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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.

Devolutionary internet memes

What happened?

Karen” is a pejorative term for a person claiming the right to ask for and demand more than would be considered appropriate or necessary in the situation according to societal standards. It’s the stereotype of a white middle-aged woman who displays aggressive behavior whenever she doesn’t get her way and adopts a very exacting attitude in these situations (e.g. “I want to speak to your manager!”). During the corona crisis, the term is mostly applied to women who refuse to abide by social distancing rules (with the signature demand of getting a haircut). Then there are “Kyles”: angry teenagers riled up from drinking large quantities of energy drink and gaming a lot, but not really getting anywhere in the real world.

What does this mean?

Karen was born on social networks such as Twitter, Facebook and particularly Reddit, making her an internet meme and part of online culture. An internet meme is an information pattern that rapidly spreads among a large group of users through the internet, often as a normative witticism. By replicating and building on other memes through creative reproduction (“liking”, reposting and sharing a meme online), using the “power of repetition” and intertextuality (i.e. a generic meme can be applied as a pattern, to different situations, persons, objects, etc.), internet memes are used to quickly spread the underlying message to large groups of people. As the gene is the unit of evolution in biology, the internet meme is the unit of the digital cultural evolution. And memes have long stopped being a niche of online culture, they’re now even an integral part of campaign strategies.

What’s next?

In his research, Joseph Burgo shows that shame is an important socio-psychological determinant of individual and collective human behavior and thinking. However, this works best when concrete behaviors and acts are concerned. The risk of internet memes representing an archetype, such as Karen, is that they are probably not productive in the normative sanctioning of positive behavior. On the contrary, memes can lead to polarization when they generalize or even stigmatize. And considering their viral nature, the most popular memes are likely to be the most extremely stereotypical, leading to further polarization. This means that memes can also contribute to a regressive cultural development on the internet and social media, which is risky, given the fragility of the current cultural balance in our post-corona societies.

Corona and the end of the tech fix illusion

In the West, the corona crisis is providing us with a rather unique experience. Rarely have we been confronted with a problem of this scale without having a technological solution at hand. In the coming months, if not years, our battle with this virus will continue, and our technology will only be of scant help. On the one hand, this will lead to declining trust in technological solutions in general. On the other hand, this crisis may also inspire us with regard to human solutions to problems, in the form of regulation and behavioral change.

Our observations

  • From the onset of the pandemic, hopeful messages emerged about possible treatments, based on existing medicine (e.g. malaria drug hydroxychloroquine). As yet, none of these treatments have had significant results. Even the only drug approved for use, Remdesivir, only leads to moderate improvement and its availability is limited.
  • The whole world is eagerly awaiting a vaccine. The development of an effective vaccine appears to be going smoothly and we could see results within a year. This would be a true triumph for techno-science. At the same time, the distribution of the vaccine will be subject to an international political and economic joust and the technology, the vaccine, in itself will only be part of the solution.
  • In a number of countries, various corona apps are already being employed to help trace possible contaminations. However, it’s abundantly clear that an app alone can never be the solution. At the very least, it should be supported by policy to motivate or force people to quarantine themselves when the app says they may be infected.
  • The ongoing debate about the use(lessness) of face masks is indicative of our longing for a ready-made solution to the crisis that doesn’t require us to make any significant sacrifices. Critics continue to emphasize that a face mask can be part of a solution at best and that, even when they’re used properly, they can lead to a dangerous sense of false security.
  • The growing threat of viruses is linked to processes of deforestation and the loss of biodiversity. These processes are the result of our technological ability to intervene in nature on a large scale.
  • Evgeny Morozov previously made the argument that Silicon Valley in particular is guilty of technological solutionism; diminishing and distorting real problems until it seems as though they can easily be fixed by technological means. They then often present false solutions that in reality might lead to new or even bigger problems. Uber’s solution to the mobility problem, for instance, has many side effects (especially for drivers) while it doesn’t necessarily contribute to a more efficient or cleaner mobility system.
  • In the debate on climate change, eco-modernists argue that sustainable technology will enable us to reduce greenhouse gas emissions without having to change our lifestyles. Critics maintain that technology in itself will never provide a solution, as it can decrease emission percentages at best (i.e. making the economy less carbon-intensive but not carbon-neutral), inevitable rebound effects would partly offset these gains (e.g. a water-saving shower entices to take longer showers) and each technological solution in turn leads to new problems (e.g. environmental damage due to wind turbines).

