Over the last two years I have been conducting research into amateur biology in and around Silicon Valley. During that time, I have worked as a volunteer in a DIYBio lab and on a pair of laboratory projects, one an unlikely precursor to the Glowing Plant project and another which fell into the dust bin of scientific history. Which is to say, for every project that captures media attention and attracts funding like Glowing Plant, there is an equally interesting project struggling to generate interest and find collaborators. With that in mind, I want to discuss some of the tensions within DIYbio laid bare by success of the Glowing Plant Kickstarter campaign.
Glowing Plant needs little introduction, as it has been the subject of sustained media attention since the Kickstarter campaign it launched early this summer. To give a brief technical overview, Glowing Plant intends to take a luciferin system from the marine bacteria Vibrio Fischeri, which is found in squid, and place it into an Arabidopsis plant, thus causing the plant to bioluminesce at night. As outlined on their Kickstarter page, to effect this transformation they plan to use the software program Gene Compiler to design DNA sequences then have these sequences laser printed by Cambrian Genomics. Once printed, the DNA will be sent to the Glowing Plant laboratory via Fed-Ex (the standard way to move DNA around the world) and then transformed into the Arabidopsis plant via agrobacterium. This portion of the project is regulated by material transfer agreements governing the movement of recombinant DNA between laboratories and, due to the use of agrobacterium, no plants transformed in this manner can leave the Glowing Plant laboratory. However, once the plants transformed with agrobacterium are deemed to glow enough, a final transformation will be done with a gene gun. It is the use of the gene gun that allows Glowing Plant to ship a genetically modified organism (GMO) to consumers without regulatory oversight. Here Glowing Plants follows a strategy pioneered by Monsanto to market GM bluegrass.
To date, most commentary around the Glowing Plant project has concerned the ethics of biotechnology in general and the specific ethical implications of using biotechnology to make a consumer product in particular. But as the Monsanto case illustrates, this is not a strategy unique to Glowing Plant. Though, Glowing Plant is an easier legal target as they lack Monsanto’s war chest. But, I would like to emphasize a different aspect of the project: the role of hype in the crowdfunding campaign and the claims made by the organizers for the ease and effectiveness of this technology. Keep in mind that while much of the critical commentary on both pro and con has assumed this plant can be created (it is a greater technical challenge than making bluegrass), the plant is still hypothetical and its creation is not a certainty. Apart from the still hypothetical existence of the plant, there is speculation, due to the energetic requirements of light production, over whether the transformation can produce a light visible to the naked eye.
As I hinted at above, despite starting out in DIYBio lab, the Glowing Plant kickstarter campaign was sponsored and supported by a number of startup companies associated with Singularity University, and it maintains close ties to its startup ecosystem. The core team comprising the Glowing Plant project consists of one Stanford trained PhD conducting laboratory work, one Stanford post-doc, and a former Bain & Company consultant. Further, prior to receiving funding Glowing Plant hired a digital marketing firm to manage its Kickstarter and PR campaign. Though often portrayed as the product of the wisdom of the crowd, the pump was primed well before the Kickstarter campaign was underway. In this sense, Glowing Plant follows the classic Silicon Valley pattern of the well-supported disruptive startup pioneering a new market, consumer synthetic biology in this case, by forcing a product through a regulatory grey area.
Unsurprisingly, Glowing Plant has been the subject of much angst within DIYBio, both over the manner of the project’s exit from the DIYBio laboratory where the idea was hatched and the preliminary lab work conducted, and over the project’s aggressive approach to regulation. Most DIYBio laboratories ask for no monetary commitment beyond individual membership dues or class fees and struggle financially as membership often ebbs and flows. In this environment, the departure of a popular and compelling project from a lab creates a difficult gap to fill. Glowing Plant’s approach to regulation and blanket claims of environmental safety also threaten to bring regulatory scrutiny to DIYBio as a whole, which to date has been a modest and self-regulating field. Already, Kickstarter has issued a category ban on GMOs, and Glowing Plant has moved from working at a public DIYBio laboratory into a private laboratory at an undisclosed location.
