Commercial Genome Reading: follow-up

Thanks so much to everyone who has written in! There is a lot of food for thought in your postings, far too much to be digested in a short conclusion. I shall try to absorb them in the future rather than give half-baked comments now.

One tiny correction: several readers picked up on the “middle-class” in my opening question. Gary Comstock invited us to imagine that “personalized genomic info remains expensive for many decades and is only available to the upper and middle classes.”  Hence cost would exacerbate the gap between rich and poor. I cannot imagine what he imagines, for I accept the prediction of Yang Huanming of the Beijing Genomics Institute, that the $1000 genome will soon be upon us. $1000 is real money, but not so much. It will be knowledge skills, not cost, that will entrench a class divide. Only a few will be able to read and understand their genome – which Kathleen reminds us, has become a “digital media object.” As Joan puts it, the cheap successors of Knome are already in the business of digitizing the self, which becomes a hyper-linked entity. Hence “Know thyself” now demands, she says, another imperative, “Know (and understand) the Technology”.

That, rather than mere cost, will increasingly become the class divide. Most people cannot obey that second imperative, and so will be unable to obey the first. Norton Wise, who emphasized “middle class” and “commercial” of my opening question, says the anxious middle classes are being sold “pretty thin stuff.” Yes, but: it will increasingly be very thick stuff which the decoded consumer will be unable to decode. The penalty for not knowing the technology is ignorance with a thin veneer of babble. We are one step up on the age of phrenology: there really is more to know about the genome than there is to know about bumps on the head. But most of us won’t know it, while for the rules about privacy, the genocrats can and will.

You may well say, what’s so new about all this? More is more dangerous, perhaps, for it enhances the power of a technological elite in the service of commerce or the state. But it may only be an extension of a biosocial-scientific process that began two centuries ago. That leads me to an interesting answer to my concluding question. I asked in effect: “How will genomic technologies affect conceptions of self and personal identity for people in soon-to-be-born?”

The right answer is, “We have no idea.” As Paul Rabinow said at the start, we are only just entering the age of the genome and much else, and we have little idea of what will be known only ten years from now. Likewise we cannot predict which new social instruments will transform our lives in the next decade. Remember that Google is only nine years old! I was already convinced more and more new biosocial groups are on the way. It never occurred to me that they might have registered trade marks, as do Katie Kennedy’s previvor® groups. That is a reminder of how poorly even the savvy biosocial philosopher fares as soothsayer. We have no idea what’s coming next. “MT” hopes the effect will be liberating; stereotypes will fade in the realization of the human mosaic. Tom Waidzunas has another metaphor for the same hope. Maybe: Tom is well aware of the dangers. And aside from new biosocial groups, “Gislipolsson” rightly points to new biosocial relations of production. Of course one of the things done by 23andMe and similar companies is to get a vast amount of free labor; every sample sent in by a customer provides information that is otherwise costly to collect.

There is still ground for an optimism about personal identity quite different from the specious techno-optimism of genomic corporations. The right, boring, answer to my italicized question is that we do not know what will happen. “Ralaniz” has an additional, interesting, one. “Instead of offering a novel concept of self, genome sequencing offers ‘updated’ arrangements of old identity categories. … people have identified themselves through scientific and biological categories long before the ‘discovery’ of genetics.” Maybe the effect will not be so different from Marta Halina recovering her Polish relatives in the flesh – and in a social group, the family.

Several readers emphasized that the body, however understood, is not our identity, but is as Marc Kirsch put it, that from which we build our identities. In Teague Tubach’s thought experiment, the amnesic will never be restored to his old self simply by dealing him his genome. As Jacob Stegenga observes that we will always go on looking for more stuff that is us, no matter how much we find out about our bodies and their genetic codes. This is reassuringly old hat. We are even reminded of John Locke, who taught that bodily identity furnishes the criterion for being the same man, while it is memory that makes the same person.  “Ralaniz” puts things a little differently. His dualism has internal and external sources of the self. Internal are body and mind, his “cells and psyche.” External are socially acknowledged categories and labels. “However,” he writes, “the two versions of self do not constitute an identity. Instead, identity is formed from the navigation between the external self and the internal self.” I would characterize the internal and the external rather differently, but that is of no moment. The key idea is navigation. That leads to what Michael Hardimon calls the ethical and aesthetic assessment of the way that one navigates through a plethora of potential identities in order to arrive at one’s own. We may come asunder on the shoals of really bad identities, but there is nothing new in  that, as his Aryan reminds us.

Michael asks what I think of authenticity as a criterion of a worthy identity. His touchstone for authenticity is Heidegger. Mine is more the old Kant, or perhaps Diderot as understood by Bernard Williams in his book Truth and Truthfulness. It invites the paradox of being true to a self that is still work in progress. “Ralaniz” calls himself a liberal anti-reactionary as opposed to my conservative reactionary self-identification. He is possibly too neo-liberal (which in one lingo, means conservative) for my tastes, but I see him as a fellow conservative (to use my own lingo) because he suggests that we have a long history of navigational practices to stand as guides. The sea has always been choppy, but we can  more or less right ourselves. I give to “Ralaniz” the last words: “Genomic identities are just one chapter in a historical and deeply-rooted human phenomenon.”

– Ian Hacking

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