Connecting the dots

The idea that technology will fix all our problems is deeply rooted in our thinking. It’s often suggested that we cannot imagine mankind without technology and that we’re therefore essentially technical beings. Technology has brought us much good and it’s thanks to technology that our life expectancy has risen so rapidly in the past centuries and our quality of life has increased so significantly. Nevertheless, our use of technology and the industrial modernity that it has birthed, have also unequivocally led to severe societal and ecological problems.
Partly because of these problems, technology critics have fought the illusion of the so-called technological “fix” for years. However, the illusion of the techno-fix has proved ineradicable. It’s based on a combination of trust in technology and limited trust in the ability, and the willingness, of humans to adapt their behavior. Moreover, it’s the most comfortable and uncompromising solution; technology will fix our problem and we neither have to think about it nor make any kind of sacrifice. A “quick fix” for the corona crisis, in the form of a vaccine, would quickly silence the debate on the structural causes of the pandemic and allow us to revert to our pre-corona practices in a heartbeat. Comparable to the way medication often takes away the necessity of aspiring to a healthier lifestyle. Because of this apparent lack of any human sacrifice, the idea of the techno-fix is inextricably bound up with a feeling of guilt, as if, like in the myth of Prometheus, we really don’t deserve to use technology.
In ordinary times, inasmuch as they’ve ever existed, there is more time to develop a technological solution to known problems. Until then, we’ll accept the lack of a solution as an ill-fated fact (when we’re sick) or simply put off dealing with the issue (as we do with the climate change problem). The corona crisis does not allow this type of acceptance or procrastination and immediately confronts us with our (technological) inability to procure a quick and “painless” fix. As such, the crisis is gnawing away at our illusion of the tech fix.
Technology was not able to prevent this crisis, by warning us ahead of time, for instance, or containing the virus in an early stage. Nor is there any ready-made medication or vaccine to vanquish the virus now. There may be many candidate medications and vaccines in development, but it will be at least several months before they’re approved and possibly years before they’re actually widely available.

Our initial hopes of a corona app quickly enabling us to ease the lockdown and contain the virus, have also largely evaporated by now. Developing and validating a decent app will take time and it remains unclear whether, and if so, how, we would actually employ this kind of app and what sacrifices we’d be prepared to make for it. As yet, the biggest victory over the virus has been achieved by human efforts and large-scale behavioral change. Though this is accompanied by severe economic and human suffering, it can also inspire us to put more faith in human solutions rather than technology hereafter. Most distinctly, this could translate to the climate change debate, which is marked by unilateral confidence in technological solutions. We trust that electric mobility will replace the combustion engine and that, with that, we’ll eventually be able to realize a fully climate-neutral mobility system. The same goes for green electricity, which we’ve embraced as a problem-free substitute for power from gas- or coal-fired plants. Apart from the practical issues such as scalability and security of supply, green electricity poses more fundamental problems, such as the use of scarce resources and the impact it has on surroundings.
The essence of these (false) solutions is the illusion they create that we can “save” the climate without having to change our lifestyle. The underlying conviction is that we’re not willing to make such a sacrifice as travelling less, for example, or reducing our total energy use. In fact, the prevailing notion seems to be that human beings are not or barely able to adjust their behavior at all without the clear prospect of a reward.
What’s interesting about the corona crisis, is precisely that a large part of the population does seem to be prepared to change their behavior and even have valuable experiences in the process. Of course, the corona crisis cannot be compared to the climate problem as is, if only because the latter is a long-term problem, but the argument that people are unable to change their behavior and that we should put our faith in technology, has considerably lost credence.

Implications

  • In the short term, the economic damage caused by the corona crisis will be the main focal point, and yet, (European) governments appear to be willing to make demands on companies receiving government aid to force them to take more societal responsibility. This will partly translate to technological solutions (e.g. the use of cleaner airplanes), but there also seems to be room for reflection on the value and necessity of irresponsible activities (e.g. flying to sunny destinations).

  • As we wrote before, our perspective on large digital corporations could further tilt as a result of this crisis and the more critical stance we’ll adopt towards (digital) technology. From this critical stance, our tolerance for intervention with these parties will likely increase.

The resilience paradox

All over the world, citizens, policy-makers, entrepreneurs and governments are asking themselves how they can become resilient. The corona crisis seems to be leading to an apotheosis of this popular ideal that has become prevalent in our society in the past decades. The notion of resilience therefore teaches us something about the spirit of the times and the way we relate to the world and ourselves. There are valuable aspects to the ideal, but dangers lie in the unilateral fixation on resilience.

