Empire State of Mind (and Body)

Genetics is one of the most immediate ways that we are attempting to push the human lifespan into multiple centuries. Research right now is trying to catalogue what details our genetic codes can tell us about how we are likely to turn out, and more importantly, what is most likely going to make us sick. Maybe even when.

We are trying to find out what bit of us changes each time you pluck at or swap a particular part of the code. Which part of us twitches when your doctor knocks a certain segment with a knee-jerk hammer. And we are trying to know what specific spare parts we would need to grow (not necessarily on the back of a mouse) to keep you twitching for another 100 years.

Like all the big changes, there is not some sparking switch someone is going to pull on a stormy evening and then we all wake up in a bio-tech episode of Star Trek. These developments are already bleeding into the way our lives are run and maybe have been for a while. We already have augmented bodies and environments. Life cycles are already controlled. Vaccinated, glasses-wearing populations try to postpone each and every individual’s demise through nutritional traffic lights telling them that salt or smoking is bad for them. Sterile, clinical treatments are identified for each specific complaint until they are out of options and get placed in an equally sterile room to die with as few onlookers as possible. Compare it to the internet. It was available for years, but took time to develop into world dominating ubiquity, but even now access and knowledge is massively unequal across the globe.

The world is already a very corporate one. The money and power to make further health developments is in the hands of institutions that may simply have to work with money and power as a large motivation to survive. Rich organisations would carry on making the big discoveries and create the techniques to spot, adapt and transfer human genetic material in a way that prevents or eradicates disease or decay. If these organisations are to ever move on from testing techniques on sheep, mice or peas they will find it easier and more productive to carry out trials on people in poorer nations. These economically poorer nations do not have the same strict ethical regulations controlling practice. Some have leaders that are unfortunately more able to exploit their populations, so could use them literally as an organic resource for money. Also, there is the argument that free speech and open political discussion is at least slightly more common in nations that have been economically developed for longer. This means general debates or support for movements that would oppose the clinical manipulation of bodies, those who are religious or naturalist, would have more clout and make the outsourcing of testing and production a much better business move.

This is just the influences on institutions that might be worried about equality and ethics. If a big player is not so inclined then they can get through testing and development much more ruthlessly by just forcing the less powerful members of their society to be used. To back up why this is relevant, I have to bring up the elephant in the room when it comes to manipulating genes to improve a generation. The biggest, most influential declarations of ethical principles that affect almost all research that includes humans anywhere across the likes of North America, Europe or Australia are largely a direct response to Nazi experiments and mid-century Eugenics. Fear over any relationship to these cases has led to them being the basis of decision making in committees that decide whether a researcher can involve one single human participant at all, even if the research was just to ask them what songs they like or what car they are likely to buy.

The sensitivity over this issue is still clear in the ‘designer baby’ discussions that followed Chinese researchers attempting to genetically modify embryos. But it also shows the effective regulatory powers needed by the international organisations that try to create genuine consensus over the ethical decisions we make about genetic modification. Otherwise you will have a split between organisations that avoid the industry completely and those that work entirely outside of accepted practice.

But further than this, the power of multi-national corporations is overshadowing nation-states. If a corporation decides not to abide by voluntary ethical regulation then it can be one of the organisations that ruthlessly develops the elixirs of genetic life freely, and for intense, competitive profit. Imagine if GSK, or McDonald’s, had the patent over biological material grown in a lab, perhaps for replacing diseased organs. These massive companies would also be among the only groups able to fund, fuel and air-condition the isolated, protected and super-sterile, medically supported communities that longer-life would depend on. Rather than tax and insurance, you would be in debt from birth to the corporation you are a member of for sustaining your enhanced life. Once these start competing and developing further then you would have no choice but live under the thumb of one of these competing organisations. Or else give up any societal interaction at all and live in a cave.

Even if it didn’t go to this extreme, imagine the cost of health and/or life insurance when every company can tell almost instantly if you have any higher chance of getting any disease than a ‘typical’ person. Then imagine the groups of people that could still afford it, so would be less affected economically by a working member of their family dying. Soon it distances massive numbers from genuine healthcare then bankrupts and demonises anyone that is in anyway ‘un-conventional’. A more cynical worry is that anything not seen as ‘normal’ can be associated with a particular group and used politically to intentionally demonise them and create moral panic. The ability for us to act out against ‘others’ is already easy enough without men in white lab coats labelling people as genetically deformed and dangerous.

The problems with just damning neo-liberal, globalised capitalism are the same problems imagined in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Strict regulation would take choice and emotion away from any individual and put control into fallible, distant decision makers. This also highlights a world of purposely designed, bespoke people cultivated for specific functions. Current genetic modification and selective breeding heavily accentuates one characteristic, like bigger fruit or shinier dogs, in sacrifice of lifespan or bone structure. Once there is a symbolic distance labelled onto the cloned ‘cyborg’ classes then whole populations could be cloned super strong for slavery, superfast for sport or super organ-ey as battery cage organ stocks. At the complete sacrifice of health or intelligence. Most likely, both controlling nation-states and empirical corporate citizenship will exist together, with lots of diverse blends of both existing in between, just like today’s world.

