The Gattaca Impact

Vincent Freeman is a genetically inferior “in-valid.” He decides to fight his fate by purchasing the DNA of Jerome, a lab-engineered “valid.” He assumes Jerome’s identity and goes to the moon.

Now change ‘DNA’ with ‘DATA’ – that is the Gattaca Impact.

Script with DATA inserted:

“In the not too distant future our DATA will determine everything about us. A minute TAP ON A SCREEN, FACEBOOK ENGAGEMENT or a single TWEET determines where you can work, who you should marry, what you are and capable of achieving. In a society where success is determined by ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE, divided by ALGORITHMIC LOGIC, one man’s only chance is to hide his own identity…by borrowing someone else’s. But in a place where any DATA POINT from any part of your body can betray you, how do you hide? When we all GOOGLE SEARCH 3.5 BILLION TIMES a day. “

Just the way that data remembers the past and helps to create the future (predictive analytics), we were never meant for this world of big data and algorithms. Humans are made up of complexities that no amount of data can effectively capture and predict accurately 100% of the time (yet). Current predictions can only be based on whatever data is there with all its warts and biases. But this isn’t stopping ‘innovation’. Maybe we are not leaving…maybe we are going home. Maybe, with all this innovation… we are going backwards and its time to find what makes us human.


For someone who was never meant for this world, I must confess I’m suddenly having a hard time leaving it. Of course, they say every atom in our bodies was once part of a star. Maybe I’m not leaving… maybe I’m going home

Vincent, narrating the final scene

GATTACA is a dystopian film about genetic engineering. And this post adopts the same critical stance, albeit in relation to big data and algorithms. Not designed to be aggressive towards advances in the field, more so to encourage people to understand and challenge any erroneous assumptions with predictive analytics that may need debate.

Valids and In-Valids

In the film, there are ‘valids’ or the people who have been genetically engineered to be ‘perfect’. This is very similar to the ‘algorithmic identities’ or training data used to make predictions for social welfare, policing and recidivist behavior. The data has arguably been collected from peoples who , due to historical stereotyping and prejudice, haven’t had long term and equitable access to education, health and other supports. So, history just repeats itself. But it’s black boxed, so we don’t challenge it.

By using these ‘valid’ reasons, justification can be made for data driven decisions. What about the data that is not being collected? We know Australia has a ‘digital divide‘. We know that there is digital inequality due to age and location, education level and income. This means that the people who don’t ‘donate’ their data to the machine, miss out on having their data become a prediction and in turn become a minority group. They are the ‘in-valids’.

Source: Gattaca & Bioethics | The Hypertextual Lounge

In-valids in Gattaca were naturally born humans. People who were not genetically engineered and as such considered to be ‘imperfect’. They may have heart problems, be prone to diabetes or have an IQ lower than what was considered to be ‘wanted’ or needed’ by society. The invalids according to this theory of ‘Gattaca Impact’ could therefore be those that have limited use of or access to technology in our society. That makes the in-valids people over 65 years, have a lower income than the average and live in regional locations among a myriad of other factors.

The Gattaca Impact

The Gattaca Impact theory suggests that although society may become aware and understand that it is densely rich with discrimination (valids and in-valids) on the basis of data, there will some that leverage this bias to their benefit. While data rich individuals become the elite, receiving search results with the best jobs and being selected in analytic interview processes, those not included in the training data are treated as inferior, forming an algorithmic class system by society. But not everyone falls into line. Where the predictions made for such ‘invalids’ uses a small pool of training data, the erroneous assumptions increase. Invalid predictions become restricted to those built by the potentially erroneous pool of data, despite their individual capabilities that may be largely the opposite. However, there may be those out there who have considered how this can be of benefit. Where you are an ‘in-valid’, your predictions may not be as accurate and as such you may be able to ‘game’ the system.

As Vincent states in Gatacca – “the best test score wasn’t going to matter unless I had the blood test to go with it.”

“the best test score wasn’t going to matter unless I had the DATA to go with it.”

Reworded from the Movie Gattaca

Perhaps you have used a photo of a white male on an application, instead of your brown female face to offset any algorithmic bias. Perhaps you were the lawyer who challenged the COMPAS recidivist assessment. Perhaps you are a teacher who has noticed that predictive analytics seems ‘fishy’. Gattaca Impact aims to clearly highlight that our society is not a meritocracy dependent on data to make decisions. Rather an individual’s worth is formulated according to “mathematical algorithms (GENES) to infer categories of identity on otherwise anonymous beings” – their algorithmic identity (GENETIC MAKEUP) and their human qualities that can’t be quantified.

And I love Vincent. He knows that.

In a society that is overrun and dictated by those obsessed with perfectionism (DATA) and rules (ALGORITHMS), Vincent shows us the power of human spirit. He represents what we want to know as humanity, stating “there is no gene for the human spirit”.

Source: Gattaca Analysis – Meagan Heard

There is no amount of data that can represent what it means to be human.

– J Aldous Arantes

The original film demonstrates a system used in society to categorize people based on their genetic makeup (DATA) and its flaws. It also demonstrates that that there will always be someone who resists the system. Vincent doesn’t change who he ‘is’ from the perspective of genetics (DATA) – as that is impossible. Just like you cannot simply stop using the internet. However, you can change who you appear to be. Gattaca Impact, shows that by understanding who you are ‘supposed’, you can recognize the limitations they may place on you and the likelihood of them trying to ‘nudge’ you into behaving a certain way. It must be possible, that you can exceed any prediction. You can exceed your potential and challenge the predictions that algorithms make. You can free yourself to be whoever you want to be.

The inaccurate belief regarding the accuracy and certainty of a person’s genetic identity (BIG DATA AND ALGORITHMS) in society ultimately restricts both ‘valids’ and ‘invalids’ at the same time. Jerome (the genetically perfect valid) didn’t work hard when they swam out to see – he thought he was going to win. Perhaps you believe that due to your background, you too may ‘win’ at something. Vincent however, knew he was unlikely to win. So, armed with human spirit he….

“… never saved anything for the swim back.”

Vincent in Gattaca
“You want to know how I did it? You want to know how I did it?
I never saved anything for the swim back.” – Vincent

Vincent shows us that data and algorithms and predictive trajectories are not about what your potential is. Nor does data represent what qualities may be assigned to you. You define you. Your personal decisions about who you are, your actions and your character, do just as much to form your ‘identity’ as your data does. Teachers do this all. the. time.

Where academic trajectories suggest one thing and teacher’s intuition suggests another. Where a teacher may ‘feel’ that a situation needs greater analysis, although the data suggests differently. Where the data shows great insight and potential, and the teacher brings it out to celebrate.

Data driven decisions are smart, but human spirit is brilliant. Find ways to show your human qualities.

Make Gattaca Impact.

QUESTION: In what ways have you displayed or received Gattaca Impact?

About the author: Janine Arantes is a PhD student at the University of Newcastle and researcher in the ‘Apps in Australian Classrooms Project’. More information can be found here.

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