Shopping With Your DNA

(no. 7) Shouldn't our DNA should be telling us to not shop at all? by Stephen P. Williams

First, an aside: this dermatologist says nicotine causes wrinkles, even when you vape.
London canal with narrowboats. Photograph by Alex Motoc on Unsplash

I’m living temporarily on a 1911 narrowboat in London, with a view of Regents canal and the towpath path opposite my mooring. With my coal burning stove and windows onto the early 20th century, I feel I’m in the land before DNA and the concept of shopping to feel younger.

Old friends will arrive from Cambridge later today. When I say old friends, I mean I’ve known them since I was in my 20s, and while, yes, we’ve all grown older in the process, they don’t strike me as old. She is a painter with a cozy studio, and he is a stone letter carver working out of an old brick chapel in an overgrown graveyard. They have rich lives, uncluttered by things and technology.

As does Simon, the owner of Galatea, my temporary houseboat home. This morning he casually described a seemingly frightful divorce and his subsequent rebirth as downsized man on a boat who, at age 66, is in his second year of an MFA in art at Central St. Martins. On summer days he rows his dingy down the canal to attend classes. In the evenings, he and his partner, Sarah, will enjoy the the flowers in their canal side garden. It’s a nice, very English life, but not a typically “old” one, at least in the popular imagination.

I confronted that imagination yesterday while heading to Somerset House to give a talk on technology and creativity. There in front of me was the oddest storefront, a monument to our fear of ill health and age, and the desire to control it.

Technically challenging: DNAnudge, in London. Photograph by Stephen P. Williams

DNA Nudge promises to help you make healthier choices that in turn will help you live longer and happier. You offer up a swab of saliva from your cheek, and put it into “capsule” that is then analyzed for specific health markers. That data is synced onto a FitBit-like wristband (only even uglier, if you can imagine that), and then your DNA sample is, supposedly, “destroyed” to protct your privacy. You can then use your band to scan food product labels so see if the food is good for your DNA makeup. If so, the band will light up green. If not, red. The idea is that these prompts will help you buy and eat the right stuff for your genome. For instance, if you have the “high blood pressure” gene, then you’ll be encouraged to buy low salt foods.

Share Age: The Next Everything

DNAnudge recommends apps, not appetizers. Photograph by Stephen P. Williams

As I recall, low salt foods usually say “low salt” in big letters on the label, whether or not you have a wrist band scanner that was programmed with saliva. This app and hardware seem superfluous and intrusive, like so much technology today. (Alexa, anyone?) Plus, I’m not a huge fan of DNA consumer culture — is it really wise to pay a corporation to analyze your DNA, and potentially give them free access to this, your most personal and important data, the building blocks of not only your life but the 3 billion continuous years of life that preceded you in your genetic line? What’s more, it’s not clear that genetic tests can actually reveal information that is useful in designing your optimal diet. A rigorous Stanford University study found that genetic testing to determine whether your body will lose weight on a low-carb diet was, essentially, quackery. Even if the DNA analysis is instructive, does the software and hardware really help? Another service called DNA Fit, has the same philosophy but sends you a list of healthy foods for your “gene type,” instead of relying on a wristband.

As we age we are prone to embrace magic fixes for healthier days, and more of them. Perhaps we should toss the app and embrace slow life on a canal, or whatever equivalent we can create, no matter where we live. All of us probably have enough stuff already, without adding a wristband.

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Share Age: The Next Everything

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