Our observations

  • There is no clear definition of the term resilience. As is elaborately discussed in this article by correspondent Lynn Berger, it’s become a key concept in all sorts of domains and used to refer to several different things. A very generic description would be that resilience is the ability to continue to function as usual during times of adversity. When further specification is required – and this is where disagreement generally arises – the state of equilibrium (homeostasis) of a system is emphasized. Resilience is about optimal temporary adjustment to an external stressor (allostasis) with the subsequent rapid recovery of the original homeostasis or the establishment of a new homeostasis.
  • The term resilience has long been popular in psychology and mental healthcare. In psychological resilience, the emphasis is on mental defensibility: the ability to successfully respond to significant setbacks, traumatic events or other stressors. Mentally resilient people are able to adapt well and quickly become their old selves again.
  • In ecology, resilience originally referred to an ecosystem’s ability to adapt to severe disruptions in climate, such as enduring drought or heavy rainfall, without losing its equilibrium in the long run. Nowadays, the possibility that ecosystems can eventually become stronger or reach new states of equilibrium is more frequently highlighted as well.
  • Resilience also plays an increasingly large role for entrepreneurs, investors, economists and overseers. They regard resilience mostly as the ability to respond adequately to downward cycles, loss of demand or recession. Since the financial crisis, banks are regularly subjected to stress tests to establish their resilience. And organizations are focusing on the redundancy and buffers of their balance, diversification of the value chain and strength of cash flows, under the guise of resilience.
  • Authorities around cities and countries are not impervious to the ideal. All around the world, chief resilience officers are appointed, tasked with ascertaining whether their city is in fact resilient. Rotterdam, for example, recently launched its strategy for becoming a resilient city.

Connecting the dots

A crisis is making the call for resilience more urgent, but resilience was on the rise in our society long before the corona crisis.
First, this rise and popularity of resilience can be understood as an inevitable side effect of a different way of looking at the world. Resilience goes hand in hand with a world view characterized by complexity and uncertainties. This world view is the result of a scientific transformation but is also linked to the processes of globalization and the real or subjective threats of natural disasters, economic crisis and terrorism. Resilience is part of perception of life in which we feel as if we’re in a permanent state of crisis. In our hyperconnected, complex and uncertain world, unexpected dangers and disrupting events always loom, making the call for resilience all the more urgent.
But we haven’t just changed our perception of the world, we’ve also come to view ourselves in a different light. After WW II, the ideal of resilience mainly gained popularity due to psychology and ecology, but it also has roots in the biological thinking of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. For Darwin, adjustment to living conditions was of course already one of the most important drivers of evolution. And in the early twentieth century, there was renewed interest in the self-regulating ability of organisms in relation to their environment. To survive, systems may temporarily become unbalanced due to external influences, but they also have a natural inclination to restore equilibrium. Scientific insight into this mechanism has allowed us to help “nature’s” self-regulating system to bounce back. This applies to our own bodies, but this point of view has also proved valuable in understanding, for example, a political or economic “body”.
This new understanding of ourselves and the world has made it possible for us to remain healthy during uncertain times, because we increasingly understand how to deal with stressors without having to predict or control the future. With a resilient system, it doesn’t matter what happens, it can stand a bit of turbulence. We can learn mental skills that increase resilience, apply the right liquidity buffers to companies’ balance sheets or increase the biodiversity of an ecosystem, to enable these systems to better absorb shocks and restore themselves to a state of equilibrium (homeostasis) or even emerge stronger from the battle.
The ideal of resilience therefore undeniably have valuable aspects. But in the past years, there has been increasing criticism of the term, because it’s become a buzzword, used with abandon, often making it unclear what exactly the term refers to and how to measure it. Besides this debate about its definition and its overly loose application, there are a number of more substantial points of criticism.
The resilience of individuals, for instance, is not always beneficial to the community or the world. This became clear in a study into the emotional consequences of extreme weather Lynn Berger refers to. This study shows that persons that are resilient are less inclined to do something about the causes of extreme weather.

Scientists have dubbed this the resilience paradox: individual resilience may be at odds with the resilience of a group or community and can even thwart it. Resilience and indifference are therefore dangerously close on the same continuum. Another objection to resilience comes from, among others, psychologist Paul Verhaeghe. He has pointed out that the ideal of resilience is frequently employed by policymakers, organizations and psychologists to increase individuals’ resilience, without due consideration of individuals’ societal context. If a work environment leads to chronic stress, it’s convenient for organizations to increase the resilience of individuals. However, if they succeed in containing the burn-out epidemic, they will be less inclined to investigate the potentially unhealthy nature of the working culture. Health becomes largely one’s own responsibility. This also results in a resilience paradox: resilience goes hand in hand with systems thinking, but at the same time, it can also be counterproductive to finding systemic solutions.
Finally, there is the more cultural-philosophical criticism that resilience may also contribute to a hostile or tense, distant stance towards the world. By constantly focusing on our own resilience, we come to regard the world and the other more often and more consistently as a hostile source of danger, uncertainties and potential stressors. We find ourselves in a permanent and rather stressful state of alert. Healthy protection against the world could then descend into unhealthy isolation from the world, causing us to detach from others and the communities we belong to.
Oddly enough, this excessive protection actually makes us vulnerable and our mental health may suffer from this, as shown in a study into the effects of overprotective parents on children. It results in another resilience paradox: protection from one thing makes us vulnerable to other things. We endow ourselves and our children with a protective shield, but this makes it difficult for us to achieve intimacy, build trusting relationships and it makes us vulnerable to depression and other mental illnesses.
Resilience is a valuable and interesting concept – especially during the current corona crisis. But it’s important to practice moderation in working on our resilience and not to lose sight of the pitfalls of unilateral fixation on this popular ideal. A one-sided focus on resilience during the corona crisis can also lead to indifference, further individualization of care and a hostile and distrusting relationship to each other in our everyday lives.

