Humanity’s Next Chapter: The Neobiological Revolution
Wired’s Co-Founder and NEO.LIFE Founder Jane Metcalfe
Posted Nov 18, 2019
It’s a crisp, sunny day in November at the Hotel Del Coronado, a Victorian-era beachfront landmark in San Diego, California, and the legendary media pioneer, serial entrepreneur and intellectual powerhouse Jane Metcalfe, Founder at NEO.LIFE, former President of TCHO Chocolate, and Co-founder of Wired magazine, takes a moment at the Exponential Medicine conference to speak with The Future Brain on Psychology Today. As part of the 2019 faculty of Exponential Medicine, Metcalfe had delivered a stimulating talk on the neobiological revolution to an audience of hundreds of tech-savvy physicians, inventors, healthcare executives, scientists, entrepreneurs, and innovative leaders.
Metcalfe’s professional achievements are a venerable tour de force. She achieved history-making success despite extreme challenges early in life. In the early 1960s, when Metcalfe was just three years old, her mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia and institutionalized for over a decade. Schizophrenia is a chronic brain disorder with symptoms that may include hallucinations, paranoid delusions, distorted perceptions, hearing voices, memory issues, difficulty concentrating, attention issues, bizarre behavior, and confused thinking.
She did not see her mother very much while growing up. “People would hide mentally-ill people away, and they would never be talked about again,” said Metcalfe. “It was a stigma—your mother is crazy, and your parents are divorced—a double whammy. We didn’t really talk about it. This was Kentucky. We don’t talk about the giant pink elephant in the room.”
Her mother was heavily sedated, and was given various anti-psychotic medications for schizophrenia. Doctors tried electric shock treatment, and insulin shock treatment. There was no improvement. Metcalfe grew up experiencing self-imposed guilt and judgment from the community.
“In the early sixties in Kentucky, mental health was not particularly evolved at the time,” shared Metcalfe candidly. “There were two things—the shame of mental illness, and the shame of whatever responsibility each of us family members had for her mental breakdown.”
“I knew I was different,” said Metcalfe. “I knew there was shame in my family. But what are you going to do with that? There’s nothing to do with that. You just go on. Make your own way. Find your own people. And I will say, I couldn’t wait to get out of town. I left when I graduated from high school and never looked back.”
Metcalfe left the South to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree in International Affairs from the University of Colorado Boulder. After college, she went abroad and lived in The Netherlands, France, and Switzerland. A bold adventurer, Metcalfe hang-glided in Europe and even participated in an international hang gliding competition. She eloquently recalls the names of foreign places where she hang-glided with the ease and fluency of a native francophone, sans any accent. One would never guess that she’s an American who hails from the South. Metcalfe quips that her southern drawl can slip back when savoring an occasional good bourbon on ice.
A prescient polymath, Metcalfe blazed a trail in new media with the launch of Wired in 1993—the emblematic American magazine that captured the zeitgeist of the digital revolution with neon bright optimism that was counter to the dystopian views on technology that were prevalent at the time. A year later, Wired.com was launched—one of the first new media publications. Wired won the National Magazine Award for General Excellence twice and was named “Magazine of the Decade” by AdWeek. Metcalfe was among the first to identify the oncoming digital revolution and rode the wave with it into mainstream culture. In 2015, Metcalfe was awarded a Webby Lifetime Achievement Award along with her Wired Co-founder Louis Rossetto.
“We were revolutionaries, we were pirates,” reflected the tall, lithe Metcalfe on her early Wired days. “And we won. What was a cult has become a culture.” To put the vast popularity of Wired in perspective, last year it had a following of over 19.8 million in social media on Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook—by comparison, Rolling Stone had only 804.5 K followers on the same sites according to published figures from the respective companies.
Through extreme stamina, perseverance and sheer grit, Metcalfe helped to lead the startup to a successful financial exit for both the print and digital businesses. In 1998, Condé Nast, a unit of Advance Magazine Publishers Inc., a division of the Newhouse newspaper publishing chain, purchased the print publication. A year later Lycos acquired Wired Digital, the parent company of Wired News. She then took a break from the media business and focused on raising her son Orson, and daughter Zoe who was born while finalizing the sale of the internet business. Later Metcalfe became President of TCHO, a chocolate maker.
Metcalfe made history with Wired. Odds on favorite, she will do it again with NEO.LIFE, a self-funded new media publication started up in 2017 that covers the future of humanity with the latest on neuroscience, genetics, the microbiome, biohackers, synthetic biology, human longevity and more. Metcalfe has garnered leading journalists and thinkers to cover the frontlines of the neobiological revolution—including the future of food, fertility, sex, and even death.
