Each post this week serves a dual purpose: an exploration of the topic at hand as well as a re-introduction to big ideas this blog will be grappling with. 

Whether or not I should buy an Apple Watch doesn’t seem to be a question of ethics, right? It’s a question about a little computer I strap to my wrist so I don’t have to take my phone out every time it buzzes.

Now, that seems like a minor benefit, but the fear of phones taking over our lives is a common theme among the tech anxious. We spend hours looking at our phones, checking them upwards of a hundred or more times per day, and perceive them vibrating even when they are not. Glowing screens are among the first and last thing we see every day.

Phones interrupt our social lives. Going to the movies, sitting at dinner, chatting with friends, among many others, are activities forever changed by the phone. We disconnect from our immediate social circle to connect with a wider one.


We have also, of course, gained social connections thru these devices. Perhaps an interrupting text is from a mutual friend who cannot attend, or a notification of an event relevant to everyone. More importantly, perhaps it is a communication from a friend who is lost or hurt. Partners and spouses can easily send little updates when the two are apart.


My partner and I use texts and the “Find My Friend” app to make sure the other is ok if one of us is out late with friends. I use FaceTime to see my parents and grandmother between trips and on holidays. I often tweet at and with a fellow ethicist from the other side of the planet.

The worst aspects of my phone are that I check it needlessly and it draws me away from intimate interactions, yet for the rare cases where I needed that notification it dramatically improves my life. If there was a way for me to stay in the moment more easily, and yet be notified of something important that would allow me to be a more engaged friend. I am aware of my bad habits and how they negatively affect those I care about. If there was a device that could help me curb or minimize these behaviors, it might (might) let me be a fractionally better person.

Kant’s “ought implies can” formula is simple: if we are morally obliged or compelled to do something, it is implicit that we can do that thing. Otherwise, it would be pretty unfair to consider it a moral failing for you to not do something that is literally impossible for you.

But what happens to ought when new abilities, new “can”s come along? Do our moral obligations shift with technology? Or is ethics a baseline and its relation to technology merely an extrapolation? Or is the extrapolation to these new cans the actual basis of ethics?


Technology is changing how we behave and, in turn, our ethics. Minor technologies may not modify our lives significantly, but huge society shaping innovations like the light bulb and antibiotics and cellphones and self-driving cars have profound implications.

This blog aims to investigate those implications of everyday things. Are we obliged to keep up with technology as it drives new social norms? What does it mean to reject new modes of interaction and intimacy?

So, should I buy an Apple Watch? And more importantly how does the answer to that question change if smartwatches become as popular as smartphones?

Tagged with:

Almost 3 years ago I took a break from blogging. Well now I’m back.

I started PopBioethics for a simple reason: all these obscure, difficult ethical principles kept showing up in my day-to-day life. I couldn’t play a video game or watch a movie without bioethics showing up somehow.

Bioethics is still everywhere. If anything, it’s somehow more pervasive. Two of the biggest hashtags of the year were #BlackLivesMatter and #GamerGate. The Affordable Care Act became reality and we had a measles outbreak in DisneyLand. I feel like I could write a whole book just on the ethical issues illustrated in HBO’s Sunday night lineup.

There are no shortage of articles on these topics, but there is a shortage of discussion. One of the biggest failings of the Internet is that we have yet to come up with anything resembling a good system for discourse. Twitter is too short. Comment threads are too long, oddly managed, and either require a log in or full anonymity. Almost anything can be taken out of context and shared globally in an instant. Trolls, abuse, and lazy writing are everywhere. It’s time to up our game.

To that end, PopBioethics will be rebooted with three main goals:

  • Highlight and elevate interesting topics, voices, and perspectives in bioethics and culture
  • Create a space for discussion and debate
  • Continually seek out biases, fallacies, assumptions, and generalizations

I have some ideas as to how to make those a reality, but the whole thing is a work in progress.

For now, here are some things you can expect:

  • No comment section – got something to say? Email me popbioethics at gmail dot com. Good stuff will get reposted anonymously.
  • A short, daily post, with some longer posts once a week and something resembling an essay once a month.
  • Regular changes and experimentation.