All of which raises the question posed by the title: What is the relation between Glowing Plant’s ambitions and DIYBio’s oft-stated goals and code of ethics? The rhetorical appeal made in Glowing Plant’s Kickstarter video is not to the ideals or ethics of DIYBio, but rather to the frontier, which indexes an entirely different and distinctly American set of ideals. As co-founder Anthony Evans says in the Glowing Plant kickstarter video, “our generation’s frontier is synthetic biology, our guide nature itself.” Where the DIYBio code of ethics draws on commonalities across distal polities of amateur biologists to urge self-regulation, moderation, and action in the common interest of amateur inquiry, Evans’ appeal to the frontier connotes an unregulated individualism coupled to the exploitation of a peculiarly American approach to regulation, in which an action not explicitly illegal is implicitly allowed.
Anonymous is a banner used by individuals and as well as multiple, unconnected groups unfurling operations across the globe from Brazil to the Philippines, from the Dominican Republic to India. Since 2008, activists have used the name to organize diverse forms of collective action, ranging from street protests to web site defacement. Their iconography—Guy Fawkes masks and headless suited men—symbolically asserts the idea of anonymity, which they embody in deed and words. To study and grasp a phenomenon that proudly announces itself “Anonymous” might strike one as a futile and absurd exercise or exercise in futility and absurdity. A task condemned to failure.
Over the last five years, I felt the sting of disorienting madness as I descended deep down the multiple rabbit holes they dug. Unable to distinguish truth from lies, and unable to keep up with the explosive number of political operations underway at one time, a grinding doubt settled deep into my mind many times. There was no way I could get the story right, get at all the nuances, much less all the cabals that populate Anonymous, I often told myself. Gaining access and the trust of scores of individuals who tunnel and mine and undermine, who desire to be incomprehensible, concealed and enigmatic to slightly rephrase Nietzsche’s opening to DayBreak, often felt like an impossible task.
They have been devilishly hard to study but not impossible. Time has been a kind friend. Sticking around over a five year period has certainly helped, especially as I met more participants in person. I protested with Anonymous on the streets in New York City and Dublin and attended court hearings as hackers received sometimes light, sometimes stiff sentences. A handful would come by to say hello or thank me heartily after a public talk. I spent time with them in pubs in Europe and bars in North America, and even had the rare opportunity to picnic with a group of them in a sun-drenched park in an area of the world—Ireland—when it was undergoing a rare two week heatwave. Although I preferred evenings in the pubs and day time picnics, I spent most of my time with them online using various chatting protocols, usually Internet Relay Chat (IRC).
As will come as no surprise, the ethical conundrums flowing out of my research were many, so many it is a theme I explore time again in the book now under works. But I can’t help but think of what anthropologist Danilyn Rutherford calls—kinky empiricism—a term she uses to define the (often tortured) nature of anthropological research. By kinky she means to convey a shape which captures the notion that knowledge is not smooth or straightforward but comes with knots and kinks. By kinky she also means to convey a spirit of “S and M and other queer elaborations of established scenarios, relationships, and things.” Foremost, she introduces kinky empiricism to portray the deeply ethical character of anthropological research: “[anthropological] methods create obligations, obligations that compel those who seek knowledge to put themselves on the line by making truth claims that they know will intervene within setting and among the people they describe.”
My obligations to Anonymous have been many and they range from writing letters to judges pleading for leniency, to translating their world to multiple publics. But the one obligation on my mind the most these days is self-imposed and it has to do with my desire to balance between two opposing forces: the rational and the mystical, the Apollonian force of empiricism and logic, and the Dionysian force of pleasure and ecstasy.
In my writings, I want to stamp out misinformation, to be critical of some of their actions, and to clear up the confusion of the so-called chaos in Anonymous; they are sensible, and must be rendered such, given that nation-states and prosecutors and judges would like to cast them as mere criminals unwilling to entertain their actions as politically motivated. But I also want to keep the magic of Anonymous alive. To disenchant them would be, in my estimation, tantamount to breaking my own moral pact and also to miss what makes them interesting.
Only with time and the judgements of others (and, hopefully, through the process of writing my book) will I know whether I have the cunning to simultaneously make chaos seem like order and order seem like chaos, the cunning necessary to give justice to Anonymous. For now, I will leave you with a rather Apollonian nugget, a report I wrote for the Center for International Governance Innovation, that seeks to stamp out some misinformation about Anonymous through a detailed, though basic, introduction to their politics and hope I can bring you some nugget of pleasure and ecstasy in the not so distant future.