Implications

  • We arrive in a difficult period of the corona crisis where the resilience paradox is clearly visible. The first phase of urgency and common spirit is behind us, but we are far from normal. In the “new normal”, social distancing is making us as society resilient in the short term, but we risk a lot for the long-term in terms of mental health. For instance, loneliness is bad for the immune system and an isolated life reduces life expectancy drastically.

  • The corona crisis reveals the resilience paradox is prevalent in the economy as well. Since the financial crisis, the attention for the stability of the financial system has grown. Banks which become to big make the system vulnerable, i.e. the too big to fail mechanism. Nevertheless, the economy as a whole is currently struggling with the same problem. Big companies have – to guarantee the preservation of existing jobs – an implicit bailout in their operations. The focus on stability of these companies in normal times is making us vulnerable during economic turmoil.

The notion of European sovereignty

What happened?

During the corona crisis, France and Germany have joined forces in setting up a European recovery fund of €700 billion. There is much debate about the design of the fund (e.g. size, grants vs. loans), as well as the discord between member states and the possibility of further European integration. But on closer inspection of the proposal, there’s something else that catches the eye as well. The idea of “European sovereignty”, here imagined as support for industrial champions and protectionism against strategic investments from China, is gaining momentum. How should this be interpreted?

What does this mean?

In the twentieth century, the EU saw itself mostly as a “post-sovereign power” and imagined a world in which international governance (in the form of multilateral institutions) would create a new type of order – a world no longer subject to the power politics of superpowers. However, the idea of European sovereignty, which champions “strategic autonomy” against the U.S. and China, in fact points to a Europe poised to engage more in power politics and partly take leave of its “multilateral dream”. Is the notion of European sovereignty a productive idea for the future of Europe?

What’s next?

It is likely that France and Germany, to provide a lifeline to the EU in light of a deep crisis and hegemonic conflict between the U.S. and China, will launch more initiatives to create European sovereignty (e.g. supporting industrial champions, protectionist policy). However, although this would strengthen the strategic position of Europe, it is highly likely that internal tensions will rise. Smaller EU members will always be vigilant about French-German projects to reform the EU. The resistance of the “frugal four” in the coronacrisis is the writing on the wall. If France and Germany take too little account of the interests of smaller EU members, Euroscepticism will grow in the coming years.

Our collective brain

What happened?

The corona crisis is showing us how alike we are in our thoughts. In early March, on the same day, virtually all of us came to the conclusion that there actually was a crisis and that we should hoard toilet paper and hand sanitizer. A few weeks ago, we also apparently all concluded that it was OK to go out in droves, without any announcement from authorities. Meanwhile, during the lockdown, we all spontaneously decided to work out, ride our bikes and go rollerblading outside. None of these phenomena, trends, hypes or crazes are unique or new, but this crisis does confront us with these new forms of collective thinking.

What does this mean?

There are new rules of play and we have to learn to deal with them. We’re exploring the boundaries between what’s allowed and what isn’t and are keeping a close eye on each other in the process. It’s no wonder then, that we’re learning from each other, mimicking each other or that we just happen to arrive at more or less the same idea. Furthermore, many of these ideas are of course put into our heads by companies and their marketing channels. At the same time, this is also a morally charged period, making us extra aware of our own behavior and others’; who is breaking the rules and who is slightly exaggerating? On the beach, therefore, it’s not just crowded, it’s dangerously crowded.

What’s next?

This heightened awareness of our collective behavior can evoke different responses. We can accept the situation and possibly even derive a feeling of solidarity from it. After all, we’re all in the same boat, going through the same struggle. On the other hand, it’s conceivable that we’ll look for activities and products that still do make us feel original and authentic. This could lead to increased demand for more personalized products and services and, as soon as it’s allowed again, even more exotic holiday destinations.

A liberating vaccine

Insofar as there can ever be a definitive end to the corona pandemic, a vaccine will probably play the most substantial role in this. This is not just a matter of whether there will ever be a vaccine and if so, when, but also of who will be the first to develop it and subsequently who will get access to it. It’s highly likely that this will be a lengthy process, with countries partaking in an extreme form of vaccine diplomacy, and the choices they make will reverberate for years, if not decades, to come in international politics.