Follow me @popbioethics on Twitter and Medium for shorter and longer writing.


Blogs are meant to be part of the larger, daily conversation. One of the great failures of conversation is, of course, simply waiting for your turn to speak. I’ve found myself listening recently and not quite sure what to say next. For the moment, Pop Bioethics is on pause.

For those of you who’ve found my writing interesting or engaging I highly recommend the following:

The Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies Blog


Big Think’s Tauriq Moosa and Orion Jones


My twitter feed @popbioethics will remain active and is the best place to continue to engage with me in conversation.


Stanton Peele makes a compelling case that our obsession with being “treated” for every minor malady reflects our abject terror in the face of clinically based recommendations to cut back on testing.

American health care costs are driving America into the ground.  These costs stand at from 2-3:1 compared with other nations (like the UK), and the chasm is widening since virtually all other nations have stablized these costs, while we are only beginning to tackle the rate at which theyincrease.  But Republicans can still run on simply resuming lock, stock and barrel the same old private care system, Americans in general dislike Obamacare, and Obamacare itself is built primarily around expanding coverage without controlling costs.  This is because any effort to rein in such costs is met by accusations like “death panels” or “rationing,” which immediately kills them like glassy-eyed dead fish floating on the surface of the stagnant pond that is our care system.

It does no good to cite comparisons between America and other countries, like the study finding mature adult Americans in all social classes to have twice the rate of virtually every type of illness (from cancer, to heart disease, to diabetes) as the English, despite that the latter smoke and drink more (they are thinner), and that the British system spent (at the time of the study; the gap is greater now) roughly one-half of what Americans do per capita on health care.1  And our greatest differences in cost and health outcomes are not with the UK—in part because their health behaviors most resemble our own relative to Continental European nations.

We’re addicted. And the ACA might be the first step in a brutal intervention.

via 3QD


Alice Park’s new book The Stem Cell Hope, convinced me it is time to retire, “Where is my jetpack!?” once and for all. After reading her new book, Park will have you screaming, “Where are my stem cells?” from every rooftop.

Jetpacks are a puerile toy that we all know would be impractical, deadly, wasteful, polluting, and that will likely never, ever be built. So why do we keep rhetorically demanding them? The saying is supposed to encapsulate the sense of ennui we all feel when we look at depictions of the future from the ’50s. And the future is still broken. It’s the complaint of our disaffected era.

Well guess what, most of the depictions of the future from the ’50s were wrong. None of them showed personal computers or cell phones (let alone smartphones) or iPads. We now rue the fact that our country is lined with interstate highways and packed with cars, which was supposed to be the proof the future was here and amazing. Sure, whole factories are packed with robots, but none of us have a robot butler (Roomba withstanding). Yes, we have a space station. That is pretty amazing.

So what the hell are we complaining about? It sure as shit isn’t technology. That stuff is incredible. Yet, we know this version of the future is broken. But how?

Medicine. Health care. Diseases and death. These were supposed to be something the future could deal with. Why can’t it?

After reading The Stem Cell Hope, you’ll have an idea of why we’re living in the medical past among a technological future. Between the covers of her great new book, Alice Park explains how the promise of stem cells came to be trapped in a Kafkaesque maze of political posturing, fundamentalist ignorance, government bans, legal quagmires, and corporate greed. The Stem Cell Hope explains why our medical future has been indefinitely delayed and gives us a new question to ask of our delinquent future.

Continue reading »


From Nature:

[Takanori Takebe, a stem-cell biologist at Yokohama City University in Japan,] told how his team grew the organ using induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS), created by reprogramming human skin cells to an embryo-like state. The researchers placed the cells on growth plates in a specially designed medium; after nine days, analysis showed that they contained a biochemical marker of maturing liver cells, called hepatocytes.

At that key point, Takebe added two more types of cell known to help to recreate organ-like function in animals: endothelial cells, which line blood vessels, taken from an umbilical cord; and mesenchymal cells, which can differentiate into bone, cartilage or fat, taken from bone marrow. Two days later, the cells assembled into a 5-millimetre-long, three-dimensional tissue that the researchers labelled a liver bud — an early stage of liver development.

