Outlaw biologists vs. DIY bio-hackers

We’ve gone from a post-industrial economy organized around big, hierarchical corporations that had informal but powerful ties with big but sparsely policed Universities, to a world of small start-ups and fluid venture capital, huge collaborative efforts to pursue an “industrial biology” and vastly increased federal power to influence, control and even prohibit research. We’ve gone from an era of very small communities of biologists that regulated themselves and called it’s own moratoria (Asilomar) to federal laws that prohibit human cloning and restrict research on certain kinds of cells. Today a young biologist is confronted by a heterogeneous scramble of basic biology, commercially-driven research, patent lawyers, bio-ethicists, software engineers and impresarios creating more tests than anyone can interpret, more drugs than anyone needs and more promises than anyone can fulfill.

Christopher Kelty has a long and thoughtful piece on Outlaw biology, in which he distinguishes outlaws from hackers.

The piece, which we recommend you read in its entirety, is written to the occasion of a conference: Outlaw Biology? Public Participation in the Age of Big Bio 29-30 Jan. 2010 at the California NanoSystems Institute

Christopher Kelty (excerpt):

“Outlaw Biology is about a changing world of public participation. Sometimes it helps to have a figure to work with in order to understand how our world is changing. Here are three: outlaws, hackers and Victorian gentleman scientists. All reveal different features of what’s happening to public participation in the life sciences today.

Outlaws fall outside the system—they are glad to be like Robin Hood, unaccountable but connected, poaching resources and distributing them to people who could never imagine having them. Outlaw biologists love de-mystifying science: ‘did you know you can extract DNA from strawberries using simple household products!? Anyone can do it, you don’t need permission from Science.’ The Outlaw’s motivation is delight, especially delight for those who might not otherwise have access to it. Outlaws can exist inside as well as outside of science. These are the gadfly scientists, the kooks, those with the slightly nutty ideas. They live not so much at the frontiers of science (that’s where everyone wants to be), but beyond them, in no man’s land. Their innovations have yet to be recognized by Big Bio—they may never be.

Hackers, by contrast, reconfigure the system from within. Hackers are not—despite the way they are most commonly portrayed—outlaw libertarians, but rather tinkerer liberals. The distinction is important: outlaws live alone but hackers live together. The pleasure of hacking comes from impressing others by understanding a system well enough to control it and to make it do something it wasn’t meant to do, not just de-mystify it. Bio-Hackers properly speaking wouldn’t care at all about getting DNA from strawberries. Rather they would be interested in engineering a strain of strawberry cheaply, cleverly, and to the delight of their friends. Maybe it’s a purple strawberry, or a strawberry that smells like a banana. Or maybe it’s a dangerous virus-transmitting strawberry, but in that case the hack is intended to show how easy it is to do, and how we might need safeguards beyond that of morals and good will. The hacker’s innovation is a re-configuration, and it is one that values openness, transparency and modifiability. The Hacker’s innovation has little to do with what counts as innovation in Big Bio, but it is no less innovative for that, and it often impresses—and frightens—the elites.”

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