Our observations

  • Many dozens of candidate vaccines are currently being developed. Testing and approval procedures are being accelerated and carried out simultaneously as much as possible (e.g. operation Warp Speed in the U.S.). A number of vaccines is now being tested on humans and companies are already investing in production capacity in case their vaccine is approved.
  • An eventual vaccine will not immediately be available to the entire world population. Not even now that major pharmaceutical companies and NGOs are investing tens of millions of dollars to prepare for the large-scale production of vaccines that have yet to be tested. Depending on the type of vaccine that is developed, several factors will determine the production speed. This could pertain to specific equipment, the availability of well-trained personnel and, of course, the availability of high-grade raw materials. Even something as seemingly banal as the availability of medical glass in which to package the vaccine, could be crucial to the speed at which production can be increased.
  • Most vaccines will be developed by large pharmaceutical corporations, possibly in cooperation with universities. These corporations are currently promising that they’ll do their part to achieve a fair, global distribution of their vaccines. This is important to their reputation, and revenue, and they want to avoid becoming a pawn on the geopolitical stage (e.g. by becoming nationalized).
  • Meanwhile, governments will involve themselves specifically in the distribution of scarce doses and they will initially take national societal, economic and geopolitical interests into account when doing so. During the swine flu outbreak in 2009, it became clear that a number of rich countries were only concerned with protecting their own populations and were impervious to appeals for international solidarity. The fact that the Chinese Academy of Military Medical Sciences is involved in the development of a highly advanced vaccine highlights once again the geopolitical importance of a corona vaccine.
  • It’s not surprising that countries believe themselves to be co-owners on the vaccines. Be it directly or indirectly, the state is always involved in processes of innovation: as financier, educator, custodian of infrastructures, etc (i.e. “the entrepreneurial state”). This legitimizes the role of the state as divider on a national scale, but also enables it to primarily utilize the technology for its own population (although every vaccine will have partly been facilitated by knowledge from the scientific community). From a moral perspective, one could, however, also argue that any vaccine is always the result of previous efforts from, and data shared by, the international scientific community and no country could ever be the sole owner of the final vaccine.
  • Uit moreel oogpunt zou je echter ook kunnen beargumenteren dat elk vaccine dat ontwikkeld wordt direct of indirect ook gebaseerd is op eerder werk van de internationale wetenschappelijke gemeenschap en dus nooit het exclusieve eigendom van een enkel land kan zijn.
  • At the initiative of the European Commission, an international consortium of mainly European countries – the U.S. did not participate at all – and NGOs, has raised $8 billion dollars for, among other things, global collaboration in the development of a corona vaccine. The WHO is also developing guidelines for an effective and fair distribution of an eventual vaccine.
  • Not everyone is enthusiastic about the advent of a corona vaccine. The anti-vax movement has campaigned against vaccines in general for years and is also up in arms already over a possible corona vaccine. On the other end of the spectrum, there are those advocating to make these vaccines compulsory.

Connecting the dots

An effective vaccine could definitively end the corona crisis. Worldwide, many dozens of vaccines are being developed and some are hopeful that the first vaccines will be approved this year. This would, however, be unprecedentedly fast and chances of this happening are slim, if only because vaccines can also have serious side-effects (e.g. dengue fever and SARS). Moreover, there are doubts about the actual degree and duration of the protection a vaccine can offer, and mutations of the coronavirus could lead to an existing vaccine becoming less effective. Nonetheless, even if a vaccine doesn’t get approved until next year, or even later, this would be an enormous victory for modern (multidisciplinary) science and would liberate us from the pandemic that’s disrupting our society.
It’s worthwhile to speculate on the question how this process of liberation will take place. In our collective imaginations, there seems to be a notion of a vaccine being hailed as a liberating army that will abruptly end a drawn-out war. This image ties in with the war rhetoric that has been applied to this crisis with abandon (e.g. we’re at war with an invisible enemy and healthcare professionals are on the frontlines). In reality, the approval of a vaccine will be much more like D-Day; the beginning of the end of the battle, but hardly an immediate cease-fire.
This D-Day will probably only take place in the country of origin of the vaccine and, because of its scarcity, it will initially only reach part of the population there, presumably groups such as healthcare workers and the elderly. From that moment, it will still be months, if not years, before both the entire population has been vaccinated and there is herd immunity. This period will be characterized by debates on who is most in need of the vaccine (e.g. nursing staff), who deserves it the most (e.g. based on lifestyle) and, depending on the local care system, who is willing to pay the most. As in the current phase of containment of the pandemic, the debate will oscillate between the importance of public health (i.e. vulnerable groups first) and that of the economy (e.g. hospitality workers first).

