and optimistic search for a collective truth and progress has given way to the view that everything can and should be ridiculed. This nihilistic and postmodern “structure of feeling” is expressed in popular comedy series such as Seinfeld, South Park, Family Guy, Married with Children, Viva La Bam, Jackass, Arrested Development, and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Besides their ironic streak, there is little “redemption” in these shows, in the sense that developments and events don’t contribute to the personal development of the characters and the world around them, nor do they have any constructive effect on the viewer. Vulnerability, sincerity, doubt, uncertainty or spirituality thus have little to no place in these shows.
  • In response to this “parataxis” and deconstruction of postmodernism, which ultimately leaves us empty-handed, metamodernism is attempting to establish a synthesis between postmodernism and modernism by continuously oscillating between the modern, sincere, naive and positive search for truth, beauty, goodness and meaning and the postmodern skepticism and perspectivism. This is also expressed in “metamodern” comedy series in which – despite the presence of irony and sarcasm – sincere feelings and the development of characters are the main focal point, such as in the search for friendship and community (Community, Scrubs), the search for balance and meaning in modern everyday life (Modern Family, The Office), the exploration of existential questions (Master of None, Louie). Viewers are actively drawn into the emotional development of characters as well as being shown their flaws, e.g. their doubts, fears, prejudices.

Connecting the dots

In the classical age, the tragedy was a play with a fated and dramatic ending. According to Aristotle, the tragedy was concerned with how superior people relate to their fate and misfortune, and served to inspire pity and fear in the audience, in order to elicit “catharsis”: emotional purification. In contrast, there was the comedy, in which inferior and weak people commit blunders and make mistakes, but which ends well nonetheless, leading the audience to catharsis through laughter, humor and enjoyment. Since then, comedy and humor have seen a long path of development and the emergence of many new forms, but catharsis remains at the core. In fact, comedy in a wider sense is still invaluable in our time of political polarization, “culture wars”, growing uncertainty, doubt, fear, fake news and post-truth, which requires new ways to reach or maintain consensus, dialogue, intersubjective truth and commonality.

Humor, joking and laughing, serve an evolutionary purpose. Many important skills and lessons are learned by children and young animals through “play”; acquiring knowledge and learning how to comport ourselves and deal with our bodies, others and unforeseen circumstances. Think of the wrestling, playfighting and chasing of children and young primates. Sounds of laughter are important signs that this is harmless and pleasurable play rather than serious aggression or conflict. In a similar way, a smile shows that we don’t have bad intentions: when we smile, our jaws are slack and our breathing is uninhibited, signs of restfulness and relaxation (e.g. we’re not using our jaws to bite). This uninhibited breathing and the slack jaw and mouth muscles transformed into human laughter through primate sounds: from the “ah, ah, ah” of primates to the “ha ha ha” of humans. Evolutionary psychology has also shown that joking and laughing are signs of intelligence and adaptability to new situations.

From this evolutionary basis, humor and joking are important templates for more complex social and cultural norms: they help to alleviate tension when we meet strangers or find ourselves in unfamiliar situations. A well-chosen and well-timed joke can, for example, break the ice on a blind date, while a stranger’s failure to laugh will create a tense situation during a first meeting. Phenomenologically, humor plays with our mental patterns and categories. A situation is perceived as funny when we have a certain expectation but something else happens instead. In his third Critique of Judgment, rationalist Kant posits that humor and jokes are a kind of “mental gymnastics”, with reason being misled and sensations having an immediate effect on our state of mind. This approach resembles the strategy of “stand-up comedy”, as the set-up is the first part of a joke, meant to create expectations and the “punchline” conjures up a different image that defies those expectations. Eventually, this leads the audience to experience catharsis.

