Design Your Baby

Gattaca: A Design Fiction

What is design fiction?

To put it simply, design fiction is a narrative or scenario to envision and communicate potential futures for design and technology. Design fictions utilizes a fictional frame, a story, to make an argument to support a potential future. The story contextualizes the potential future in a way that a public audience might easily understand. The typical example is the Minority Report that gave a digestible demonstration of a gestural interface that was cogent and memorable. From this movie, people started to expect the gestural interactions as depicted in the movie. These fictional scenarios help identify potential benefits, implications and even harmful effects of such a technology within the context of the fictional or futuristic world.

The gestural interface from the Minority Report.

In the Minority Report, the gesture-controlled machines are diegetic prototypes. According to Julian Bleecker, diegetic prototypes are cinematic depictions of future technologies that communicate to larger audiences the valitidy, necessity and benevolence of the technology. Science fiction films allow technological consultants to speculate and explore the potentials of the technology within the context of the film. It is like a concept prototype that is demonstrated as a part of a narrative rather than a plain technical demonstration. Diegetic prototypes also allow product designers to make demonstrations of the technology without investing in a fully working prototype which can have substantial costs. It breaths life into the potential technology by demonstrating to an audience how it might be used. It reduces the anxiety of the introduction of a new product and sparks desire in consumers for the future.

A Bit About Gattaca

Gattaca is set in a world where genetics have advanced to the point where scientists have the ability to perfect the mental and physical characteristics of every unborn child. In this world, your DNA determines every aspect of your life: your occupation, who you should marry, and your societal worth.

This movie explores the potential unintended consequences of liberal eugenics. Gattaca was released in 1997, around the time when the Human Genome project was nearing completion. The technology throughout this movie looks at some extreme applications of genetic information and manipulation.

Around this time, preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), a controversial diagnostic technique, was introduced. PGD is a process where clinicians extract cells from a 3-day old embryo and analyze its DNA to scan for potentially debilitating disorders or fatal diseases that are caused by a mutation in a single gene or aneuploidies.

Image from eugin.co.uk

Gattaca takes PDG to an extreme and scans for all known diseases at once. It even scan for characteristics and personality traits like those that may lead to domestic violence. In this world, genetic scanning is routine, both for babies and as an everyday identifier. The natural method of conception is therefore out-of-date. Those who are conceived naturally are discriminated against for their genetic inferiority and known as “In-Valids”.

The genetic screening technology in Gattaca is the diegetic prototype of the science fiction film.

Implications

Currently, PGD is not only used for screening for potential diseases. It allows for parents to predetermine characteristics of a child to suit their preferences. In the United States, it is legal to use PGD to select the sex of your child for non-medical reasons. In a 2006 survey of 186 fertility clinics, 58 of them allowed parents to preferentially choose their child’s sex. This process is currently illegal in Canada and the UK.

But think about what this future technology could mean for potential parents! If I wanted my kid to never face the chicken pox, I could guarantee it. If I wanted a blue-eyed baby, I could have one. If I wanted my child to grow to be at least 6 feet tall, I could make it so. If I wanted my child to look like Brad Pitt, I could choose that. Parents would be given the option to design their children to their exact specifications the same way you might choose your avatar on the Xbox or Wii.

Not only could you choose your child’s most likely physical appearance, you could choose their personalities and skills too! You could choose for your child to be great at math or have musical skills. You could customize your child to be the perfect football player or doctor. You could choose just about everything for your child before he or she is ever born.

Would you?

Most parents would probably say yes, to some extent. Of course I would want to minimize my child’s chances of ovarian cancer, diabetes, obesity, asthma or even hiccups. It is my duty to guarantee the best for my child, right? But what about non-medical characteristics? Is being too short or having red hair (as a disclaimer, I don’t haven anything against either of these) something worth selecting against?

Think about the societal implications beyond what the movie suggests. What if one year, blue eyes and sandy-haired boys were in fashion? What if for the next three years after that, petite red-haired girls with green eyes were in fashion? The entire graduating class of 2087 would look the same! What would happen to the biodiversity of the human species? Evolution tell us that biodiversity is what keeps a species from being wiped off the Earth by potentially harmful changes in our environment. If we gave this power of choice to parents who obviously will not have the future of the human race in mind when choosing the characteristics of their child, would we weaken the genetic advantages of our species by our homogeneous preferences? Even if we could prevent future babies from being vulnerable form all known diseases, the Red Queen Hypothesis states that the microbes and animals that coexist alongside humans will evolve to generate new pathogens and diseases that we cannot genetically account for. Our evolution will not longer be dictated by ‘survival of the fittest’ but by what is the current fad. Giving this choice over the future of the human race to potential parents may cost us the evolutionary arms race.

With the advancements in genetics and the decreasing costs of screening and sequencing, PGD may have the potential to advance to the point showed in Gattaca. It will become less costly in the future to perform these procedures, and they will become more accessible to everyone. While scientists debate over the ethics of tailor-made children, the technology to do so may just be on the horizon.

This is a quote by Tania Simoncelli, Assistant Director for Forensic Sciences within the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, written in 2003.