Wednesday, November 7, 2012

"Purchasing lace by the mile." (Zola, 1883): scientific consumerism?

Emile Zola and the origins of Wal-Mart and science commercialism
We have been reading Emile Zola's 1883 novel The Ladies' Paradise, a story about the first department store in Paris, and how it grew and out-competed small traditional shops.  Modeled after the real Bon Marché department store, The Ladies' Paradise offered merchandise at cut-throat low prices.  They could do this by buying their wares in very big lots from suppliers, and turning their stock over very rapidly--in today, out tomorrow.

Bon Marché department store, Paris, est'd mid 1800's; Wikipedia
The mark-up was small, so prices were lower than the other shops could afford, but Ladies' Paradise could thrive by large volume.  Sales pressure, advertising, and the now-familiar tactics of consumerism, by making potential customers feel out-dated or that they really had to have the latest in style.  Get rid of the old stuff, and get with it with the new!  Even if to the ruination of the customers, the Paradise thrived.  Eventually, the pressure was too great to resist: the consumer society was born. 

The high-throughput, scaled-up society is what we live.  It didn't start with them, but we have been Wal-Mart-ed!  Or Home Depot'ed.  Try to find a local hardware store where the clerk actually knows about hardware, or where you can buy just a couple of nails rather than a sealed pack of them!  McD for food, Amazon for anything else.

A tide that started in Europe in the 19th century, mastered by Americans, is irresistible.  Even if something can, or perhaps should be done more slowly, deliberately, on a smaller scale, the high-throughput society is a steamroller that squashes anything that dawdles in its path.

High throughput: science mirrors society
Did we say 'high-throughput'-- and does that ring a bell?  Nobody likes to think of science as just another part of our culture.  We want it to be a stand-aside, objective, look at the world, motivated by curiosity or societal need, perhaps, but not affected by factors other than the search for truth.  It should not be swept up in current culture's fads, emotions, or other motivations (including selfishness).

Of course, that's not the way the real world is.  Today, we are in a rapidly spreading, frenzied world that is trying to 'purchase nucleotides by the mile', almost literally.  Life science has to a very great extent become driven by the Wal-Mart mentality:  a rapid, unexhausted, through-put of new 'data', justified on whatever grounds but essentially to keep the wheels turning, the funds flowing in and the papers flowing out.  These are just as much quick-hitters (with some exceptions, of course) as the fabrics flowing through The Ladies' Paradise.

We continually hear that we 'need' whole genome sequence, that the cost will rapidly reach only $1000 per person--maybe even less!  Meanwhile, since it's not yet that cheap, we do whole-exome sequencing instead, whole copy-number, gene-expression, protein interaction, whatever identification. Quietly and sometimes openly, it is acknowledged that these are very poor substitutes for focused knowledge and experiment, but that we need to do it to keep our labs running until whole genome sequencing becomes cheap enough to do it on everything that moves.  And much that doesn't.

Nothing could reflect the cultural pattern The Ladies' Paradise inaugurated more than this does!  Taking time to think is outre.  There are of course some good reasons for this massive, frantic data-gathering effort, given how much we don't yet understand about genomes and their uses.  But rather than measured, tempered, slower and more deliberate experimentation and observation, we take the fast-food, in and out the door, just-in-time industrial approach.  It's our way of, yes, doing business.

Of course, the System knows very well how to keep us frantically worried about falling behind, about who's getting ahead or published in Nature and Science.  Advertising is certainly a part of this, and the ad industry is expert at bleeding us for whatever we have.  A relevant note is the veritable blizzard of "See our magnificent miracle-gear at our exhibition at the ASHG [American Society of Human Genetics] meetings!" postcards in our mailboxes every day (the meetings are in San Fran this week and we'll be there--not at the commercial hall, though).

Yes, whether it's lace or nucleotides, our culture knows how to turn a buck.

1 comment:

Amit said...

Not at ASHG this week, but via Twitter I read this from Robert Elston' address:

'Robert Elston suggest to concentrate on data analysis rather than data generation #ASHG2012'

Too bad I'm not at meeting, it would have been great to meet you!