Charles Seife’s piece over at sciamblogs the other day gave me one of those forehead-slapping, “if-it-was-a-double-helix-it-would-have-bit-me” moments. For 23andMe, the “test” or genome profile is small potatoes. The real product of 23andMe isn’t the saliva test.
It’s the database, stupid.
Think about gmail or Facebook. When you sign up for a “free” account you agree to allow them to send you targeted promotions, in the form of ads that appear in the margins. It’s hilarious how bad their algorithms are. When I rant about some bonehead right-wing politician, I start getting suggestions to follow Mitt Romney. When my wife posted wedding pictures, she got ads for wedding registries. My google profile is amazingly bad–mixed in with a few genuine interests, it lists dozens of things I have no interest in whatsoever (fishing, dolls and accessories, apartments and residential rentals) as well as things so general they say nothing meaningful about me (consumer resources, search engines). I’ve often found that reassuring. Though I know the software is bound to get better, it’s comforting at least for the moment to know that they don’t actually know me that well. I’m not naive enough to think that will last forever.
What 23andMe is really about, says Seife, is doing that same kind of profiling with your genome. Historians and anthropologists of science have long been interested in “biologization” and “medicalization.” Ugly words, useful concepts. Biomedicine tends to shift our gaze from labor to biology (and especially health). Is violence a crime or a disease? Do you identify more strongly as a carpenter, soldier, or professor, vs. as celiac, PTSD, or a breast-cancer survivor? Conceiving some corner of our world in biological terms can have profound implications. If violence is a crime, we treat it with fines, incarceration, or death. If it is an organic disease, we treat it with drugs and counseling. Conceivably, we may someday treat it with gene therapy. As Foucault pointed out, both criminalization and medicalization involve behavior modification–just in different formats. Medicalization can be more humane, but it can also strip away one’s autonomy and subtly and dangerously shift power relationships.
Every time someone sends in their little vial of spit to 23andMe, the company adds to a large-and-growing database of genomic data linked to a broad range of personal tastes and behaviors. Like Google and Facebook, they make you agree to let them send you ads based on the data they collect, which is augmented by their social-media site. It is a genomic version of Google. Welcome to the all-volunteer biological surveillance state.
Seife points out that Anne Wojcicki was married to Google co-founder Sergei Brin, that Google is a heavy investor in 23andMe, and that the price of the saliva test has been dropping steadily and is now below $100.
My cynical view is that the company has an easy end-around available for the FDA letter demanding that they halt marketing their test: give it away. It’s not marketing if they’re not selling, right? Investopedia defines marketing as “The activities of a company associated with buying and selling a product or service.” It does go on to list advertising as one key aspect of marketing, but I wonder whether they could successfully argue that promoting a free product isn’t marketing per se.
Legal definitions aside, if Seife is right, my guess is that before long genome profiling will be like web browsers and email: something almost everyone does, and that except for a few willing to pay for a premium private service, something that provides so many benefits that we tolerate its ads as a necessary trade-off of modern life.
Is this any more insidious than gmail? If we say yes, we risk running headlong into the genetic determinism this blog rails against. We have to be careful about privileging biological information over social information. If Facebook’s suggestions are laughable, they’d likely seem prescient in comparison with what they’d predict based on my genomic profile. The “genes for” most things explain tiny amounts of variance and tend to have low penetrance. Other than a few strongly Mendelian diseases, a genome profile currently says very little about you, simply because it’s based on small probabilities of uncertain precision.
But like the algorithms analyzing your social profile, those combing your genomic profile will improve, and probably at a rate faster than any of us expect. Most importantly, your genomic profile will merge with your social profile, which will greatly enhance the accuracy of both. Your social profile will become biologized–rooted in and interwoven with your DNA.
The gradual way in which 23andMe is heading toward an open-source business model may simply reflect the high cost of getting the biotech version of Google Plus off the ground. As profits increase, they can afford to drop the price. When it hits zero–when they start giving away the test–rest assured that ad revenues will then be enough to keep the shareholders happy.