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Jane Metcalfe is the founder and CEO of NEO.LIFE. She is probably best known as the cofounder (with Louis Rossetto) of Wired magazine, the legendary media company that wrote the first draft of the history of the digital revolution. Under Jane and Louis’s leadership, the magazine grew to an internationally renowned brand and a diversified media company featuring U.S., U.K., and Japanese editions, a book division, and a television show. In addition, Wired launched HotWired, the first online original content featuring Fortune 500 advertising, inventing the advertising banner along the way (no we didn’t patent it, yes we did talk about it). There was also HotBot, which at the time was the fastest search engine in the world. The Webbys recently acknowledged Jane and Louis with a Lifetime Achievement Award for their vision and impact.
After selling the company to Condé Nast and Lycos, Jane served as president of TCHO Chocolate which got her thinking about the effects of theobromine on the brain and heart, sacred plants, nutraceuticals, organic farming, food systems, etc. When family members experienced mental illness and the diseases of aging, she turned her attention to health matters, researching the latest science and technologies that can alter the course of those diseases.
Lindsay Gearheart: Tell me what led to the creation of NEO.LIFE. What is the neobiological revolution, and why is this exploration needed right now?
Jane Metcalfe: I started NEO.LIFE as a result of my personal journey. It started with Wired and thinking about my whole career and how technology impacts us and how we can best deploy it to make the world a better place and to make our own lives better.
First of all, I’ve always loved food. I like growing food, eating food, cooking food, and sharing it. Leading TCHO Chocolate got me thinking about food in a completely different way. It got me thinking first of all about the farmers, about organic cocoa beans and fair trade and organic premiums. But we also did a lot of work focusing on flavor, helping farmers understand how to achieve particular flavors through fermentation and drying. All of those themes that are so rich in terms of the future of foods were things that I was already open to and aware of.
Then I had three octogenarians, my mother, father and stepfather, who were struggling with mental illness and cognitive decline. At that point, I began looking for research, like what’s coming down the pike that could potentially help and who are the people developing those things. I began to educate myself, and I had a particular moment. I was at a conference and I was meeting one extraordinary person after another with this huge passionate mission to use their knowledge and skills to combat and prevent disease. I thought, this is so reminiscent of the early days of the digital revolution, and these are the most powerful people on the planet. These are the people who have the tools to solve the problems that we’ve been struggling with, whether it’s disease, food systems, or ecological balance. I just thought, “It’s another revolution.” (I actually used to do a talk about the digital revolution and the food revolution. So I guess you could say this is my third revolution.)
Back to what neobiological revolution actually means. It’s like new biology, and what is new biology. There’s a line that asks, what’s the difference between a scientist and engineer? A scientist observes something to understand it, and an engineer takes it apart. Breaks it, reverse engineers it, and then tries to build it again. What’s happening now and what makes biology new is that we’re bringing that engineering mindset to biology. We are now breaking down the cell into smaller and smaller components and figuring out how to actually make those components do what we want or change them in order to have a different effect.
To me, that’s new biology, harnessing viruses, bacteria, algae, and fungus to do our bidding. Basically, instead of creating a disease to solve a disease, we can edit the nucleotides. It’s the newfound skills, the knowledge, and the technology that give us this power to manipulate biology. That’s what I mean by neobiological. What I hope is that we will live in a neobiological future where there is less disease, less pollution, and where humans, animals, and plants are in a more sustainable relationship with each other.
LG: Let’s talk about the community aspect of NEO.LIFE. How does your mission go beyond just informing people?
JM: I’m worried that I live in a world where knowledge and evidence are used to draw conclusions while subsequent research might overturn today’s conclusion. For instance, there’s a large percentage of people all around the world who think our scientific models have failed us in making predictions about this pandemic. My mission is to help ground people in the truth, in the evidence, and in what it is that we do know and what we don’t know. And to help people see what the opportunity is, to actually make things better. It comes from an inherently optimistic point of view about human beings and our capabilities. But I think it also comes with a fair amount of humility about what we don’t yet know.
My goal is to tell stories about how the world can be better in order to inspire people to, first of all, understand what these technologies can do. Secondly, to participate in the decision making that we need to do as a species. We have never had the power to evolve ourselves quite so rapidly. The interesting thing to me is that the scientists don’t want to make these choices on their own and it’s important that we all speak up because we can’t dictate in Boston, San Francisco, or London what the future of our species should look like. Everyone could have a different take on this.
