One Step Beyond

by Erika Karagouni.

News bite [true - printed in the San Jose Mercury News on Jul 5, 1994].

The World Cup management committee ordered soft drink vendors in the various stadiums where the games are played to strip the labels off the bottles of 'Crystal Geyser' mineral water because the company was not in the official sponsors list!!

And I believed I've seen it all in the battle over brand name loyalty. Should have known that we 've seen it all only just before we die. Which made me think what is in store for those who'll come after we're long gone? Ours will be considered such a blessed and innocent time. A time when the worse you could imagine came short of peeling off some labels.

Fast forward to 2084. The earth's population has reached such levels that more people did not translate into 'bigger markets = more profits'. Natural resource exploitation had reached its limits, and further increases in population meant cutting the pie thinner and shifting from luxury to subsistence. Strict laws of one child policy reigned over the land, in a desperate attempt to keep the world's population at levels guaranteeing high standards of living and consumption.

A young couple agonizes over the future prospects of its yet to be conceived child. Having all their eggs in one basket makes the responsibility too heavy to bear and they decide to go see a family planning consultant - as designer genes salesmen euphemistically call themselves. The consultant is all prepared, and can hardly conceal her delight over the prospect of a very good commission. It's just minutes before the appointment, and a quick look at the screen displaying the genetic endowment charts of her new clients showed lots of yellows. Genetic engineers used a simple color coding scheme that allowed lay people to make some sense of gene charts. DNA colored red was hot stuff. Genius level. Blue indicated genes of a notch below genius, but above ordinary. The ordinary were coded yellow, and the notch below them were colored green. All defective genes were colored purple. She scanned several screenfulls looking for a lurking purple to make her sales pitch less arduous, but she couldn't find any. When the technology was still new, you could find lots of purples. These were the golden days of family planning consultants, when you didn't have to sweat too much to convince hesitating and picky customers. But the good days were gone for good and she 'd better concentrate on the task at hand.

Here they come. After some pleasantries, she tells them beaming, "Well, I have good news for you, your charts don't show any defective genes, so we are off to a good start!" A nervous smile of relief flashes on the couple's faces but quickly disappears. Expectant pause from the consultant's side. "But", she tells them, "there is still lots of opportunity for improvement. After all if you were not interested in improvement, you wouldn't be here today, right?" she nudges them encouragingly. A bearably audible, "yes..uhm.. of course.. yes we are interested in .. improvement" escapes their lips. Another nervous smile appears but that too vanishes almost immediately. The consultant is trying to discover what does their nervousness hide. Embarrassment over their 'yellow' genes, shyness, ambivalence? All of the above? "Is this the first time you visit a family planning clinic she asks them?" Yes, yes, they nod. "So", she asks them,"what is your 'dream child' like. Have you thought about itat all?". Thought they had, but the possibilities were as numerous as the desires, and of course there was always the issue of how many dreams they could afford.

"Well", starts the man, "we would like a healthy child, with classical beauty ..., you see ... fashions change so fast today, we wouldn't like everybody to be able to guess her age by her looks... ".

"Yes, of course I understand" the consultant hurries to assure him. "I can see that you've given it a lot of thought, and that you 've taken some good decisions. It helps to start with a clear idea of what you want". "What else, there are so many other aspects to consider. What would you like your daughter to become. A lawyer, a scientist, a politician, an artist, a healing professional, an athlete, a model? "Give me some idea of where your thoughts are in this area".

"We are not sure" says she, "it's so difficult to take a decision. There may be a classical beauty, but there is no such thing as a classical job. People will always need to eat, always require health care and entertainment, but most parents choose some profession along these lines, and then you end up with too many people with those skills scrounging for a living". "We thought to endow our daughter with many talents", added the man, "so she can have a choice when it is time to go to college".

Finally the opportunity the consultant was eagerly waiting for. "Excellent idea", she said. "This is the only choice that makes sense. The only way to make sure your only child - stressing the only - will have a promising, happy and successful future". The couple now visibly relaxes a bit. As if a bumpy dirt road changed over to paved asphalt, they looked ahead into the future for a smooth ride.

Let's look at all the choices you have", said the consultant invitingly. "Being so open to which talents you would like your daughter to have, you increase your likelihood of finding an affordable combination". The mild euphoria the young couple was feeling quickly evaporated. In their relief for having made the right choices and at the same time leaving the future open to the many possibilities, they had for a brief moment forgotten that dreams in 2084 were not cheap.

It was common knowledge that yellow genes meant a modest income. They also excluded the possibility of having inherited some monies, because if any of their parents were rich, they would have gotten them a fair number of blue genes. The red genes where out of the reach of all but the very rich. If you got red genes that always signified great wealth. If you had it by gift of nature, then you could sell your copyrights to the gene, and become wealthy. If your parents were not blessed by nature, they could buy them for you only if they were up there in the top percentiles of richness. As all this was well and widely known, there was no reason for the consultant to make a blatant remark. A mild allusion would suffice.

