In Gattaca, Director Andrew Niccol explores the potential horrors of genetic engineering. Set in an unspecified near future, genetic engineering has altered the course of society by instituting a surveillance society where people’s opportunities rely on their genetic pedigree. In the movie, genetic engineering is used to remove all major “defects” when conceiving, and depending on their parent’s choice of using genetic engineering, one is given an identity of “valid” or “in-valid. ” Areas that the film illustrates include genetic surveillance, social discrimination, and resistance within a surveillance society.
The idea of surveillance, as seen in Gattaca is much more relevant now than when it was released in 1997. In class, we continually debate the trade-offs between public safety and personal privacy. This debate is being carried out on a large scale across the world. For example, an article in the New York Times discusses the fact that a “privacy group filed a class-action lawsuit…against the National Security Agency, President Bush and other officials, seeking to halt what it describes as illegal surveillance of Americans’ telephone and Internet traffic” (Agency 1). Obviously, the balance between privacy and security already upsets some groups.
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Therefore, the idea that a state would start using genetic technology, when it is available, for surveillance is not outlandish. The U. S. is already using biometrics, as we have learned in class lectures, with fingerprinting. In addition, as is seen by the research that goes on in campuses just like UT, the technology surrounding our personal genetic code is right around the corner that will give insurance companies information on predilections we have toward certain diseases. This relationship between genes and identity raises the question: Is all of a man’s identity in Gattaca simply the sum of his genes?
That is why the technology used in Gattaca for surveillance is so disturbingly close to being reality. Another disturbing aspect of Gattaca is the social discrimination that comes about through surveillance. In the world we live, it seems people are always looking for a way to discriminate. In Gattaca, the genetic surveillance put into place for seemingly good purposes, is distorted by companies and others and used to discriminate. For example, while it is illegal for individuals to be discriminated against merely for the circumstances of their birth, it is not illegal for employers to use the results of genetic testing in hiring.
Like drug testing is used today routinely in filtering out job applicants, this genetic testing is used to show that certain people are more suitable for a job than others. In this way, the film shows how a simple desire to avoid negative outcomes, whether business or personal, becomes a discriminatory social system with a life and logic all its own. One very important aspect of Gattaca is the theme of resistance to this surveillance society. At first, the majority of citizens seem to have willingly accepted the genetic discrimination as social costs.
For example, in the film, parents wishing to see their children grow up to be healthy and have jobs that afford both status and financial security are willing participants in the genetic alterations. But not all people in Gattaca are such risk-averse, willing participants in the surveillance and discrimination. The resistance to the discrimination is centered around Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke). Conceived and born as a “faith” child, Vincent starts life being discriminated by his genetic profile. Furthermore, this “profile” reveals to schools and potential employers a high probability of early heart failure and myopia.
And this limits his opportunities in life considerably. Vincent, though, still dreams of traveling into space. He studies, trains, and applies for the coveted job, only to be betrayed by DNA tests which show him to be too much of a risk for space flight. This leads him to use “borrowed ladders”, that is, the adoption of one person’s more promising genetic identity by someone whose prospects are otherwise limited. Like identity theft, except selling your identity. He uses technology and turns it on its head against the people discriminating. This movement of people using “borrowed ladders” to work the system is a perfect example of resistance.
In the film “Gattaca,” a surveillance society has been created in which only the strongest will survive. Technology is used as a social discriminator, in that only people who have perfect, or almost perfect, DNA can perform in certain jobs and succeed in life. They have adopted this because the majority is willing to give up their privacy for the benefits it provides. But there is hope in Gattaca, as is seen by the resistance of Ethan Hawke’s character. Ultimately, Gattaca presented a sort-of dystopia, which exemplifies the technology, social discrimination, and resistance which could be seen in a future surveillance society.
References Gattaca. (n. d. ). Retrieved September 20, 2008, from IMDB Web site: http://www. imdb. com/title/tt0119177/ Niccol, A. (Director). (1997). Gattaca [Motion picture]. USA: Columbia Pictures Corporation . Shane, S. (2008, September 18). Agency and Bush Are Sued Over Domestic Surveillance. New York Times, p. 1. Retrieved September 20, 2008, from New York Times Web site: http://www. nytimes. com/2008/09/19/washington/19nsa. html? _r=1&scp=1&sq=surveillance&st=cse&oref=slogin