These elements of humor and comedy also give them an important social and even political duty: through comedy and humor, we can come to new views, see things in a different light and learn to put them in perspective by laughing about them. “Every joke is a tiny revolution”, George Orwell wrote, showing the disruptive element of humor and comedy. It’s no wonder then, that comedians and humor are often prohibited in repressive regimes, e.g. among many orthodox and puritanical religious groups, humor and laughter are to be avoided at all costs. In China, the meme of Winnie the Pooh supposedly resembling President Xi was banned. On far-right forums, memes are deployed to counter the left, as it is believed that “political correctness” has taken away all the fun and made many topics impossible to discuss in a breezy way. This shows that humor and comedy don’t merely have social and political aspects but are also morally charged, as the line between a joke and an insult, laughter and offense, is thin and fragile. And this brings us to the “dark side” of humor and comedy: as a political force, they necessarily entail a dynamic of inclusion and exclusion. Where there’s laughter, there’s always something or someone the butt of the joke, and this could take the form of “laughing at” people. Laughing at others is an important source of social recognition of groups and individuals (i.e. thymos): the group pointing and laughing is united around the object of laughter and in this light, it’s easy to see why so many comedians are successful in politics: in our postmodern condition which lacks objective truth and widespread social and political consensus, joint laughter is one of the last forms of collectivity and consensus. Online culture and far-right forums show that humor and certain types of jokes can be the epicenter around which broad social and cultural structures are organized. At the same time, the criticism that someone who doesn’t join in on the laughter lacks a sense of humor and is not funny, is one of the last universal insults: a human being without a sense of humor is not a real human being. The only rebuttal against this is to reject the joke in itself but from a different value than its funniness or humoristic quality (e.g. from a political, religious or moral perspective). That’s why many populist leaders who laugh and joke about women (e.g. Bolsonaro) or minorities (e.g. Trump about minorities), dismiss criticism as humorless or “sour” winging and whining. The irony, parody and satire they employ thus make them immune to any criticism directed at them. At the same time, we’re witnessing a movement from which a new structure of feeling and appreciation of comedy and humor is arising, an antidote to cynicism, satire and irony that actively seeks the catharsis that belongs to the genre of comedy. Humor in metamodernism has a high degree of self-referentiality; there is joking and laughter but also a self-conscious search for meaning in humor. And in contrast to the modern inclination to see perspective as absolute or the postmodern reflex of deconstruction and criticism, within metamodernity, reality and perspective coincide.

That’s why humor is so important; new perspectives can be achieved through joking and laughing, and it can take the edge off tense political discussion and debate on divisive themes that involve groups that begrudge each other a smile. But to the metamodern comedian, not every joke is acceptable, rather the intent and the ability to occupy both the position of joker as well as that of the butt of the joke, determine the social quality of humor and comedy.

In this light, internet memes are also part of metamodern humor: there is a high degree of self-referentialiy in the sharing and modification of the original post, they often broach emotional (e.g. depression, loneliness) and political themes, have a high degree of intertextuality and perspectivism with an image and caption, frequently relay a hopeful message with a nihilistic streak, and make abstract ideas relevant to the reader by way of concrete and relatable images. By uniting these apparent contradictions, internet memes embody the metamodern oscillation between sincerity and irony and between perspectives and interpretations. In this way, they tie in with the positive energy of metamodernism, which seeks communion, meaning and catharsis in our times of uncertainty, fear and irony.

Implications

  • We may expect for “humorous” and “comical” archetypes to gain relevance in societal roles and debates. Think, for example, of the jester ridiculing political powers without legal or political consequences, the clown making a fool of himself or the harlequin making fun of local and common ideals, values and ideas. The most modern archetype might be that of the joker: the mysterious character that symbolizes both the diabolical and the genial in humans and represents a wide range of emotional and spiritual qualities. The playing card “joker” corresponds to the number 0 because he can be either all or nothing and can be played for “good” or for “evil”. The recent film Joker displays the title character’s destructive search for meaning and community, and illustrates how thin the line is between right and wrong when there is no social order to which the individual belongs.

  • Comedy comprises a template of cathartic themes that aren’t humorous or funny per se, and has a rich history. In Dante’s The Divine Comedy, for instance, comical-though-not-humorous elements are reconciliation and redemption, the hero’s spiritual development of a broader social and emotional consciousness, from selfishness and conceitedness to social obligations. These kinds of themes are important in metamodernism as effective value memes: templates in which metamodern values become relevant in economic, social, political, societal and cultural systems.

  • Internet memes are a relatively young information medium and form of comedy and befit our modern image culture. This category knows many subgenres, such as Dank Memes, Deep-Fried Memes, Wholesome Memes, Normie Memes and BoneHurtingJuice Memes, which shows that new cultural forms and templates for language, meaning and communication are continuously developed here as well.

Trump’s 2020 strategy

What happened?

The Asia Times recently interviewed Steve Bannon, an important advisor of President Trump. Bannon explained how he helped Trump to power in 2016, and what form the campaign in 2020 will probably take. He introduces a contrary perspective on the elections in November, one that’s more alive to the less measurable elements of the electoral cycle.

What does this mean?

The essence of Bannon’s argument is his contention that the 2020 elections will revolve around China. According to Bannon, Trump’s success in 2016 could be explained by nationalist (anti-establishment) sentiment directed against the American political elite. But in 2020, this nationalist sentiment could be redirected towards China (and “Beijing Biden” instead of “Crooked Hillary”).  An important point Bannon makes is that Trump’s campaign (both 2016 and 2020) begins about 150 days before the elections, while his smear campaign of the Democratic candidate doesn’t start until about 90 days before the elections.

