Calico: The Cat that May Never Come out of the Bag

Saswat Pattanayak examines the implications of entrusting secretive, unaccountable and all-pervasive corporate monopolies with decisions about the most profound questions of human life and health


As privatised healthcare gets to be seen more as a consensus than a contested issue, Google is investing in the sector that promises to fetch maximum return in coming decades. Unlike the inevitable controversies associated with privacy searches, there is minimal resistance to its foray into such a “noble” domain. Just around the time when capitalism’s reputation has reached the lowest nadir, Calico Project aims to put the kindest human face yet on this vicious system.

Perhaps no other futuristic idea has generated as much enthusiasm as Calico. And why not? A promise at least to cure illnesses, if not to enhance longevity while at it, is just as good as it gets. Being part of the Google X Lab, this project is deliberately mysterious, and very little, if anything is really known about it. But talk of it is abuzz with excitement. Time Magazine’s speculation regarding its death-defying capabilities has lent Calico the kind of credibility that was once reserved for path-breaking inventions such as the telephone, airplane or computer.

This growing fascination with Calico probably should leave us asking far profounder questions – of both idealist and materialist nature.

Should Google solve death? Does longer life equal greater joy? Need we strive for quantity over quality? Is immortality or extreme longevity the best healthcare priorities in a world steeped in inaccessibility and survival problems for the disabled, malnourished and the poor? How much more can we trust private pharmaceuticals to take care of public health? Can making healthcare free and accessible for everyone in the planet, a goal the Calico Project can dare to set?

At the same time, unfortunately what makes these questions especially redundant is the ways in which capitalism functions, so as to enable the monopolists to dictate the defining questions of the times, howsoever utopian they appear to be. In fact, only by pretending to solve attractive questions, does capitalism become acceptable in the first place. As one of its foremost champions today, Google has proposed to save humanity from death and illness, at the very same time when its own health was dwindling to a trickle. Mired in numerous scandals involving illegal activities – from violating privacy rights, to profiting from installing unauthorized cookies in users’ browsers, to using information of its users for commercial gains without consent, Google is an empire founded on deceit and manipulations. Indeed, Google has always preferred to settle rather than contest cases related to its ad spying behaviors (this year it paid $17 million in fines and last year it had paid $22 million for the same crime). This is precisely because by paying such meager penalties, it stands to gain more profits than it would, if it stopped illegal spying. So, whereas Google will make $47 billion dollars this year from advertising through spying (which is now an integrated feature of Google Plus), it will pay a tiny fine that equals to only three-hours worth of its revenues.

It should appear highly suspect that a parasitical corporation that feeds off innocent data sharing of its users can be entrusted, literally, with the well-being of humanity. And yet, instead of being shocked by such a scenario, the world media is full of adulation for Google, because while corporations act as individuals when it comes to paying taxes, they get mystified as larger than life entities while committing crimes. When in 2011, the United States Federal Trade Commission (FTC) had fined Google over privacy violations by Google Buzz, it conveniently shut down the project. In real life, an individual may have to face a life imprisonment for a fraction of the crimes committed by Google.

Instead of jail terms, the “innovators” were found dining with the American president – who has been using the National Security Administration (NSA) for similar purposes, so at least he cannot be faulted for hypocrisy. Instead of penalizing the companies that acquire bright initiatives only to shut them down when it no longer makes commercial sense, capitalism rewards big monopolists by entrusting with them the credibility to continue with similar onslaughts.

Google has often thrived on hypes – be it the “invitation codes” to open email accounts or the mystery labs that not even its own employees have seen. – There is a pattern to the way it attracts initial investments with scant regard to their long-term viabilities. Whether Calico survives for the long-term or simply earns temporary profits for the bosses at Google depends on the wisdom of its head, Arthur Levinson, who chairs Genentech and is a director of its owner Roche, which has numerous dubious distinctions of its own, for breaking antitrust laws and engaging in price fixing to eventually emerge as one of the largest entities worldwide, in the privatized healthcare industry.

It remains to be seen if the privacy encroachment giants Google, Apple, Genentech and Roche will use this hype as an opportunity to invest in researches that address genuinely important healthcare issues or whether they will use it as a humanizing veil to cover-up the crimes of capitalism while collaborating with nefarious motives that inform the pervasiveness of greedy pharmaceutical corporations, and privacy encroachment giants.

Saswat Pattanayak is a New York-based journalist, photographer, atheist, third-wave feminist, LGBT ally, black power comrade and academic non-elite who refuses to give up his association with Kindle. A true comrade.

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