“Technology is pushing the boundaries of biology forward and we are going to use this in extraordinary ways to literally transform our species,” Metcalfe shared. “So, I’ve declared a neobiological revolution, and this is the next stage of the digital revolution because it’s always about revolution with me.”
Jane is a big believer in print, and her new book, "Neo.Life: 25 Visions for the Future of Our Species," is debuting with a Kickstarter launching in January 2020. “I used to joke that the firehose of information is hard to dip your lips into—it’s going to rip your lips off,” said Metcalfe. “You want to savor these ideas. Certain ideas are too important to just go flying by your inbox. The researchers that we talk to and the work that they are doing is foundational to the future of our species.”
Metcalfe posits that humanity is at a point of inflection where the science has advanced, and technology has pushed us towards what science fiction has painted. Mankind has the technology that could alter our evolution in a very short timeframe. Metcalfe connects the dots and effortlessly synthesizes seemingly disparate fields of neuroscience, business, space, synthetic biology, intelligence, culture, genetics, food, CRISPR, the microbiome, biohacking, longevity, medicine and technology with both scientific fluency and conversational ease.
“My big hope is that we can get people past the fear of science and technology, beyond their fears of words like synthetic biology or genetically-modified, and just live on a continuum,” said Metcalfe. “I think the things that make us uniquely human are still our superpower. I think these tools can make us better humans, not replace us.”
As a visionary entrepreneur, she thrives on creating leading-edge companies at the forefront of change. She identifies company culture as a key success factor for startups. “Culture, culture, and culture—you cannot spend enough time thinking about it,” she emphatically stated. “How you build culture is by identifying things that make you and your company unique and special. It’s the things that happen when you’re together in a group over an extended period of time on a mission—that’s how culture evolves.”
Metcalfe’s leadership style empowers individual thinking, creativity, and autonomy. “I try to hire a diverse group of people and I think that’s our strength," said Metcalfe. "People are very different and that’s going to compound into something much more dimensional than if everyone is the same.”
She views running a startup to a marathon, not a sprint. “I do think that if you have a sense of purpose, you have to be able to call on a higher mission on a daily basis for inspiration to sustain your effort,” said Metcalfe. Her advice to aspiring entrepreneurs is to start a business that is in alignment with a sense of purpose. “Do something because you love it, not because you think there’s a big market opportunity or because you are going to get rich quick,” said Metcalfe. “Being an entrepreneur is so hard, it’s so emotionally rocky—so many intense highs, so many intense lows.”
It was circa 2007 when Metcalfe received a phone call with the shattering news that would dramatically change her life. Her uncle had brought her mother who was now in her seventies, to see the same doctor who treated John F. Nash Jr., the American mathematician at Princeton University who won both a Nobel Prize and Abel Prize and had paranoid schizophrenia. Nash’s life story was the basis for Sylvia Nasar’s 1998 book, A Beautiful Mind, that also inspired the 2001 Academy Award-winning movie with the same title.
“I have good news and bad news,” Metcalfe recalled her uncle saying. The bad news was delivered first. Her mother was wrongly diagnosed in the early 1960’s—as it turns out, she did not have schizophrenia. Instead, her mother was bipolar schizoaffective, a mental health disorder that may cause mood swings, major depression, mania, and as well as feelings of detachment from reality.
“You don’t know what to do with that information,” said Metcalfe. “My mother lost decades of her life. She lost all of her friends. She lost her husband. She lost her daughters. She lost everything that she could have done with her life—because of a wrong diagnosis.”
The good news was that her condition was treatable. Her mother was given new medication to treat bipolar schizoaffective, which was transformative—she became bright, alert, and engaged. Her mother started taking better care of herself, including getting her teeth replaced—they had all turned black from shock treatment. Remarkably, her mother’s memory was intact.
“Suddenly she could speak clearly,” said Metcalfe. “It was extraordinary. My mother, at that point, became Benjamin Button. She began aging in reverse. Every year she would get better.”
“I have my mom back,” said Metcalfe. “And it’s been the most extraordinary thing. My mother has zero regrets, zero bitterness, zero animosity—I’ve never seen her lose her temper. I’ve never seen her lose her patience. She has the most generous spirit of anyone I have ever met…. I have much to learn from her.”
Fortunately, Metcalfe’s mother did get to know her grandchildren during this period of cognitive clarity, something she could not do with her own daughters due to being institutionalized due to the misdiagnosis decades prior.
“I was looking at my daughter, who was three years old, as this was all happening,” said Metcalfe. “And all of a sudden, I had this reversal. I was the three-year-old looking up at my mother. I had erased a lot of memories. I don’t have a lot of early childhood memories. And suddenly they came flooding back.”
Copyright © 2019 Cami Rosso All rights reserved.