September 4th, 2013, by Robin Nagle Comments Off
Picture a garbage truck – say, the classic rear-compactor model. Listen to its diesel engine growl as it comes down a street in a large city. Hear its air brakes hiss as it stops next to a pile of trash bags or a row of garbage cans. Watch a worker climb from its cab and tug on his gloves as he walks toward those bags and cans. See him bend, reach, lift, and fling bag after bag, or empty can after can, into the gaping maw of the truck’s hopper. Observe: he feeds it until it can hold no more, then pulls a pair of levers and pauses while a wide blade descends to scoop the contents of the hopper into the body of the truck.
Versions of this scenario, mundane and unremarkable, are repeated every day in cities the world over. Garbage collection constitutes a form of mobile infrastructure that makes it possible for any metropolis to stay healthy, yet it is often a victim of its own success: when management of municipal solid waste (MSW) is done well, it is taken for granted, or even ignored.
From an anthropological perspective, however, it is quite remarkable. In fact, it is one of the richest possible subjects we can study. During several years of research with the Department of Sanitation in New York City (DSNY), I have learned that any single variable in the logistics of waste management points to a tangle of questions about technology, infrastructure, capital, labor, history, economics, politics, bureaucracy, materials science, and ecology, to name only a few possibilities. The truck provides a useful example. Its size, mechanics, and structure are continually refined toward greater efficiency (can household trash be compacted more tightly?), less environmental impact (how many fewer particulates are in the air if we use compressed natural gas instead of diesel fuel?), and enhanced worker safety (will a newly engineered mirror eliminate blind spots for drivers?). Each of these considerations exists within a larger context of competing interests. For instance, compressed natural gas might be a viable fuel alternative, but not without sufficient supply. Or safety measures advocated by the union might raise the price of the truck beyond limits set by those responsible for its cost.
Effective garbage removal is key to the success of capitalism, since discards must be taken away to make room for new Things. Effective garbage removal is also fundamental to public health. Before New York figured out how to clean up after itself, its mortality rate made it one of the deadliest cities in the world. For these reasons, I have long argued that the DSNY — the world’s oldest and largest uniformed sanitation department — is the most important workforce on the streets. The skepticism that met my assertion was part of the inspiration for my research.
When I started fieldwork, I wanted to understand dynamics of the labor, rhythms of the day, relationships between the workers and the public they serve. I assumed that stigma was as inherent to the job as the uniform, and I especially wanted to know what it was like to build a career around a despised profession. It took me a while to recognize that, for many, there is no stigma. Whatever negative value the work may be assigned by the outside world is not the burden of those who actually do the job. The regard or disdain of an always cranky public are not as important as the respect a worker earns from his colleagues.
I also wanted to get a better sense of the job’s dangers. A new hire told me that his mother was glad he’d taken a sanitation job because he’d be safer than if he’d joined the police or fire department. It’s true that he wouldn’t face guns (though it happens) or fires (that also happens) as a regular part of his day, but his mother was sorely mistaken about his safety.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics regularly ranks refuse work among the ten most dangerous occupations in the country. A sanitation worker is many times more likely than a police officer or a firefighter to be injured or killed on the job. The truck taught me the first set of hazards. Let’s go back to the sanitation worker we observed in the beginning. When we left him, he had just filled the cavity in the back of the truck and activated the hopper blade.
Nothing resists the blade. Refrigerators, stoves, every variety of furniture bends under it, often with shrieks of protest. Humbler objects submit to its force, too, though when the pressure pops the bags, the contents try to escape, with potentially disastrous consequences. Who knew that a ragged scrap of wood studded with rusty nails could so perfectly imitate a javelin, or that a plastic lawn chair could explode into a thousand knife-sharp fragments? Sanitation workers from every part of the city have told me stories about, and showed me scars from, wounds in their legs, arms, face, back. One lost two fingers when he couldn’t extricate his hand from the string that wrapped a bundle of newspapers that he’d tried to toss in the truck just as the blade descended. Another lost his eye when it was punctured by a dowel like a 6-foot-long knitting needle protruding from a recycling container.
Worse risks come from the street. For much of their shift, sanitation workers are in and out of the truck, and therefore in and out of traffic. That traffic is impatient. Where a school bus has strict laws safeguarding its precious cargo, workers in a collection truck have no such protection. They are hit, grievously injured, and killed with alarming frequency.
Until recently, solid waste has earned little scrutiny from anthropology, but that’s beginning to change. We are starting to recognize that the seemingly routine chores of MSW management hide a wealth of insight about daily life and global trends, about the fickle vagaries of value bestowed or withheld, about the vast structural challenges of making an unloved material continually flow. I invite us to take up, from within our many subspecialties, an anthropology of discards. The world’s trash awaits its transformation into scholarly treasure.
