Thursday, August 02, 2007

Steal our DNA, Steal our Dignity

Word on the street is that the Home Office may extend DNA sample gathering to scrape the biofluff off them very same streets, and probably for just whatever you could be caught doing. Littering? Biomap please. Speeding? Yup. Drunk and disorderly? Bam. Looking a bit suspicious? Snip. Hanging around in a group (that's "waiting with a mate" to you)? Spooned. Note the Guardian article also refers to suspects in such offences, so flump knows how I can be sampled if I'm suspected of littering, or looking weird.

Yeah sure the "Human Genetics Commission" are launching a "public enquiry". But seriously, so what? The usual people will complain about it, the Police will say it's necessary, the report will say there's a fine line to be balanced, and the DNA database will grow ever larger and ever more "useful". The debate about what it really means to have your DNA on file will be left behind, stuck in the dust like a sweating, dying pig.

With the current state of trust in police+science, the onus is unfortunately on dissenters to raise the critical eyebrow. The big question, if things are going to change (insert hopefulness here), is now: Why should we not just keep everyone's DNA in the database?

To answer my own strawquestion (although please, argue with me), this comes back to a bigger question: who has responsibility for the actions of individuals? The same question pops up under Richard's discussion of anti-obesity pills, and the same answer applies to both, I think. What we lose by using technology to fix all our "problems" is a fundamental assumption of individual responsibility.

There's no point in me making a decision to do something, if I have no responsibility over it in the first place. Either I do it and I get caught, or I don't do it and I don't get caught.

At this point, many people will be thinking "good, that's the way it should be - criminals get caught, innocents go free". But this ignores 2 things:

1. I didn't specify that the decision was over an intentionally-criminal act. There are many acts that are illegal, but that people think shouldn't be, and there are many acts that people don't even suspect are illegal, or are too confused to know. (Copying music you own to an ipod [currently illegal] and growing hallucinogenic mushrooms [legal til recently] are a couple of examples.)

2. More importantly, responsibility is not just something that stops us from doing illegal things. Responsibility is about accountability, and about directly tying yourself to the good and bad results of your actions. Responsibility is an innately human thing - we try to predict the future, we make our choice, and by adopting responsibility, we pay more attention to the punishments and rewards as a result, helping us to learn faster. Responsibility isn't just a legal/illegal thing - in fact, legality is constructed around actions, not vice versa. Reponsibility is an ethical/unethical thing, a help/harm thing, a maturity/immaturity thing. Remove responsibility, and you end up with what Huxley predicted: a nation of childishness and immaturity, a nation in need of a Nanny State, because all the adults packed up and put nappies on.

If we can get some of this message into the debate, maybe it has a chance of being interesting, of having an effect.

[Addendum: It's interesting to note the newspaper page numbers for this issue too, as found in the ePolitix bulletin:

Guardian - page 6 | Telegraph - page 2 | Times - page 5 | Independent - page 10 | Mail - front page | Sun - page 12 | Express - page 6

Only the Telegraph places it anywhere near the front, and the Indie - normally a banner-waver for sheet-selling rights issues - is practically in the bin. More proof that we just don't want to face up to responsibility?]

[Addendum the 2: Robin Wilson notes that who gets their DNA taken is entirely subjective, of course.]


Loz said...

Though the Times article was on page 5, I'm pretty sure about one third of the front page was given over to the headline in this morning's edition.

Scribe said...

Thanks Loz, guess the epolitix approach may not be entirely foolproof after all :)