On a global level, the question will then be which other countries will get access to the vaccine. Initially, it’s highly likely that the country that developed it will keep production entirely to itself, something Trump seems to be aiming for, but at a certain point, part of the production will also become available to other, friendly or high-paying, countries. By means of licenses, other countries will also be enabled to start their own production. India and China are currently the biggest producers of medicine, mostly developed in the U.S. or Europe, and will be particularly well-poised to start their own production lines. Furthermore, international hackers also seem to be engaged in attempts to ascertain the required recipe.
Depending on which country will be the first to develop an effective vaccine – China and the U.S. seem to be the frontrunners – there will be an extreme form of vaccine diplomacy. Especially China is likely to deploy a possible vaccine to strengthen ties (i.e. soft power) with other countries around the world and possibly also to gain more direct advantages (e.g. better terms in trade agreements). Building on the comparison with World War II, the distribution of the vaccine could even determine the sphere of influence of global power blocs. After the war, Europe was divided up among the allied powers. This could also happen to countries or regions that, for example, become dependent on an American or Chinese vaccine, which would place these countries under more direct influence from their vaccine donors.
It’s no wonder then, that the WHO and European Union are placing such emphasis on global cooperation in the development of the potential vaccines and are attempting to come to agreements about fair distribution in this early stage.

Implications

  • The availability of a vaccine could mean that the economy can go full steam ahead. If several countries are able to “open” much sooner than others, this will lead to large disparities in wealth, which will also impact power relations between these countries. This could result in vaccine nationalism, but at the same time, countries also have an economic and medical interest in a global or regional “liberation” from the pandemic (e.g. in terms of international value chains).

  • The development and distribution of a corona vaccine will have considerable consequences for both national as well as international societal cohesion and cooperation. The eventual vaccine will probably be used as a vector of soft power and possibly also as a more direct means of power.

  • The distribution of a vaccine will also be a stress test for European unity and solidarity. There are several explicitly European development projects, but it remains to be seen whether a possible vaccine resulting from them would in fact be regarded as such or as a national product, with producing countries vaccinating their own populations first after all.

Metamodernism and corona

The corona crisis is multidimensional: it’s a crisis from a political, economic, social, geopolitical and humanitarian point of view. Such crises are turning points, at which enduring, deeper trends that were slowly meandering in the background, are accelerated. One of the deeper developments in our society and culture, is that of a metamodern discourse and the corona crisis particularly is a phenomenon that ties in with metamodernism.

Our observations

  • History can be understood as the sum total of coherent and meaningful narratives about the rise, development and possible future of mankind and the world around us. This means that history in this sense began with the first information and communications technologies (ICT), such as myths, clay tablets, and writing, which enabled such narratives to live on through time. Different “information regimes” co-existed for a long time, because the information costs were too high to spread knowledge and information across the world uniformly. The current Digital Information Age and its specific ICTs (e.g. the internet, smartphones, bits saved in datacenters) have led to an enormous reduction in information costs and with that, to a “hyperhistory”: a convergence of different histories and mutual connectedness of formerly separate information regimes.
  • That makes the coronavirus one of the first hyperhistoric phenomena, as (approximately) the whole world is focused on the virus and its consequences (exemplified by livestreams of corona hospitals being built, real-time corona maps with updates on the number of victims and infections. And because the coronavirus is a “viral phenomenon” that is really a part of this networked and complex superorganism (e.g. facilitated by intercontinental flights, international value chains), being a “superbrain”, this network is looking for solutions (e.g. the international medical scientific community is attempting to find a vaccine, nation states have closed borders to prevent the spread of the virus).
  • The work of Hanzi Freinacht, which is the pseudonym of Daniel Görtz and Emil Friis, is a “guide” to metamodern political philosophy. In his work, Freinacht criticizes current politics as lacking an exciting vision of the future and an ideal for politicians and society to work towards. In the book The Listening Society, Freinacht describes a “development stage approach” of societies and political systems by looking at four variables: i) the cognitive complexity of persons (the ability to analyze information and then respond to it), ii) the symbolic code of a society (the stage of cultural development and the accompanying “value memes”), iii) the palette of subjective conditions of people (how we experience life and reality), and iv) depth (the “embodied” experience and mineralization of these experiences).
  • In his second book Nordic Ideology, Freinacht describes how, based on these principles, metamodern politics and society could be created. They should be founded on personal development and the spiritual growth of society, and complexity thinking should be embraced to dissect and connect the current problems in their constituent ideas (e.g. climate change, polarization, economic inequality).
  • Two weeks ago, we wrote about the different moods that characterize the corona crisis and the accompanying period of (relative) isolation and quarantine. Moods are not subjective experiences or flighty emotions but intersubjective atmospheres in which reality appears to us in a certain way because of our own moody interpretation of it (e.g. when we’re bored, the attic where we spend our time seems like a dull space, when we’re stressed, we relate to our roommates and loved ones in a tense way). When describing these “corona moods”, it’s striking that they are often opposing ends of a continuum (fear and hope, stress and boredom), which shows there is a high degree of ambiguity in how we experience the corona crisis.