I started by saying these changes are a process, and with Western sensitivity over IVF now starting to relax, it is unavoidable that we are now already in a world of manipulation over the genetic life-cycle. These are incredible steps in human development, but only if power and exploitation can be regulated on a global scale.

Guest post by Arnie King – Completing Sociology Msc at University of Bristol

Inequality and Threat

Those that can afford cleaner housing and nutritional diets already live longer than those who can’t. Those who can afford vaccinations live longer than those who live in countries where the already vaccinated would need even more vaccinations to visit. Within a big group that share the same genetic predisposition for lung diseases, it is still the ones that live in densely populated, dirty or damp conditions that are affected by lung conditions more often. General health, cleanliness and medical solutions exist that are not helping everyone equally.

With life lengthening technology there is an undeniable chance of seeing the inequality between rich and poor polarise to extreme. Where the rich will live decades longer and be much healthier throughout their life from riding off the backs (lungs, and kidneys) of the poorer populations. Populations who are used like body farms to cultivate the healthy organs, and the controlled genetic diversity that is needed to sustain long-life. To enhance the systems of genetic modification, lower the risk of viral spread and generally enforce life-preserving environments then physical segregation could make this polarisation even more caricatured. There may have to be super-sterilised, biologically controlled communities that house the people who can afford the enhanced life. It may actually even be domes that gate them off from the filthy, bacteria-ridden masses. Inside the domes it is Logan’s run and outside it is Mad Max. This stretching of the divide between rich and poor will intensify the dangers we face from what is already immediate, global threats.

The first major threat is geo-political, simply how to sustain or manage massive populations of outside-the-domers. Displacement could be caused by the sterile hubs being built in areas where the masses already live. One scenario is a need to use existing infrastructure, this would mean literally pushing millions of people out of current metropolitan areas to make space for the domes. Another scenario is a need to build on areas where the conditions are warm more constantly. This would push people out of areas that are more rural but are also already more affected by poverty, causing a humanitarian crisis level of migration because of a lack of support or any place to go. Also, the increasing effect of climate change (potentially nudged by the emissions of monumental, meticulously mechanically controlled cities) is going to make the current migration of poor populations away from spreading desert even worse. Outside, food and water systems would fail when the controlling groups close themselves off to their own, secured microcosms. What is the long term effect on health from drought, hunger and mass produced, synthetic ‘beef-inspired meat product’?

Next, nuclear war! When ageing and illness is no longer going to kill people, violence becomes one of the only things that can threaten your immortality. Will this make people more friendly and trusting, or even more ready to destroy the only other people with weapons of mass destruction? Bearing in mind, the people with their fingers on the buttons are literally domed off from each other waiting to hear a siren that says they have had their eternal life stolen from the other one.

Another potential threat is Super-Plague. It won’t necessarily be like the plague but it needed a scary name. In response to current hospital sanitation, infectious diseases responded by developing into super bugs. Antibiotic resistance is now putting us in danger of medieval sicknesses returning. What will be the response to doming people off and genetically building them from vacuum-pack, sterilized organs? Even if there isn’t a massive video nasty epidemic, the relative squalor of the people outside the dome will become so dangerous to the rich that they will want to stay as far away as possible. The image each group has of the other will become maliciously negative. A few filthy rich spoilt to the point of immortality, and many just filthy.

And this brings up the final threat, global class conflict. Another massive economic collapse and the divide between those going in the domes and those outside will be set in stone. Will inequality speed up when everyone organising and owning our institutions are hermetically sealed off for biological longevity? Will those outside be happy with this? Will a mass population become sick enough of their situation to see they are literally cordoned off from the good life? Revolution and war has followed sharp rises in inequality in the past.

Britain’s welfare system and NHS is thought of by some as (intentionally or not) key to preventing mass protest among the poor following the widespread deprivation of the recently industrialised societies and wartime need. These socialist stop-gap pacifiers are fading. Private health care is taking the place of the NHS. Maybe it is true that global ‘peace’ is reaching a significantly longer amount more time than any other time in history, there is certainly discontent around the globe about inequality. It is easy to see global threats as more of a worry, especially if the gap between rich and poor is going to stretch even closer to being literally the gap between life and death.

… Although, some say over-population is the biggest threat right now because it causes all the other threats. But maybe living longer (for some, whilst leaving billions out in the dirt) will solve this. If disease doesn’t wipe out a generation then maybe the men, women and children outside will fight among themselves, maybe even over the thankless jobs of maintaining the domes. The majority would die out and then small groups would support the domes and everyone would be living off very little resources for a long while. History has shown time and time again that those without well-rounded and challenging school systems or diverse cultural opportunities can fail to see what the groups in the domes are keeping from them, and so they continue to fight among themselves.

Guest post by Arnie King – Completing Sociology Msc at University of Bristol