 See the Bureau of Labor Statistics News Release, August 22, 2013: “National Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries in 2012 (Preliminary Results).” http://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/cfoi.pdf
 For example, see Robin Nagle, Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013; see also Josh Reno, “Beyond Risk: Landfill Emplacement and the Production of Environmental Evidence,” American Ethnologist 38(3):516-30 and “Your Trash is Someone’s Treasure: The Politics of Value at a Michigan Landfill,” Journal of Material Culture 14(1):29-46.
 See Samantha MacBride, Recycling Reconsidered: The Present Failure and Future Promise of Environmental Action in the United States. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012.
Since my undergraduate days, I’ve both aspired to do feminist anthropology and been fascinated with people’s everyday engagement with mundane (and extraordinary) technologies. I can’t express how thrilled and honored I am to receive the 2013 Diana Forsythe Prize for The Life of Cheese: Crafting Food and Value in America (University of California Press), my ethnography of American artisanal cheese, cheesemaking and cheesemakers. I do not present a summary of the book here (if interested, the Introduction is available on the UC Press website: http://www.ucpress.edu/book.php?isbn=9780520270183). Instead, I alight on some of the STS-related themes that run throughout my book (and especially Chapter 6): regulating food safety and promoting public health, artisanal collaboration with microbial agencies, and the mutual constitution of production and consumption.
Real Cheese or Real Hazard — or Both?
By U.S. law, cheese made from raw (unpasteurized) milk, whether imported or domestically produced, must be aged at least 60 days at a temperature no less than 1.7˚C before being sold. The 60-day rule intends to offer protection against pathogenic microbes that might thrive in the moist environment of a soft cheese. But while the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) views raw-milk cheese as a potential biohazard, riddled with threatening bugs, fans see it as the reverse: a traditional food processed for safety by the metabolic action of good microbes—bacteria, yeast, and mold—on proteins and carbohydrates in milk. The very quality that gives food safety officials pause about raw-milk cheese — that it is teeming with an uncharacterized diversity of microbial life — makes handcrafting it a rewarding challenge for artisan producers, and consuming it particularly desirable for gastronomic and health-conscious eaters, drawn to its purportedly “pro-biotic” aspect.
I have introduced the notion of microbiopolitics as a theoretical frame for understanding debates over the gustatory value and health and safety of cheese and other perishable foods.[i] Calling attention to how dissent over how to live with microorganisms reflects disagreement about how humans ought to live with one other, microbiopolitics offers a way to frame questions of ethics and governance. The U.S. American revival of artisanal cheesemaking and rising enthusiasm for raw milk and raw-milk cheese exemplifies microbiopolitical negotiations between a hyper-hygienic regulatory order bent on taming nature through forceful eradication of microbial contaminants — a Pasteurian social order (as currently forwarded by the FDA) — and what I have called a post-Pasteurian alternative committed working in selective partnership with ambient microbes.
As Bruno Latour relates in The Pasteurization of France, in recognizing microbes as fully enmeshed in human social relations, early Pasteurians legitimated the hygienist’s right to be everywhere; once microbes can be revealed in the lab (Pasteurians continue to believe) they may be eradicated — only then will “pure” social relations be able to flourish. In contrast, post-Pasteurians move beyond an antiseptic attitude to embrace mold and bacteria as potential friends and allies. The post-Pasteurian ethos of today’s artisanal food cultures—recognizing microbes to be ubiquitous, necessary, and even (sometimes) tasty—is productive of modern craft knowledge and expanded notions of nutrition, and it produces a new vocabulary for thinking about conjunctures of cultural practice and agrarian environments, along the lines of what the French call terroir.
I want to be very clear: some bacteria and viruses make some people sick, something no food-maker wants to risk. Successful post-Pasteurian food-makers are never cavalier about pathogenic risk. Dairy farmers who trade in raw milk and cheesemakers who work with it are exceptionally careful about hygiene—they are not anti-Pasteurian. To the contrary, they work hard to distinguish between “good” and “bad” microorganisms and to harness the former as allies in vanquishing the latter. Post-Pasteurianism takes after Pasteurianism in taking hygiene seriously; it differs in being more discriminating.