Japan does it again.




A reader commenting on a home birthing thread on Andrew Sullivan’s the Dish sums up how medical regulations can fail better than I’ve heard before:

The tragedy to me in this whole story is that once again a medical debate is being left to the extremes. Screams of “death panels!” drowned out any fair discussion of end-of-life care and the wholesale suffering that has been inflicted on the dying and the old in the name of modern medicine’s “advances.” As an advocate of home birth, bolstered by the fact that 30% of Dutch babies enter the world at home, the development of home birth in America as it stands now is disheartening.

The obstetric medical establishment is in need of some serious questions about overuse of medical intervention and gadgets, which culminates in an extremely high C-section rate. For one, I think women should get better information about the numerous side effects of epidurals. But any discussion of including home birth as an legitimate option has been met with disdain, and licensed medical professionals are often legally barred from attending home birth.

The result is that lay midwives have taken up the slack. Probably many of them are smart, cautious and aware of the risks and have done a great job for women in labor and their babies. I personally know many women who birthed at home successfully and happily. But the swift growth of a home birth culture that is openly hostile to modern medicine and all its benefits is only going to lead to tragedy.

On the website you linked to, Hurt by Homebirth, it’s hard to read most of the stories. They are terrible, sickening tragedies that could have been averted if the practitioners had an inkling of what was going on, or if they weren’t actually practicing an extreme ideology more than practicing midwifery. The malpractice in these cases is absolutely appalling. But is it home birth, or the fact that lay midwifery has grown with little direct supervision from the medical industry that prefers to demonize it rather than supervise it?

In the Netherlands, home birth is something that must be approved by a doctor, and the midwife that is attending the delivery is part of, not an alternative to, the medical system. When I gave birth in 2007 and 2009 at a birth center in Cambridge MA, a doctor had to sign off before I was allowed to deliver there, and there were very clear rules about when a midwife should transfer me across the street, something that made me much surer about the safety of my babies (and me). There was an awareness that birth is a risky business, and that merely wishing for a “natural” “beautiful” birth was not a guarantee – and that the hospital across the street was there for a good reason.


Larry Smarr is trying to save your life:

Larry sees medicine as a stubborn holdout. Current efforts to reform the system—for instance, the Obama administration’s initiative to digitize all health records by 2014—are just toes in the water. Medicine has barely begun to take advantage of the million-fold increase in the amount of data available for the diagnosis and treatment of disease. Take the standard annual physical, with its weigh-in, blood-pressure check, and handful of numbers gleaned from select tests performed on a blood sample. To Larry, these data points give your doctor little more than a “cartoon” image of your body. Now imagine peering at the same image drawn from a galaxy of billions of data points. The cartoon becomes a high-definition, 3-D picture, with every system and organ in the body measured and mapped in real time.


What would you do if the very means by which you said your life had no meaning suddenly gave your life meaning? Tony Nicklinson is having just that problem.

So just a few days ago [and this will probably become a famous remark in the history of social networking], he wrote this: “Hello world. I am Tony Nicklinson, I have locked-in syndrome and this is my first ever tweet.”

Among the many fascinating things about this technology is that the very nature of the euthanasia debate means that well-meaning relatives will argue with well-meaning lawyers over a person who cannot speak for him or herself.

Yet now this man can – and not just to the High court, but to the court of public opinion as well. Within five days of his first tweet he had gained 15,000 followers, many of whom were expressing openly supportive opinions of him and his right to die.

He’s got more followers than most folks desperate for followers. Which leads to the conundrum.

But here’s the potentially extraordinary thing about Mr Nicklinson and Twitter.

People have begun asking him whether he still thinks his life’s worthless if he can enjoy a conversation with anyone in the world on the internet.

Mr Nicklinson’s reply suggests an open mind: “People want to know if I will change my mind because of Twitter. Let’s hear the judgement first and maybe I’ll tell you.”

It’s not about wanting to die. It’s about wanting the freedom to choose and say, “I am done. It’s my life. It’s my death.”