“Science fiction is not about the future,” the sci-fi novelist Samuel R. Delany wrote in 1984. The future “is only a writerly convention,” he continued, one that “sets up a rich and complex dialogue with the reader’s here and now.” That is a useful way of understanding all the many pop nonfiction books that speculate about the technologies of the future, and attempt to divine their effects on human beings. Their predictions depend on how well they interpret the present.
One such interpreter is Debora L. Spar, the dean of Harvard Business School Online, who writes at the intersection of tech and gender. In her new book, “Work Mate Marry Love,” she considers an emerging wave of innovations that she believes could upend how we experience relationships, reproduction, gender expression and death. “We will fall in love with nonhuman beings,” Spar predicts in the book’s opening pages, “and find ways to extend our human lives into something that begins to approximate forever.” Spar argues that new technologies spark shifts in the most intimate of human affairs, often in unexpected ways. She casts this as a causal relationship, one imbued with a sense of inevitability. The book’s subtitle, “How Machines Shape Our Human Destiny,” gives the machines the agency.
Spar spends the first half of the book looking backward, tracing how monogamy sprang from the plow, how the steam engine pried open a gender divide at work and home, and how the dishwasher set the stage for the second-wave feminist movement. When she is excavating this history, Spar carves convincing paths through mountains of academic and historical records. But as she veers into the present and pitches toward the future, her visions become murkier and her trail of evidence grows faint. She combs other popular nonfiction works, like Hanna Rosin’s “The End of Men,” for bits of reporting; she performs a vicarious exercise in online dating, creating an account on Match.com; she transcribes encounters with a couple of transgender people she has met.
I don’t know if Spar is right about what the future holds, but her view of the present reveals some limitations. She can treat decade-old technologies as if they are vexing new developments. She describes Grindr, a queer dating app launched in 2009, as “a strange but powerful confluence of gay men and mobile phones.” Tinder, which followed in 2012, “is a scary place,” she writes, misapprehending its purpose as “just about sex — straightforward, fairly anonymous, often pretty-near-instantaneous sex.” Her section on developments in hormone therapy and their impact on gender expression mostly emphasizes her own experience straining to parse these changes, which she does not appear to have yet mastered. She writes that the “words are confusing — transgender? transsexual? transvestite?” and refers to trans people in tortured constructions like “the shes-who-would-be-hes and hes-who-would-be-shes.”
“If we can harness technology to build bodies that defy reproductive logic, then we can build bodies and intimacies that cross species as well,” Debora L. Spar writes.
“If we can harness technology to build bodies that defy reproductive logic, then we can build bodies and intimacies that cross species as well,” Debora L. Spar writes.Credit...Justin T. Gellerson for The New York Times
Though Spar is interested in the cultural side of technology, the strict determinism of her argument — tech begets culture — can flatten the complex interplay of these forces. Spar plugs so many innovations and social shifts into her thesis, jumping from in vitro gametogenesis to hormone therapy to sex robots, that her insights can feel programmatic, and at times strangely dehumanizing. “‘Trans’ is also the perfect segue — the transition, literally — between the changing worlds of reproduction and robotics,” she writes. “Because if we can love across gender and sex, if we can harness technology to build bodies that defy reproductive logic, then we can build bodies and intimacies that cross species as well.” Drawing an analogy between trans people and machines built for comfort and sex does not offer serious insight, but it fits within a book that seems interested in human experience only insofar as it relates to some tool.
In “Sex Robots and Vegan Meat,” the journalist Jenny Kleeman looks toward the future from a very different vantage point. Like Spar, Kleeman is interested in technologies of sex, reproduction, gender and death; she also takes on food, investigating the cluster of start-ups that are engineering artificial meat. Kleeman approaches the future as a reporter firmly grounded in the present; her method is to journey to the frontier and take a long look around.
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The book leans heavily on conversations between the writer and various figures with stakes in the game — the people who are inventing technologies, consuming them, promoting them and campaigning against them. Among them are a sex robot maker who “wants to be respected as an artist,” a doctor dubbed “the Elon Musk of suicide” who wants to engineer the perfect death, and a Silicon Valley bro trying to grow a chicken nugget in a lab.
Kleeman is keenly interested in the practical realities of these inventions — how they look and move and taste — and she intuits that claims about products representing “the future” often mean that the products do not actually work, at least not yet. As she hops from start-up to start-up, she fends off publicists and pulls back the curtain on their bits of futuristic theater. A sex robot prototype presented to Kleeman is grotesque, with “a Medusa of wires bursting out the back”; the nugget “has the texture of the most low-grade processed food I could ever imagine.” In Kleeman’s telling, futuristic technologies are not accidents of history that drive unexpected social changes. They are designed to fit the worldviews of specific kinds of people — men, mostly — and are fueled by hubris, spin and private equity.
Kleeman’s exploration of the frontier sometimes leads her into the weeds. Her section on reproductive technology takes a long detour through Men Going Their Own Way, a ghoulish anonymous message board for straight men who have sworn off women and are also — perhaps not unrelated — largely uninteresting. But more often, Kleeman’s capacious curiosity opens up a kaleidoscopic view of an issue.
Her final subject, death, brings her to a doctor who creates technologies for assisted suicide, and his network of salespeople and acolytes. At first glance, his project appears targeted at giving people the choice to die with dignity, providing instructions for constructing D.I.Y. suicide devices. But Kleeman’s narrative culminates with him garishly debuting a janky 3-D-printed luxury suicide pod called the Sarco (short for sarcophagus — after you kill yourself, you can be buried in it). The product seems unlikely to ease the pain of the terminally ill any time soon, but it fulfills the doctor’s desire for self-promotion instantaneously.
When Kleeman does venture to speculate — that sex robot inventors are essentially creating slaves that could compromise human empathy, or that artificial wombs risk snatching reproductive control from women, eroding abortion rights — her insights feel earned. Perhaps that’s because she seems less invested in predicting the future than she is in questioning the people who are so obsessed with shaping it. Kleeman recognizes that technology has the power to shape human life, of course, but she is also interested in interrogating that power, and understanding who exactly gets to wield it. She sees in the future what Delany did: the stage for a “rich and complex dialogue” with the “here and now.”