Focused on the aggregate of national population, Pasteurian microbiopolitics has been criticized for taking a one-size-fits all approach to food safety, predicating regulation on industrial-scale production (relying on pasteurization or irradiation to kill pathogens presumed to be present owing to insanitary agricultural practices) and population-wide consumption (young raw-milk cheese is forbidden to all because it carries particular threat to immunocompromised and pregnant consumers). Post-Pasteurians counter that fresh milk is not inherently “dirty” and in need of pasteurization; contamination is a matter of human agricultural practice, it is not in the “nature” of milk. Moreover, many assert that the heterogeneity of the public in “public health” should not be reduced to its lowest common denominator; people are individuals. In other words, the post-Pasteurian position lobbies for socio-legal latitude that would permit potentially risky foods to be made and consumed safely by some, if not others.
I worry, though, that as enthusiasm for the beneficial agencies of microorganisms grows, underinformed enthusiasts may overestimate the power of “nature’s” microbial goodness.[ii] I fret even more when such a position is characterized—as I am beginning to see—in terms of “post-Pasteurianism.” Last year I discovered for sale on the Web t-shirts, bumper stickers, even maternity shirts and baby bibs emblazoned with a smiling microbe and the slogan, “I’m a Post Pasteurian.”
Descriptive copy explains, “What is a ‘Post Pasteurian’? A really smart person who understands that pasteurization kills all (yes, ALL) the good in food.”[iii] This is not how I defined “post-Pasteurian” in my 2008 article or 2013 book. For the record, I refuse the claim. Pasteurization does not “kill” all the good in food. The position putatively espoused by the t-shirt would pit a beneficent “nature” supernaturally enlivened by microorganisms against a power-greedy “culture” championed by regulatory overreach. But the natural-cultural reality is that milk and fermented foods such as cheese, yogurt, miso, and beer are multispecies muddles that resist such simplistic parsing.
There’s nothing essential about a food’s goodness. Humility is required to navigate (not necessarily manage, let alone steward) post-Pasteurian microbial ecologies.
By “microbiopolitics,” then, I mean to describe and analyze regimes of social management, both governmental and grassroots, which admit to the vital agencies of microbes, for good and bad. Including beneficial microbes like starter bacterial cultures and cheese mold — in addition to the harmful E. coli, Lysteria monocytogenes, and Micobacterium tuberculosis — in accounts of food politics extends the scaling of agro-food studies into the body, into the gastrointestinal. “Microbes connect us through diseases,” writes Latour, “but they also connect us, through our intestinal flora, to the very things we eat.”[iv] At the beginning of the twenty-first century, as it comes to light that 90 percent of what we think of as the human organism turns out to comprise microorganisms, the truism, “We are what we eat,” has never seemed more literal. One aim of my work has been to show how artisan food-makers carefully sort out microbial friends from foes, work (not faith) that produces the conditions through which a post-Pasteurian dieticity might safely emerge—for some if not others.
[i] See Heather Paxson, “Post-Pasteurian Cultures: The Microbiopolitics of Raw-Milk Cheese in the United States,” Cultural Anthropology 23(1): 15-47, 2008. And also Heather Paxson, The Life of Cheese: Crafting Food and Value in America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013.
[ii] See also Gareth Enticott, “Risking the Rural: Nature, Morality and the Consumption of Unpasteurized Milk,” Journal of Rural Studies 19(4): 411-424, 2003.
[iv] Bruno Latour, The Pasteurization of France. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993, p. 37.
August 20th, 2013, by Matt Hale Comments Off
It begins with a question. What if? What if Napoleon had won the Battle of Waterloo, if the Hindenburg hadn’t crashed, or if Thomas Edison had never been born? What might the world be like if history had been different? Steampunk is an expressive genre that explores the possibilities of a past that never was, but might have been. Inspired by the steam-powered and mechanistic imagery of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells’ novels and the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) ethos of cyberpunk art and literature, steampunk combines the aesthetics and materials of the nineteenth century with the technological developments and sensibilities of the twenty-first. It is a style defined by anachronism and guided by an impulse to explore and interrogate the role of technology in everyday life.
