Immortal Techniques

23andMe makes the human body immortal at last

Spitting into plastic tubes is now chic. At-home genetic tests, which require participants to collect their own saliva samples, are popular among the future-focused trendsetters of Silicon Valley, where the concept was born. These spit capsules are shipped off to laboratories for genetic testing, and, at some later date, a report is delivered to the subject. Among the best-known purveyors of these tests is a company called 23andMe, a nod to the 23 chromosomes contained in human cells. Advertisements and branding materials include slogans like “Journey Through Your DNA” and “genetics just got personal.” And so it has: 23andMe’s promotional materials tout emotionally charged revelations made possible by their products.

For $99, 23andMe customers can purchase an “Ancestry” report, with results that identify where their DNA comes from. This is presented as an infographic giving a percentage-by-percentage breakdown of the customer’s genes from 22 distinct global populations, data that can be used to loosely determine their ethnic roots. For an extra $100, a “Health” report screens for genetic health risks (including diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s) as well as general wellness information such as food sensitivities (like lactose intolerance), physical traits (like male-pattern baldness), and something called “Genetic Weight.” 23andMe’s products cost more than my average medical co-pay, but are billed as a reasonable expense for the genetically curious.

The social and financial success of 23andMe exemplifies big data’s turn toward the datafication of the body. Our physical matter is being transformed into digital code at a growing rate—both through a consumer decision (through opt-in services like 23andMe) and through capture (as in bodily information gathered through wearables and other biometric tools). Regardless of whether consent is given, datafied individuals garner only a fraction as much value from their own data as those who work with it professionally. The greatest benefits of big data go to those with the greatest access to manipulating it.

Though the do-it-from-home genetic test is a new idea, it exists within an established tradition of bodily commodification for research purposes. This is an economy that predates the digital. In the United States, medical practice has a long and profoundly racist history. “The same black bodies building America’s economy also served as expendable test bodies for new surgical procedures or vaccination,” writes Derek Ayeh in this magazine. Slavery was the vehicle that permitted physicians to “purchase, use, and dispose of human property without concerns about consent.” This exploitation was not just a sinister element of biological study but essential to its existence. Black people continue to be exploited by medical authorities long after abolition, from plantations to prisons and poor communities.

Digital means to financialize the body come with moral questions. The business mandate that fuels the data economy is forthrightly exploitative, and big data significantly intensifies the logic of the capitalist program: the production of ever more profit. The value of human body parts, already quite profitable, is hyperextended once they exist as digital data. This transmutation further intensifies capital’s ability to harvest value from biology and to an extent that would have been inconceivable before the digital turn. Since capitalism values life first and foremost for its capacity to bear profit, infinitely extending the productivity of body parts can be thought to confer a sort of immortality.

Immortality is a recurring theme in popular culture, especially science fiction. But perhaps the most notable recent example comes from a nonfiction work: Rebecca Skloot’s 2011 book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Immortal Life introduces readers to the HeLa tissue, a cell line gathered from the titular figure after she died from cancer in 1951. Cells from Lacks’s cervical tumor were cultured by biologist George Otto Gey at Johns Hopkins University. Beginning in the early 1950s, they played a central role in several biomedical studies. The tissue line was first noted by Gey for its hardiness: It held up well across various substrates and research conditions. He shared this finding with other medical biologists, ultimately spurring some of the most significant advances in modern medicine. One of the earliest applications of HeLa tissue led to the development of the polio vaccine by Dr. Joseph Salk. It also catalyzed important research on sex steroids, various type of cancer, human papillomavirus, and the effect of antioxidants and flavonoids on tissue, among other areas of biological expertise.

Until 2013, the Lacks family had no say over who and what purposes would determine the type of work conducted on HeLa cells. In fact, it wasn’t until the 1970s that they were even aware of their existence: George Otto Gey extracted and shared them without first consulting with the Lacks family. The Lacks family only discovered this when they were contacted by other researchers regarding an issue with cell contamination, which occurred after Gey’s death. HeLa tissue is used to this day, but researchers wishing to work with it must first apply to the National Institute of Health, which works in conjunction with the descendants of Henrietta Lacks to grant permission to researchers on an individual basis. Thus, HeLa tissue research exists not only as a benchmark in modern medicine but as a case study in bioethics. Gey’s racism—shared by the medical field at large—gave him the authority to extract and use tissue from a poor Black woman’s body without consent. Today, the potentially infinite financial value of the HeLa tissue can benefit her family. But this has only been true for 4 of the 66 years of its life.

The transmutation of biology into data happened quite rapidly. The molecular structure of DNA was first modeled by biologists James Watson and Francis Crick in 1953 at Cambridge University. Fifty years later, the Human Genome Project was declared complete, though at the time they had only identified about 92 percent of the nucleotide base pairs that compose human DNA. In 2017, 23andMe presents Angelina, a woman who “redefined her identity and sense of self” after her experience with their services. “It’s a human thing to want to know more about yourself,” she explains in a promotional video. Angelina’s will to self-knowledge smacks of the Ancient Greek imperative whose importance has been affirmed by great thinkers throughout history from Socrates to Drake: know thyself. “You can’t get any more knowing about yourself than processing your DNA,” Angelina adds. The success of 23andMe shows many feel the same way.

Biomedical advances challenge not only the way we know ourselves as individuals but our relationship to life and death. In vitro fertilization, not commonplace until the late 1980s, realized the possibility of conception without sexual intercourse. And due to more widespread access to modern medical care, among developed nations, current projections identify the life expectancy of citizens born in this century as extending into the 80s and 90s. Pushing even further is the field of cryogenics, which has the goal of postponing death to the point of rendering it obsolete. But not everybody shares the belief that immortality is an intrinsic good, or even a moral pursuit. The means by which technology may render humans immortal stem from an economic vision that benefits the few, not the many.

In his 2006 book The Global Genome, writer and philosopher Eugene Thacker assesses the long-term goal of biotechnology as nothing other than the singularity: the moment in which technological and organic intelligence become inexorably fused. According to Thacker, the holy grail of biotech as an industry is the literal unification of biological life and digital data:

The aim of biological exchange—and by extension the aim of the current intersection between biology and computers in genetics and biotechnology—is to define biology as information while at the same time asserting the materiality of biology.

For the biotechnology industry, the imperative to define biology as information is an economic concern: Life transformed into data is life permanently mobilized for capital. Computation profoundly extends the life and logic of the body-part market by removing corporeal finitude from the equation. If the DNA that is modeled in a software program is not meaningfully different from DNA in our bodies, the raw material of life itself becomes infinitely reproducible—and therefore infinitely productive.

Any living entity is subject to high-fidelity replication in the fields of genomics and bioinformatics. This is equally true for molecules, organs and cells. In the vision of artificial-intelligence enthusiasts, human consciousness is also to be included. Whatever form they take, to assert the simultaneous materiality and immateriality of living organisms via datafication is to remake them in the image of the perfect capitalist subject: the body infinitely employed.