diane ludin on Sat, 19 May 2001 19:25:43 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Diversity.com/Population.gov - Eugene Thacker


    by Eugene Thacker [maldoror@eden.rutgers.edu]

    A Tsunami of Data
    When, in the early 1990s, the U.S. government-funded Human Genome
Diversity Project (HGDP) drafted plans for a genetic database of some 4,000
to 8,000 distinct ethnic populations, it was met with a great deal of
controversy and criticism. The stakes were raised even more when it was
discovered that the HGDP had proposals for the patenting of the cell lines
from several members of indigenous populations, all without those members
or communities informed consent. Due to the interventions by such groups as
the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), the HGDP was forced
to drop three of its patents. In 1996 it provided a testimony to the U.S.
National Research Council and has since drafted a document of "Model
Ethical Protocols" for research, which emphasizes informed consent and
cultural-ethical negotiation.  
    Since that time, however, the HGDP has been conspicuously silent (it is
now based at Stanford University, as the Morris Institute for Population
Studies), and, despite the flurry of news items and press releases relating
to the various genome mapping endeavors around the world --both government
and corporate sponsored--there has been relatively no news or updates on
the progress of the HGDP's original plans.
    Much of this curious disappearing act has to do, certainly, with the
bioethical conundrums in which the HGDP has been involved, as well as with
the combination of vocal critics such as RAFI, and the HGDP's having been
marked by the media and dubbed by its critics as "the vampire project."
However, while the HGDP as an organization may have slipped from science
headlines, the issues and problems associated with it have not. Another,
parallel development within biotech and genetics has emerged, which has
more or less taken up the "diversity problem" which the HGDP had dealt with
in the 1990s: bioinformatics.  Bioinformatics involves the use of computer
and networking technologies in the organization of updated, networked, and
interactive genomic databases being used by research institutions, the
biotech industry, medical genetics, and the pharmaceutical industry.
Bioinformatics signals an important development in the increasing
computerization of "wet" biotech research, creating an abstract level where
bioinformatics can form relationships between bioscientific approaches to
diversity and the fluctuations of the biotech economy. A driving economic
force is finance capital, bolstered from within by a wide range of "future
promises" from biotech research (software-based gene discovery, data
mining, genetic drugs, and so on). The emphasis we are witnessing now in
"digital capitalism," to use Dan Schiller's term, is an intersection of
economic systems with information technology. As Michael Dawson and John
Bellamy Foster show, this trend leads to an emphasis on a "total marketing
strategy" that is highly diversified: consumer profiling, individualized
marketing, "narrowcasting," "push-media" and so on. Such trends are
transforming biotech research as well.
    More often than not, the future of a research field within biotech can
flourish or perish depending on the tides of stock values. In turn, those
stock values are directly tied to the proclaimed successes or failures of
clinical trials or research results. Most of the stock value of the biotech
industry is an example of what Catherine Waldby calls "biovalue": either
being able to produce valuable research results that can be transformed
into products (such as genetic-based drugs or therapies), or the ability to
take research and mobilize it within a product development pipeline (mostly
within the domain of the pharmaceutical industry).
    These trends are worth pointing out, because they draw our attention to
the ways in which race, economics, and genomics are mediated by information
technologies. Genomics--the technologically-assisted study of the total
DNA, or genome, of organisms--currently commands a significant part of the
biotech industry's attention. In economic as well as scientific terms,
genomics has, for some years, promised to become the foundation upon which
the possibility of a future medical genetics and pharmacogenomics would be
based. As a way of providing a backdrop for Diane Ludin's project,
"Harvesting the Net," what I would like to do here is to outline some of
the linkages between biotech as an increasingly corporate-managed field,
and the emphasis within genomics programs on diversification. Such research
programs, which highlight types of "genetic difference," demonstrate the
extent to which culture and biology are often con-fused, as well as the
extent to which both ethnicity and race are compelled to accommodate the
structures of informatics.


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