Although the genre began as a form of speculative literature in the 1980s and 1990s, it took on new life during the first decade of the twenty-first century, developing into a design aesthetic, fashion, and a subculture. It became a way of making and interacting with things. Steampunk artisans and inventors fabricate costumes, accessories, and whimsical gadgets with complex networks of gears that turn and flutter with the flick of a switch, working plasma tubes, and faux-steam engines that billow puffs of fake steam. They meet at conventions and talk about bargain hunting at Goodwill and about the treasures that they’ve found at junk stores and yard sales. They tell stories about the things they’ve created, the objects that they’ve saved, and the new lives that they’ve given them. Broken television remote controls become epaulettes, discarded transistor radios are bound in leather and amplified through phonograph horns, and vintage vacuum tubes are transformed into retro-futuristic jewelry.
A steampunk costumer stands in line for the Dragon*Con parade
wearing a tweed blazer, black felt top hat and brass goggles, and an
epaulet made from re-purposed consumer grade electronics. Photo by the
At its core, steampunk material culture is about redefining our relationship with technology. Many steampunks believe that human beings no longer have meaningful relationships with technology. They say that modern consumer electronics are cheaply made, aesthetically sterile, and unserviceable and that they perpetuate a culture of disposability. For much of the world, computers, cellphones, and similar devices have become interwoven into the texture of everyday life. They facilitate exchange, organize our behaviors, and enable us to connect with one another and express ourselves, yet despite their importance the average individual’s relationships with their personal technologies are transient and superficial. Devices are purchased and used and when they they break, obsolesce, or fall out of fashion they are discarded and/or replaced with another contrivance. Steampunks bemoan the fact that technology has become something that the masses consume, but seldom produce. They point out that few individuals actually understand how the devices they own and operate actually function. A steampunk costumer I interviewed at Dragon*Con, the largest multi-genre popular culture convention held in the south eastern United States, explained that:
You go all your life with all these magic machines and you can’t see what they do. You don’t know how they work, they’re just in a box, so when you take the cover off it’s always cool. I mean I did that as a kid. I’d rip apart VCRs and everything. Steampunk very much wants to put the mechanics out there and show like ‘this is a machine, it looks cool.’
This impressive ensemble features a mahogany-stained wooden
backpack. A length of metallic cable runs out from behind and the
along the edge of the backpack and through a series of metal rings,
terminating in a pair of wooden handles that hang beside the wearer’s
hands. When pulled downward, the cables actuate a pair of large cloth
covered wings fabricated from scrap lumber and other salvaged
materials. Photo by the author, 2012.
Steampunks take inspiration from the nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries, times when technologies were often treated as fine furniture. Gramophones, telephones, radios, and even televisions were encased in intricately decorated wood or metal cabinets and were designed in such a way that, if they were maintained and repaired by the owner, would have long useful lifecycles. So long, in fact, that many devices were be treated as heirlooms. Today, however, modern consumer technologies are subject to planned obsolescence. They are made from inexpensive materials (typically non-biodegrading and toxic molded plastics) and designed in such a way that their useful lifespans will be significantly shortened. These throwaway economics “put the owner into the market for a replacement” (Packard 1960:69) and force the customer to purchase new products rather than maintain, repair, or disintegrate and re-purpose the products that they’ve already owned.
A pair of costumers from an Alabama-based steampunk group
display their handcrafted accessories made from modified cheap plastic
toy guns, brass hardware, paint, and a recycled plastic Sprite bottle.
Photo by the author, 2011.
Steampunk is a rejection of planned obsolescence and disposable technologies. It is about exploring human-object relations and re-conceptualizing technology in ways that are fundamentally different from how modern industrial capitalism conceives them. Steampunks approach materials not just as a medium of exchange or a means to accumulate profit, but as resources that have consequences and effects within and on the world. The most common means of production is through a process known as upcycling—the act of converting discarded material recourses into new forms with the intention that the consequent products be of a higher and more sustainable quality than they had been in their previous iteration(s). Upcycling is contrasted with recycling, what William McDonough and Michael Braungart (2002) have described as downcycling—a process in which existing materials are continuously reused in successively lower quality and less functional objective iterations until they are eventually discarded.
A young costumer attending Dragon*Con in costume with his
family stops and explains the major components of his retro-futuristic
looking weaponry. Among other things, it is constructed from a
reclaimed plastic gun, a small portable electric fan, two reusable
water bottles, and copper tubbing. Photo by the author, 2012.
