In Essays, Innovation

Earlier this week, scientists called for a ‘global moratorium’ on creating genetically modified babies.

This, of course, is in contrast to the traditional way of mixing genes together, which I assume they still heartily endorse.

The problem is that the same technology developed to prevent congenital diseases could be used to create kids with made-to-order attributes, otherwise called “designer babies.” Recently, A lone Chinese researcher ignored a voluntary consensus that experiments on real world-be babies would be unethical, so 18 leading scientists in 7 countries called for a formalized pause, including two of the experts who created the tech.

They proposed that individual governments should declare that they won’t allow use of human gene editing in embryos for five years, after which a two year consideration period would be used for what they call “robust international discussion about the pros and cons of doing so.”

In other words, we’re doomed.

This happens with pretty much every technological innovation. Technical, scientific, medical, social, ethical, and moral concerns will always fall prey to opportunities to make money and assert power. History tells us as much: when Einstein and his ilk realized the implications their atomic chain reactions might have for making bombs, they wrote President Roosevelt and urged him to build one first.

A voluntary ban on genetic testing, enforced with, well, good intentions, would only stop the well-intentioned scientists who we’d want doing such experiments, while telling those with less lofty goals that their competitors had voluntarily sidelined themselves. Researchers in Canada would sit on their hands while scientists in North Korea bred the first babies with nuclear-tipped hair on their heads.

Further, the marketplace does as much without any conscious effort, since it’s biased to technology innovations that promise to produce profits. That’s why the Internet has become this massive enabler of businesses based on consumer surveillance and manipulation, and not the place where people swap knowledge and ideas freely, pleasantly, and unobserved. Technology may be agnostic to morality, but the people who create it aren’t…which means that tech innovation isn’t some wide open field of endeavor, but usually a race along a luge track that goes to only one destination surrounded by dollar signs.

But the real issue is that you couldn’t legislate away people’s curiosity if you wanted to, and in the case of gene editing (and most other innovations), you probably don’t.

So is there a better answer than calling for a moratorium, or doing nothing at all? I think so…and just maybe the scientists hit on it when they said that stuff about “a robust international discussion.”

What if innovators were compelled to tell people the truth? I mean real transparency and disclosure, not just what they chose to share after parsing the language of regulation that their financial backers probably helped write; what if instead of being a compliance issue, the mandate was to convince the public that inventing so-and-so was a good idea…or identifying what they needed to see, know, or monitor in order to feel safe.

What if gene editing was put to a referendum?

I know, it’s nuts, and there’s no way anybody could pull it off. Worse, the lay public might reach the wrong conclusions because they don’t know enough to make informed decisions.

But…wait a minute…they don’t know enough…isn’t that the problem with any technology innovation that promises to changes the way we work and live? Nobody bothers to tell us about the unintended as well as intended consequences of use might be. We’re spoken to as customers, or more like blind, obedient followers. We’re told things are the way they are because, well, that’s the way they are, and if you don’t like it, you can always chose to opt-out of modern everyday life.

Yeah, that’s a real choice, let alone a fair one.

I’m reminded of the grief that some in the US Congress get every time they hold hearings in hopes of understanding and fairly regulating Facebook or Google, and they dare to ask uninformed questions, even get product names wrong. Oh, those stupid Luddites! Technology is beyond them! Hands off, so we can continue to mint money!

Instead of regulations, why not fund some public interest entity that’s tasked with translating the latest innovations, and promoting understanding among We of the Great Unwashed? Staff it with expert investigative reporters, equip it with the latest marketing communications experts who can make sure the information isn’t just available, but compelling and memorable. Make it accountable to us, the people, and not to government or business? Let us vote, not just consume?

There’s no reason to believe that some “robust international discussion” about genetic engineering would spontaneously emerge post-moratorium (Louis Pasteur obliterated that innovative scientific idea in 1859). Maybe we need to add an independent third-party to the experiment instead?

[This essay originally appeared as a podcast at The Brand Populist]
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