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The ban on NIH financing has had the collateral effect of relegating the technology to the private sector, where embryo research can proceed unencumbered.

—from a New York Times Magazine story on stem-cell research, January 30, 2000.

Bag by Dolce & Gabbana … Suit by DKNY …
Shorts by Polo Jeans … Sneakers by Nike.

—from illustration credits, same article.

I was just sitting down to dinner when I heard a soft tapping at my apartment door. Opening it warily I found myself gaping up at a sultry giantess in a strapless cocktail dress. Eight feet tall at least, she glowered down at me with a look of woozy, carnal hunger. “Occupant,” she moaned, shoving her way into the room and slamming the door behind her. “Oh, Occupant, Occupant!”

I staggered back, sizing her up. Nothing on her curvaceous exterior revealed where she’d come from, what she wanted. For a moment she stood there, searching my face. Her head tilted. Her eyes moistened. Then she pounced, clutching me in her powerful arms and lowering her lips to my ear. “Let me do it for you,” she whispered, crushing me closer. “Let me switch you.”

I wriggled, cursing. What a fool I was! I’d already been switched by more phone companies than I cared to remember, and that was the least of it! In the last week alone I’d been bagged by two insurance plans, three vacations cruises, and enough magazine subscriptions to close a landfill. I was maxed on every card. I was burnt out. I needed sleep. Yet night after night they came, always at dinnertime. Coaxing, pleading, seizing you by the lapels and slamming you onto the bed. Why wasn’t there a law? Why could nothing be done to stop them?

Surely we could have seen it coming. Hadn’t every new technology followed the same ineluctable course? Printing, photography, telephones, television—not to mention the Internet, which had slid from boundless frontier to commercial sprawl virtually overnight. Why should the Genome Project have been any different? Wasn’t it obvious from the beginning that what all that coding, splicing, cloning, and cell farming would unleash was the most virulent advertising medium ever to shill the planet?

As I struggled in the behemoth’s clasp, I thought back bitterly to those early ethics debates. Are we playing God? What does it mean to be human? Not once did any ethicist answer that being human might one day mean being targeted, bearhugged, and wrestled to the kitchen floor by shameless, oversized “offers” biodesigned in Madison Avenue laboratories.

Once “invited” over the threshold, anything went. And with the new sizing hormones they’d grown craftier than a hospital virus.

Like everything else, it just overcrept us. The first generation seemed harmless enough. A few pumped-up zygotes warbling jingles. Then came the prototypes. Like the blonde who limped up to me on the street one day. “Congratulations!” she cried tonelessly. Her eyes rolled back in her head and she squirted me with toothpaste. As the genomarketing industry grew, all the basic phenotypes were soon crowding into circulation: the raving price slashers, the hithering temptresses, the big growly buddies itching to manhandle you into a Chevy truck. They mobbed the subways at rush hour. They cornered you at check-out stands, plucking your sleeve and spewing enthusiasm.

The more numerous they became, the more vulgar they grew. The studio geneticists began juicing them up with inhibition-inhibiting enzymes. Some lolled against phone booths, dropping their shoulder straps and hissing brand names. Others cruised the buses wearing nothing but their underwear and a sullen sneer. Half the time you had no idea what they wanted. I remember with a shudder one dark night as I hurried past a stretch of Upper East Side boutiques. From every side, gaunt beauties scowled. Suddenly an apparition blocked my path—a famished creature in the throes of some unspeakable vehemence. She glared, thrust her pelvis at me, and spat out the command: Versace!

In public, of course, they couldn’t forcibly detain you. So the law said anyway. But once “invited” over the threshold, anything went. And with the new sizing hormones they’d grown craftier than a hospital virus. Tiny inveiglers dropped out of magazines into your lap-wriggling, wheedling, grabbing for your wallet. These, at least, you could just step on and toss into the garbage, nobody the wiser. Not so easy with a cunning bruiser of a long-distance phone plan. As I writhed, the desperate offer started pouring on the squeeze. I thought my ribs would crack. With a sudden twist I broke free and stumbled across the kitchen. She smoothed her dress, shooting me a hurt, kittenish look. “Pretty please,” she growled, inching closer. “I can make your dreams come true, even that fantasy about competitive local rates.”

Sure, I had the right to refuse. “Just zip them up and push them out the door,” said the industry apologists. But it wasn’t quite that easy. For one thing, you couldn’t charge them with trespass. They weren’t people, after all. They were brands. They had legal rights people could only dream of. Take the case of that Bible Belt farmer who picked up his shotgun and blasted one, some lurid torso in designer skivvies who’d wriggled in through the screen door during the family’s Sunday dinner. The corporate lawyers made a trophy of the poor rube, nailing him with landmark convictions for censorship, trademark violation, and product tampering.

“I am a form of free speech! I am protected by the First Amendment! I am part of a vibrant economy! I am . . .”

Consumer advocates howled for legislation. But what was Congress about to do—with every committee chaired by staunch right-to-market-lifers? Not that “staunch” had much to do with it. These were lawmakers, after all, who couldn’t say no to a hog lobbyist with a sweaty handshake. So how much noble statesmanship could you expect with the American Genomarketer’s Council churning out hoards of gorgeous, anatomically enhanced “appeals.” They stormed Capitol Hill, “appealing” their way through coats and ties like a tornado through a laundry line, and not one comma of legislation ever slipped out of subcommittee.

That left consumers like me on our own, backed into the corner by marketing campaigns twice our size. As I tried for the door the big promo made a sweeping grab for me. I dodged behind the kitchen table, shoving her hard. That triggered the standard warning. She wailed like a rollercoaster full of goats, “I am a form of free speech! I am protected by the First Amendment! I am part of a vibrant economy! I am . . .” Suddenly her jaw snapped shut. Her eyes narrowed and her lips curled in a businesslike leer. She crouched, rolled her shoulders, and began easing toward me, hands gesturing with the “c’mon” taunt of a wrestler.

As we circled the table grimly, I saw myself funneling down the timeless spiral: humanity caught and dragged back, back, back to the same tawdry depths by each advancing technology. Where was my pride, my power of self-denial? “Listen,” I said sternly, rising to my full human height. “You’re a very attractive offer. But it’s late. I’m tired. And frankly I really can’t afford . . .”

“Can’t afford . . . ? Can’t afford . . . ?” she mimicked, with a sarcastic mew. Raising one eyebrow, she reached back slowly and cracked the door. A seething mass of forms came grinning, slithering, clawing their way over the threshold. My God . . . the credit cards!