"To help couples in your situation, we have put together several 'packages' that cover a wide variety of high quality genes, that would please even the most demanding of our customers, and at the same time we offer them at very competitive prices. You were very fortunate to come to our clinic. We've put together a very innovative and elegant financing scheme. No other company offers this today, but I'm sure that they will follow our lead. However, being the first to implement it, we have the advantage of having signed on this venture some of the best product manufactures, and always with your best interest in mind".

She pauses to catch her breath and to quickly assess the impression she has made.

"Excuse me", says the woman, "but I'm a bit confused by the 'product manufacturers' that you've mentioned. Will they give us a discount on your packages, if we buy their products?"

The consultant crossed her hands and took a deep breath. Lots dependent on how she conveyed how the 'packages' were set up. It would require the best of her salesmanship to put a beautiful face on an ugly truth.

"Well" she answers with a smile, "Not exactly. Let me explain. I'm sure you are familiar with how say, simpler living organisms, are manufactured today. Take for instance the grains that we make bread out of. For the last 120 or so years agribusinesses have been creating hybrid grains that are not only bigger and better but at the same time they are suited to very different climates and soils, are resistant to certain diseases, and also do better when certain nutrients are present in the ground. Since the manufacturers of the grain genes are the ones who designed the grain, they 're better able to manufacture fertilizers that provided the plants with the nutrients they need to reach their full potential. This has been proved to work beautifully for almost 120 years as I mentioned. The founder of our clinic, who is a very [compassionate] person, and who wants to make all people, regardless of financial status, able to partake of this great technology, thought to take advantage of this tried and true method, and enable people like you to give their child the best gift a parent can give".

"I'm sorry" interrupts the husband, "but still I don't understand what rice and wheat has to do with our kid and being able to provide her with a bright future".

The consultant smiles and nods. "Yes, I know, but let me finish and then all will be much clearer. Let me return to the grain example. I've found out that most of my customers benefit from this analogy. Well, as I mentioned, grains needed certain nutrients to grow and the same grain manufacturers knew best which materials the grains needed, so they created the fertilizers that provided these nutrients. Then, this process was improved a bit. They created grains that required a certain nutrient that the manufacturers already produced", quickly she motions the woman to not interrupt her, so she could finish her explanation. "Uhm ... where I was ... oh yes! Many farmers misunderstood this. They accused agri-business of profiteering. Some people even went as far as to claim that this practice destroyed farmers in the then Third World because they couldn't afford to buy fertilizers that their crops now needed to grow. But it was explained to them, that they were getting better grains, and since the manufacturers already produced the fertilizers, they could buy cheaper fertilizers because the research costs on them had already been recovered throughout the years the fertilizer was on the market. Of course the manufacturers were making some profits, but after all isn't that what we all work for? Why did they expect agri-businesses to be any different? And besides, when you think of it, what difference did it make the farmer, that their crops required fertilizer A rather than B. They had to be fertilized any way, so why not take advantage of a fertilizer-grain pair that was designed for each other through the help of one of the greatest technologies? But things are very different today.

"These were the 'dark ages' of the nascent technology. We've learned from the mistakes of the past. We don't want something as disastrous as famines to happen again. If you give it some thought you'll see that the main problem was to defray the cost of the improved genes. So if you find somebody to help pay for it, then you have a win-win situation. Of course people have to have some incentive to do things, which is to say, the companies that foot part of the bill for the designer genes, have to receive some return on their investments. Innovative companies that are able to see beyond the present, realized that the return on their investments could be spread out for the life time of the gene recipient, it didn't have to be immediate. This is another win-win situation. They get a return on their investment, and the recipient gets a very cheap life duration loan so to speak. No need for big sums of up-front capital, which is the stumbling block for people in your situation".

She stopped as she saw the light of recognition pass over the couple's faces. "In other words", said the woman, you have packages with genes sponsored by say Pepsi, and these genes will make our daughter like Pepsi more than Coke?" "Exactly!" replied the consultant enthusiastically, and in a hurry tried to nail her point down.

"It is a beautiful scheme, for people just in your situation! Of what importance can it be to you whether your daughter likes Pepsi more than Coke? You take such a small decision today, and as a reward you get other genes, like health, longevity, intelligence, beauty in deep discount. What is more important to you, your child's IQ, or your daughter's soft drink preference? If she were my child, I would have not a moment of doubt! ". She didn't have to continue any more. She knew she had made her point and her commission.

She also knew that her current customers were not ambitious enough to inform them of another far novel 'package' her company was experimenting with. For the ambitious and the brave of the new world there were red genes available at deep discount, almost free. The fine print in the package? The usual genes carrying brand name affinity but also a few genes that made the recipient unable to procreate without paying a visit to their clinic. The return of the investment reached far into the future, loyalty bred into the yet unborn generations. Grand scheme, but the current customers would never appreciate the beauty of it, and it was time to sit down with them and go through the mundane logistics of finding a suitable package.

This was an IPP (Insomnia Productions Presents) broadcast to an Internet site near you.

Contributions || Ram Samudrala ||