What I’m hoping will happen is that we will see a flourishing of diversity of opinions and that each community can manage in their own way based on their own values, but all of that feeds up into a system that leads us to a point where we’re making progress. Right now, people feel like we are not making progress with the pandemic, climate change, global health, and so forth. We’re making tremendous progress and we just want to reinforce that.
LG: I love that optimistic point of view.
JM: I mean, people don’t have positive visions of the future. This is one of the things that we love about partnering with Manifest Boston. We manifest what we visualize. Writers and creators of future worlds set our expectations, and either knowingly or unknowingly, we march towards the thing that we have visualized.
I adore science fiction writers and creators. I think they play an enormously important role in our future, being able to imagine different scenarios and play them out. This is the essence of design thinking, which has become so prevalent and so valuable to so many different types of organizations. Even for yourself, being able to visualize the future and work out from it, that’s like the basic tool of progress. Homo sapiens are sort of uniquely able to imagine something that doesn’t exist and then make it happen.
But when you look at those visions of the future, there’s so few positive ones. They’re all really scary. They involve, first of all, tremendous change, which is, by definition, scary to people. But secondly, they’re often clouded by conflict, which is great for drama and storytelling, not so great for world building. I think you want to anticipate that conflict and do scenario planning so that we can avoid it.
The next five,10, 20 years are going to be really transformational, so there is a lot of fear. And the only way through the fear is by creating positive visions and staying grounded in the facts. That’s what we’re really trying to do. By having these conversations today, we can start to think through the positive opportunities, the negative consequences, the unintentional consequences, and the unknowable. I think we did some of this with the digital revolution in the sense that there were a lot of very skeptical people. I think there was also, particularly from the media, an inherent skepticism of any wild-eyed California visionary talking about the world being a better place. It’s like, “Not again.” With biotechnologies, I don’t think anybody questions whether this is a big deal and that it’s going to have a big impact.
I don’t have all the answers. These are not easy questions, right? I think it’s just vitally urgent that people become aware of them.
LG: Talk to me about the book, NEO.LIFE: 25 Visions for the Future of Our Species.
JM: Our mission at NEO.LIFE is to identify the key technologies, discoveries, developments, people, and ideas that are going to shape the neobiological future. So in the book, we look out across the different domains like genetics, neuroscience, longevity science, synthetic biology, future food. And of course, we’re humans, so we care about sex, death, drugs, and those sorts of things.
Sometimes I worry when I talk that I sound like an egghead, and I’m not an egghead. The book is not a treatise on bioethics by any means. I mean it! We hope with the packaging we sort of say, “Hey, wait a minute — that’s cool, I want to know what that is,” regardless of where you are and what you do. It’s playful, it’s futuristic, and it’s very visual. It’s designed for a general audience but it talks about super advanced biotechnologies and complete bleeding-edge research. We have scientists and science fiction creators and visual artists and conceptual artists who offer us their visions of the future.
It’s 25 visions, and we’ve organized it into three sections. There’s roadmaps, creative briefs, and dreams. The roadmaps are the technologies and the research projects that we think are indicative of where this is all going. The creative briefs are things that we envision and the questions that will arise as we start to do these. A creative brief is: here’s what we’re trying to accomplish, and here’s what we’re going to need to get there. And then the dreams are fiction and art pieces.
Some people read the story and write to me to say, “Oh my God, if that’s our future, count me out.” I think everyone’s definition of what a positive vision of the future is will vary. We’re not looking to build utopias, we’re looking very realistically at how these things will play out. All of us involved have a sense of what the future has in store. It’s scary stuff, no question about it. But there’s tremendous opportunity and potential as well.
LG: What’s the most intriguing thing you’ve learned in the last month?
JM: I guess what I look for are things that are breakthroughs, that are completely astonishing.
There’s a company called LyGenesis that actually uses our lymph nodes as bioreactors. So they take stem cells, and then they are converted into liver cells, and then the lymph nodes can actually generate livers. So for people with end stage liver disease, they can actually have bioreactors generating functional livers. Wild, mind blowing stuff.
I’ve been interested in the promise of bioengineering for a very long time. A few months ago, we wrote a story about plastic-eating bacteria, how bacteria can actually decompose the polymers of plastic and break it down into monomers that can then be more readily disposed of or recycled. So using bacteria to eat plastics has just had a tremendous advance, and that kind of thing is super exciting to me.