What’s next?

Bannon sheds new light on the 2020 elections. Although Biden is far ahead in the polls, he’s less suited to our Zeitgeist of distrust, he hasn’t had any momentum, and the Trump campaign is not underway yet. These are less measurable elements of the electoral cycle (compared to polls and “betting odds”), but they may become increasingly important as the elections draw near.

Cell factories

Will our use of microbes enable a bio-based future? It is increasingly possible to use and tweak living organisms to produce food, fuel, drugs and materials. Here, we explore cell factories, or engineered microorganisms, to illustrate the ontological and ethical challenges that we will face in light of the rising numbers of hybrids created by advances in biotechnology.

Our observations

  • Cell factories are single-celled microorganisms, or microbes, whose metabolism is synthetically optimized to produce more energy or different substances. In other words, microbes are viewed as production facilities that are engineered with biotechnology to produce for human usage. Examples include chemicals, food ingredients, biofuels, drugs, detergents, paper and textiles. Whereas modern industries manufacture products on the basis of fossil fuels, these cell factories are the building blocks of a bio-based industry.
  • The advances in biotechnology to engineer microbes and create cell factories are in full speed. The question is whether and when these cell factories will be able to produce at industrial scale and economics, so as to accelerate a bio-based industry.
  • One of the major promises of cell factories is the production of food ingredients, such as lab-grown protein (meat, fish, milk, eggs), lauric acid (to replace palm oil), carbohydrates (to replace flour). In the report ‘Rethinking Food and Agriculture 2020-2030’, the authors argue that microorganisms programmed to produce food, or cellular agriculture, are about to disrupt agriculture as we know it for the next ten years. The reason they believe this is that they have calculated that proteins produced in cellular agriculture will be five times cheaper than existing animal proteins by 2030 and ten times cheaper by 2035. Furthermore, these proteins, they believe, will also be more nutritious and healthier.
  • The driver behind this is the rapid advance of precision fermentation. Fermentation farms, the vessels that facilitate the production of these programmed microorganisms, are production systems that are potentially more energy- and resource-efficient, more stable and sustainable than industrial animal agriculture. Industrial animal agriculture as a matter of fact has reached its limits in terms of scale and efficiency, while the worldwide demand for protein is only rising. This technological development will make the plant- versus meat-based diets distinction irrelevant, as food will neither come from animals nor plants, but from unicellular life.
  • Among the parties working in this field, Solar Foods, whose first commercial factory will be running this year, is an example. But Big Food and chemical giants are also heavily investing (e.g. Dupont) in this area.
  • In the past, advances in biotechnology have often raised fears over unforeseeable risks: are we creating little Frankenstein monsters when engineering cells, living organisms that we won’t be able to fully control? We cannot entirely oversee the consequences of industrial biotechnology using cells as factories.

Connecting the dots

Animals and plants play a major role in our society by providing us with food and materials. For a long time, we have held animals to produce meat, milk, eggs, leather and wool, have grown plants to produce grains, vegetables, fruits and fibers. We have become incredibly adept at optimizing these animals and plants, by breeding them in such a way that they comply with our wishes. Indeed, all animals and plants we see at farms today are the result of a long chain of human interventions. The beginning of domesticating these life forms is considered a revolution in the history of humankind. Thousands of years ago, when we started to keep and breed animals and plants to optimize them according to our demands, the way we co-existed with them also drastically influenced our own lives. It meant that humans were able to quit their nomadic, hunter-gatherer lifestyles and settle in places. The agricultural revolution allowed humans to collect more food per unit area and thus the overall population multiplied exponentially.
With the advances in synthetic biology, we might witness what we could call the second domestication of life forms in history. This might again radically alter how we interact with other life forms. This time, however, the focus will not be on visible life forms, such as cows, pigs, sheep, chickens or plants, but on invisible ones: microorganisms, or microbes. Through strides made in the field of synthetic biology and the insights gained in molecular biology, microbes can now be engineered and optimized to fulfill certain tasks, such as producing certain substances. By reading and writing the genome in microbes, or cells, it is now possible to create so-called cell factories. They are a promising way to replace conventional ways of production, as they can be tweaked to produce the specific type of chemicals, food ingredients, biofuels, drugs, detergents, paper, textiles and other materials we need, considering this can be done on a large scale and with a minimum amount of input. Because there are good reasons to believe this will be possible within the next ten years, the question is: will this domestication of microbes change our relation to other life forms?