Connecting the dots

Our word “crisis” is etymologically derived from the Greek word krinein, which can be translated as “to separate” or “to judge”. This also means that a “critical situation” is one that could culminate in different ways, giving it a high degree of uncertainty. A crisis is therefore always a moment of truth, in the sense that certain problems and contradictions escalate and require “judgment”: a decision that clarifies what is right and wrong, valuable and worthless, relevant and irrelevant, making this moment of decision deeply ethical and political. A crisis situation is thus not subject to the quantitative sequence of moments of “clock time” (chronos), but to qualitative time, or the moment when something becomes clear and visible that wasn’t previously there (kairos). That means that a crisis is always an opportune moment that we can seize to thoroughly change and reform the existing order and system. The corona crisis is such a kairotic moment for metamodernism. But what exactly is metamodernism
Metamodernism is the cultural development phase that follows modernity and postmodernity. It criticizes both the naïveté and reductionism of modernity (with its emphasis on progress, rationality, humanism) as well as the ironic, nihilistic and restless criticism of postmodernity. By contrast, medamodernism seeks to rediscover the truth and narratives, as modernity attempted to do, but with the edge of the critical perspective of postmodernity, because humans need direction and a story to add structure and organization to their own lives, society and the world around them.
In contrast to the postmodern parataxis (putting words together without any meaningful correlation: deconstruction) and the modern syntaxis (the reduction and connection of words to their elementary principles: construction), metamodernism focuses on metaxis: the ongoing discussion of different ideas and positions to discover a broader pattern of development; a reconstruction of collective truths and our embrace of them.
Metamodernism could really take flight during the current corona crisis, because it’s a highly metamodern phenomenon in itself: it was facilitated by the possibilities of the global, digital, hyperhistoric and complex world. But our current ICTs also make it possible for the whole world to adjust to such a phenomenon: rather than a local problem (such as Ebola, which remained mainly limited to West Africa), for the first time in history, there is a phenomenon that captures the attention and interest of almost all people on Earth.
This makes the corona crisis constituent to the superorganism “Earth” or “man”, meaning that solutions to, questions and ideas about corona are in fact global “grand narratives” that transcend physical and cultural boundaries. This is not yet very visible, but it is the seed of a new form of metacognition in which different thinkers, countries, cultures present their solutions and the dialogue that results from that gives rise to new solutions. That’s why the models of open-source, open science, open data and open innovation match metamodernism and the corona crisis so well; because metamodernism is an institutional or political model which allows for the best ideas to surface through collective trial-and-error and a non-linear learning ability among radically different actors who nonetheless deal with the problems and questions.
Furthermore, the corona crisis also confronts us with a “harsh” reality, in which neither deconstruction and criticism, nor a naive or simple answer conceived from existing frameworks will suffice. Rather, we’re in need of an action-based perspective and systemic change to fight, if not prevent, the next pandemic. In countries that have previously had a formative experience with such a pandemic, for instance, citizens show more willingness to accept strict limitations of social freedom.

It was a long time ago that (Western) societies and younger generations were last confronted with such a crisis, which leads to a new sensation of urgency and willingness to critically reconsider and reassess concepts such as development, progress, the purpose of the economy and growth and the importance of nature and ecology (similarly, 9/11 led to new ideas on the importance of national safety, the geopolitical role of the U.S. and Islam). After the first phase of abating the crisis by containing the virus, there will be a period of necessary reorientation and making choices to shape our society and economy sincerely and from a grand narrative, in a way that fits the metamodern ethos as now manifests itself in, for example, new sincerity literature, post-irony media or the return of horror in films and series with new esthetic tropes (such as “the weird and the eerie”). Metamodernism has also emerged as sentiment or “structure of feeling” in art and popular culture, and it’s specifically such pre-theoretical modes of expression, e.g. of Zeitgeist or mood, that later translate into material and societal changes.
That brings us to the moods that go with the corona crisis and the new socio-cultural living world in which it’s taking place (e.g. the 1.5 meters society, the quarantine). A high degree of ambiguity is visible in this, that fits the complexity of both the virus as well as the world in which it’s manifesting itself. Precisely because we are unable to find middle ground, metaxis, we keep going back and forth between the different moods and often experience them simultaneously or in quick succession. This gives the palette of corona moods a high degree of ambiguity, from which new (variations on old) phenomena and practices arise, such as reconnecting with nature out of boredom (e.g. gardening) or stress, or a return of religion as well as new forms of spirituality out of the fear and hope of the corona crisis. The common factor in these examples is that they were all “ignited” by the corona crisis, in which people assume a hopeful, positive stance in light of the negative precarious situation of our living world.
In a wider sense, we see this type of sentiment in the return of utopian thinking, which was long considered naive and ignorant by the postmodern mind. In the same way that modernists thought everything could be reduced to a simple reality based on elementary particles, and postmodernists held that everything is a perspective and there is no universal truth, metamodernists believe that reality and perspective are one. And due to the continuous oscillation between perspectives and positions, we hope to catch a glimpse of a higher truth or the exterior reality that shines through from it. This kind of idea that subject and object ultimately cannot be seen as separate, can be found in quantum models, such as in the work of Karen Barad on intra-actors and agency.
The significance of such metamodern perspectives is in the fact that as soon as the metamodern method and the resulting insights are embedded in a metamodern reality, when ideality and reality coincide, a new socio-cultural transition becomes possible, which is also necessary as the idealistic foundation of the new metarules of societal, economic and political systems in a Second Deep Transition. Politically, we’re already seeing the first signs that this – rather abstract – description of metamodernism and its principles, is being politically, institutionally and economically realized. Examples of this are the works of Hanzi Freinacht, Brent Cooper’s Abs-Tract Organization, the growth of metamodern political parties in Denmark and Sweden, which in turn are part of the growing meta-ideology of green social liberalism in Northwest Europe.