Steampunks are detritivores. Reclaiming and refashioning the refuse of modern industrial design, they transform waste into something new and artful and create value where it had minimal, absent, or negative value before. For the majority of steampunks, waste is not an end of production, but its means. Steampunks are concerned with the life cycle of things, especially technological ones. They want to know how they are produced and discarded and they imagine how they might be recreated. This reproductive force revolves around: (1) the reconceptualization of material resources as long-term, repairable and/or upgradable substances that require stewardship throughout their useful lifecycle from their point of disintegration; (2) a demotion or outright elimination of the concept of waste; and (3) a transition away from the use of “virgin materials” (Hawken, Lovins, and Lovins 1999:15) and inexpensive/unserviceable substances in favor of regenerative designs that produce value from already existing manufactured resources.
Braungart, Michael and William McDonough
2002 Cradle-to-Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. New York: North Point Press.
Hawken, Paul, Amory Lovins, and L. Hunter Lovins
1999 Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.
1960 The Waste Makers. Brooklyn: Ig Publishing.
July 30th, 2013, by adelfanti Comments Off
What does sharing mean in contemporary science? New practices of open science are questioning assumptions about the evolution of scientific cultures. Often, references to the emergence of new forms of open sharing and cooperation through digital networks point at the restoration of a modern scientific ethos of sharing and communalism to which scientists are somehow naturally socialised. Yet I believe scientific cultures are the subject of a cultural mash-up. This includes cultural elements taken from the modern, Mertonian ethos of science that preceded the late 20th century transformation towards academic capitalism and post-academic science. Elements coming from that tradition are still at scientists’ disposal, since the influence of that culture has survived the social dimension from which it was born, but they need to remix it with new and different cultural elements directly related to computers and information technologies, which are indistricable from today’s scientific enterprise.
An old culture that is pre-existing, accepted, embodied in a complete set of practices and norms, merges with hacker cultures and more recent ethos linked to several other fields of innovation and thus creates a new justificatory apparatus that provides scientists with a set of cultural tools to be used in today’s relationship between science and society. This remix between Mertonian ethos and hacker cultures creates a new and emerging figure of the scientist, one who practices open sharing, but who also rebels against bureaucracy and claims independence from academic and corporate institutions. Autonomy, independence and openness coexist with other elements – for example: a radical refusal of interference coming from incumbents; the belief that bare information is good per se, as long as it is shared and accessible; the rebellion against the mechanisms of scholarly publishing and peer review; in some cases an explicit drive towards profit and entrepreneurship.
While including elements from digital cultures, science is becoming more and more entrenched with the kind of ambivalence and clashes that are embodied in digital networks: online sharing cannot be interpreted merely as a response to increased privatization, but can be part of new business models based on the appropriation of online cooperation or on providing services to analyse big data that cannot be valued through strict intellectual property enforcement.
Craig Venter is a corporate-oriented biologist famous for his unscrupulous use of patents and secrecy, that with his research ship Sorcerer II shifted to open science, sharing data and knowledge coming from this metagenomics project. Openness can be part of a corporate (and marketing) strategy. DIYbio is a network of citizen scientists that transfers hacker ethics in the realm of the life sciences, sometimes keeping discourses of participation together with the search for new business models. The ‘open source junkie’ George Church from Harvard, also nicknamed the ‘information exhibitionist’ given his attitude for total data disclosure, is the director of the open source Personal Genome Project, a long-term project aimed at sequencing and publicising the complete genome and medical data of 100,000 volunteers. Church is involved in many start-ups in the field of personal genomics. Drew Endy heads the MIT BioBricks Project, with his ideas for ‘DNA hacking’ that he has also presented in public meetings such as the Chaos Communication Congress of Berlin, one of the most famous hacker gatherings on the planet. Endy is among the founders of the Registry of Standard Biological Parts, a collection of standardised genetic parts that can be used in synthetic biology projects.
These cases, and several others, share common cultural elements based on openness, but they also show that this culture can be reconfigured in very different ways in order to adapt it to different needs, such as those faced by freelance private scientists working for profit, by scientists belonging to public research institutions and struggling towards shifting the balance of power over data, and by movements such as DIYbio that includes discourses of participation and autonomy. The complexity of open science politics lies in the spaces of possibilities opened by this confluence and is inestricably related to the current configuration of the relationship between science and society, enterprise, universities and other actors which participate in the making and marketing of contemporary biology.
The new social contract they prefigure and contribute to building could restore some of the sharing practices that characterised twentieth-century academic research. However, it would also be transformed, broadened and improved by web technologies and the widespread diffusion of open and peer production. Different forms of information management and control would coexist in an environment inhabited by creatures as diverse as companies, universities, public agencies, start-ups and new institutions such as citizen science projects.