First of all, it will raise the question how we should view and treat these new life forms. In industrial livestock farming, animals have not exactly been treated as life forms of intrinsic value, raising animal welfare problems. On huge farms, animals often live and die on a production line, in a sense bred to be production units. This industrial handling of living organisms has been questioned for long. It has alienated us from our living world. The current corona pandemic has been labeled a “One Health issue”, which means it is seen as an integral health problem for humans, animals and ecosystems. We are increasingly aware that fixed categories of “human” and “animal” do not always make sense and that we are not an individual species, but that our wellbeing is determined by our relationships with and dependencies on other species. We look more holistically at our living world rather than as existing of separate categories. But if we want to treat other life forms rightfully, where do we draw the line? The claim can be made that microbes have less intrinsic value than macrobes, but since all macrobes are built on microbes (or individual cells), there is no clear line to be drawn. Indeed, the fact that we are more focused on life forms that are visible to us has led us to the macrobist bias in the philosophy of biology. But if we take microbes to have the same value as macrobes, should we grant them microbial rights? Already in 1977, this scenario was explored in a sci-fi story by Joe Patrouch, showing the consequences of full microbial rights, such as a ban on household bleaches as they kill microbes. But today, legislation for microbial life is not sci-fi anymore. The Swiss Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology has declared that all living beings, including microbes, have minimal value in themselves, implying that all life forms, however small, will have “rights” to some extent.
The fact that we are intentionally interfering in microbial life forms with synthetic biology more often leads us to the second challenge. How do we see these altered life forms or hybrids? These are times when one can find ever-increasing numbers of hybrids that blur the lines between natural and artificial. Cell factories show the characteristics of life forms, such as metabolism, but are artificially engineered. Indeed, cell factories can be seen within a broader category of late modern technology that is increasingly showing signs of autonomy and agency, like AI. These technologies seem to have a “life of their own”. Yet, there is no clear moral framework for these hybrids to come.
The rapid advances in cell factories lay bare the challenges that we’ll have to respond to in the coming years, in order to decide what a bio-based future will look like.

Implications

  • The rapid advance of the commercialization of cell factories will stir up debate on the moral status of smaller life forms and hybrids. This will again create fears about biotechnologies similar to those surrounding genetically modified crops.

  • Cell factories might have important second-order effects on society. First, cell factories would decentralize production facilities, as they can be produced in vessels anywhere. For instance, fermentation farms can be located in or close to towns and cities. And second, cell factories might help to reduce the focus on chemicals we have in our daily practices – fertilizers, synthetic textiles, carbon-intensive materials and substances – and incite the turn to more microbe-based products.

The constructive revolution of young people

What happened?

The hospitality industry, live event industry and cultural sector have mostly come to a standstill due to the coronavirus and the prospects are grim, especially for small halls or spaces with limited possibilities or indeed very large events. Young people are often hit hard by the corona measures taken in this industry. As employees, they’re more likely to lose their jobs because of flexible contracts and it’s difficult to find employment elsewhere. And the measures also seem to affect them disproportionately as the main consumers in these sectors. They belong to the lowest risk group, but as yet, there have not been any age-specific measures. Moreover, unlike other age groups, their social life is more likely to depend on live and cultural events.

What does this mean?

Political leaders have become aware of the difficult situation they’ve put young people in and Rutte therefore called on them to start a revolution from the bottom-up in the press conference of 20 May. He challenged the youth to confront administrators about the measures and come up with practical alternatives. But in the abovementioned sectors, this has been of little avail. It has been mostly entrepreneurs and spokespeople who, under the pretext of employment, bankruptcy and the common good, have come to these sectors’ aid. Youth workers and consumers have kept mum. This is mainly because what these sectors provide is a luxury, thus its temporary absence is merely a problem of luxury, especially for the spoiled and narcissistic millennial. The importance of partying at Lowlands and amusing oneself in bars, most young people wouldn’t dare to bring that up during a global health crisis. But the tide is slowly beginning to turn, and resistance among young people is growing.

What’s next?

There are three forms of constructive resistance we can expect to see in the coming period that could yield significant improvements in the situation of young people. First, they’re beginning to more actively claim a seat at the negotiation table and have achieved modest successes in this respect. United in coalition-Y – this is the group that has coined the term constructive revolution – young people are demanding, among other things, a generation test to determine the long-term damage caused by the corona measures. Second, there is the inventiveness of youth themselves, because thanks to the first easing of measures, there is now some leeway for new initiatives to arise, such as social-dis-dancing. Finally, and this seems most powerful, younger consumers appear to be coming out of their shell and beginning to stand up for their interests and needs, despite their “luxurious nature”, such as in this ode to festival culture. Partying at festivals and other large social events responds to a deep-seated need and is an important outlet for the current young generation, as they are increasingly making clear. Thanks to these forms of constructive resistance, the coming year might see more improvements for young people than we’re witnessing now.