Implications

  • At the moment, metamodernism is still mostly an artistic and cultural movement which lacks clout and solidity in reality. But when its principles and logic eventually spread in several forms (e.g. open-source, metamodern forms of politics and economy), it will eventually institutionalize in all layers of the socio-cultural reality. At FreedomLab, we’re therefore working on a multidimensional and layered model to understand socio-cultural transitions and phenomena, in which metamodernism plays a large role.

  • The corona crisis is also what American philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn calls a “paradigm shift”: the moment our view of the world and the way we regard phenomena changes to such an extent that it leads to a different perception of reality in our models, ideas and insights. A crisis, a critical situation, is thus also an anomaly: a deviation that we can’t understand and control with our usual models. This means that in times of crisis, our usual ideas, models, habits, are “parenthesized”, and that we are willing to push through great changes that were previously unthinkable, which could lead to enormous growth for metamodern thinking and institutions. Metamodernism itself is part of a system in which different utopian-critical paradigms are joined, such as post-humanism, quantum ontology, post-reductionist and hermeneutic philosophy, deep ecological and complexity thinking. What these paradigms have in common, is that they are critical of the simplistic modern paradigm for understanding phenomena (i.e. humanism, Newtonian metaphysics, reductionist scientism, a rejection of the social sciences and humanities), as well as of the poverty of the postmodern perspectivism with regard to the formulation of answers. Practically speaking, it proposes a transdisciplinary method, in which phenomena are viewed from different perspectives, and the different levels of problems are sought in continuous dialogue. This ongoing oscillation makes metamodernism suited as an explanatory model for socio-cultural and political-economical questions and phenomena.

Who controls the surveillance Stack?

What happened?

Apple and Google have jointly proposed a system for Covid-19 contact tracing. However, in doing so they have provided an alternative to the initiatives of some countries in developing their own applications. As it turns out, most of these initiatives largely rely on centralized infrastructure, in which data is stored on central servers. In contrast, Apple and Google’s system relies on a decentralized approach where data is stored locally on the user’s phone. In response, privacy advocate groups have sided with the big tech companies’ system as being more privacy friendly, which swayed countries like Germany to abort their initiatives and switch. Other countries like France and Australia have stuck with their approach and, therefore face political backlash. On the other hand, even though Google and Apple’s approach is generally preferred, they have also been critiqued for forcing their solution by leveraging their power through their dominance of the mobile market, thereby sidestepping political deliberation.

What does this mean?

Governments, big tech companies and society are figuring out how our IT infrastructure should be governed. This confrontation is particularly interesting as it shows how different governance stacks (state-controlled, industry-controlled or open) behave and interact during times of crisis. Under these circumstances governments generally seem to prefer centralized solutions as it provides them most control and the possibility to act swiftly. However, this approach also increases the risk of hacks and potential misuse by state-actors. It is not the first time that we have witnessed this dynamic. In 2015 and 2016  Apple was pressured by the FBI to compromise users’ encryption for the purpose of preventing terrorist threats.

What’s next?

This pandemic has shown our willingness to address systemic crises through the deployment of digital surveillance tech.  Going forward, this crisis will lay the groundwork for how we are going to approach other systemic risks like social unrest, terrorism and climate change using data, algorithms and IT infrastructure. Having learned from the societal backlash surrounding fake news and privacy scandals, big tech will try to preemptively self-regulate to cement their central position in society. Governments on the other hand will force big tech companies to further open up their solutions to political scrutiny.