On Identity

Who are you? Who-who, who-who?

This question, by the eponymous band, has been on my mind ever since I heard about the recent study where electronic clues allowed genetic identities to be deciphered (http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2013/01/your-genome-could-reveal-your-identity/). Since the sequences of Y chromosomes turn out to be correlated with male surnames, this provides enough of a boost, when combined with other data, to pinpoint at least some genetic identities. Women are of course far more tricky, sometimes hiding their X chromosomes in tractable males for a generation, then taking them back. One presumes that there will now be a shift in gender representation amongst CIA field officers.

Anyway, this also raised the whole question of what our identities are, genetic or otherwise. I know this is not exactly a new question (although it may lead to a new college major for parents to question: genetic philosophy). And it is probably a question I can better appreciate after a conversation with my friend Suzanne Barber, who started the Center for Identity here at the University of Texas at Austin. This is a really nifty place that I always think of as challenging that classic Internet cartoon / meme: “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” Good grief, this thing has its own Wikipedia page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/On_the_Internet,_nobody_knows_you%27re_a_dog. I always thought Suzanne missed an opportunity by not having that as her logo. Oh well. Anyway, the Center for Identity is very cool, in that they do take on the knotty question of whether and how to trust electronic identity. As we have developed electronic doppelgangers of our real selves, the question of how those doppelgangers can be used and misused has become increasingly important.

But now our electronic worlds begin to collide even more fiercely with our biological ones. Now someone can ’steal’ not just your electronic identity, but also your biological identity, ala the ’stolen ladders’ of GATTACA. What happens when from the point of view of the rest of the world you are as closely tied to your DNA sequence as you are to that mole on your chin (yes, I have a mole on my chin)? But yet … you’re not tied to that sequence. Unlike your mole, that sequence is now floating in the aether, available for the taking. Of course, that’s true of the mole as well, given either the wonders of biometrics and / or Photoshop. But still, you get the point. Will we one day arrive at the operating room to find that someone else had our hysterectomy first? Again, this would also be possible via either just a nurse having a particularly bad day, or via hacking someone’s medical records, with or without DNA.

And as I continued to muse on the possibilities, I realized that it didn’t really matter. And that was what mattered. You see, the real lesson from the study that anonymous genetic identities could somehow be coupled to our real ones is that … genetic identity doesn’t matter. And the reason it doesn’t matter is because our real identities … don’t matter much anymore.

This obviously led me to ask the question: what is the difference between a bar tab and a credit card? This is not the start of a particularly bad and politically incorrect joke, although it should be. Rather, it is the question that kept coming back to me as I considered what the role of my genetic identity in … me … was. Let’s consider the question in a little more detail. Irrespective of whether I’m drinking on a tab or charging something that I can’t afford I’m incurring debt. That debt can be settled, it can be paid by others, it can be forgiven … but it is a debt attached to me. My debt. Except … not really. On the one hand, the debt appends to the person who walked in the door with a mole on their chin and a history of not being able to hold their Guinness. On the other hand the debt appends to … the holder of the debt. As far as the greater electronic world is concerned, the credit card debt defines me, not the other way around. When I go to buy yet another thing I can’t afford, and they look up my credit history, they don’t particularly give a damn if I’ve got a mole on my chin, or not. And such is of course the case for most of my financial existence, which is increasingly an electronic financial existence.

Somewhere along the line, and I know this will come as a surprise to no one except those of us like me who are particularly dense about such things because we didn’t take genetic philosophy as a gut when we could have, because the Russian teacher was way cuter … we lost our identities to the Machine. Cue Pink Floyd as necessary, or whatever modern day equivalent of tiresome teenage angst exists. But now the stakes are higher, our genetic identities are also about to be gobbled up. The problem is not that our genomes could be identified or stolen. The problem is that our genetic identities are now just another piece of us that isn’t us anymore, it’s a classifier for the person-formerly-known-by-the-mole-on-their-chin. Increasingly, we are classified, not identified. As consumers, as taxpayers, and now as meatpuppet healthcare objects we are the sum of our enumerated parts.

I should probably Go Galt, and get my tricornered hat, and rant on streetcorners about how they’re coming to take my guns, like the rest of my Texas counterparts. I’ve actually always thought there was something to that meme. Not the rock-craziness of it, but its motivation. Why were these people so upset? Well, you Eastern effetes got it right: we identify strongly with our guns and our trucks and our gunracks in our trucks. We are those things. Those are at least like my mole; they’re real. So ha-ha: you may laugh at our identities … but at least we have a residual identity. What do you have?

Yes, the Teapartier is the last, futile cry of a dying breed of American. And, to a first approximation, good riddance. Because the electronic identities we created threw our economy into hyperdrive, and the genetic identities that are coming may be the deliverance of healthcare. When the actuarial tables more finely sift through my propensity for cancer, and equalize that risk across the larger population, my hope is that I get better, not worse, healthcare. When clinical trials are virtualized and new drugs arise that are more closely matched to my allelic makeup, then hopefully I’ll live a longer and fuller life (with my gun and my truck and my gunrack in my truck). The Machine only takes our identities if we let it. The biggest threat to our existence is not the fact that we can sequence genomes at the drop of a hat. It is, and will remain: Citizens United (and its bastard offspring, Western Tradition Partnership). Or, if you happen to live in another country (and why would you want to do that?): offshoring.


- originally posted on Saturday, February 2nd, 2013