The new open science culture linked to this social contract maintains a political ambivalence, not different from the well-analysed ambivalence that is integral to the digital economy. Thanks to the open and free input of non-experts and voluntary contributors, the participatory processes of governance and the universal availability of the output, open and peer production might prove to be more productive than centralised alternatives. Thus open biology is not only a tool wielded against the current status quo and against the enclosures represented by secrecy and strict intellectual property rights. The way in which information circulates has important political consequences, and the role of new media as a tool for democracy is an important discourse underlying the whole development of information societies. On the other hand, in a world in which openness, flexibility, freedom from bureaucracies and cooperation are elements that belong to a capitalistic mode of organising labour and production, we must rethink any easy commitment to open science as good per se and face its complexity. Thus, biohacking can be an intervention in the marketplace as well as a practice of resistance. Yes, it is to be considered as part of a shift towards a more open environment for biological research – open meaning both ‘open to more participation and cooperation’ and ‘open to a more diverse set of modes of capitalist appropriation’.
Alessandro Delfanti, McGill University
This post contains excerpts from the book Biohackers: The Politics of Open Science (Pluto Press, London, 2013)
July 16th, 2013, by codonnell Comments Off
In May, Adobe prompted me reflect on the “Cloud.” Adobe announced that it’s widely used “Creative Suite,” which includes things like Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, Acrobat and many other software products would be transitioning to a subscription-based, web-based and cloud-based product, the “Creative Cloud.” My first (and clearly cynical) thought was, “Well, at least I don’t have to install their bloated [explicative] software anymore or have Acrobat update every other day.”
At the same time, the reality of what that would mean for people who use these products for their jobs, encouraged me to consider it further. It also prompted me to return to a 2008 discussion between Richard Stallman and Bobbie Johnson of the Guardian.
I should also disaggregate the cloud infrastructure from products that deliver their services via the cloud. These are often conflated in accounts of the trend. The cloud infrastructure is/are computers and the networks that connect them and them to the world (and lots of people, power, buildings, …). Amazon Web Services is such an infrastructure. Amazon developed it to meet their own needs and now sells those services. Google, Apple, Microsoft and many others have their own data centers that house this physical infrastructure. Cloud-based services, like the Creative Cloud are delivered via cloud infrastructure. They are related, but not the same. You’d be surprised how many services a single web-page or video view triggers.
I use the cloud for my research. I’m writing this in Evernote, which I pay for a premium subscription. I keep files synchronized between machines via a paid DropBox account. In some ways I suspect that my yearly use of TurboTax online makes my use of it a cloud-based service. I use GMail for all non-institutional email. According to Stallman, I’m stupid, and maybe I am. But why am I stupid and how did I get there?
Gmail was the first cloud-based service I came in contact with. I managed an invite in June of 2004. At the time I was a graduate student and in-between computers after having lost my computer due to its proximity to a liquid beverage. My writing and my email were critically important to me. At the time, my email constituted about 700MB of computer storage and when I joined, Gmail provided each user with 1GB of email storage for free. Gmail was a place to store my email that I could access from any computer. It was a place that in all likelihood was less likely to crash and take my data with it than my computer. At this time, typical space allowed to people using institutional email addresses was somewhere around 100MB.
I knew I was trading access to my data for a free service. I’d have paid to protect it if I could. But, that wasn’t what Google wanted. They were playing a different game. The potential of Gmail for me was it’s portability and storage space. Google was responding to a need that many users have, email storage space and the ability to access it from nearly anywhere. Now, however, many of us are worried about the power that we’ve handed over to companies providing cloud-based services. Maybe it is stupid. But where were the alternatives? Why weren’t there efforts made to make data access, portability and reliability in other ways? I don’t like carrying hard-drives or computers from work to home. I’ve tried. Synchronization is always slow and clunky.
But let’s come back to Adobe for a moment. The Creative Cloud isn’t about responding to a need. New moves are being made in the cloud-based services space that are about something different. Like so many things, it’s less about responding to user’s needs and instead corporate needs. The game industry loves to pioneer this stuff and this is more about ensuring that users are licensed and paying than about providing new capabilities that make the lives and work of users easier.
What users are really balking at is the enforcement of what has always been the case. We already fell for the trap. We don’t own our software. We license it. The same increasingly applies to “our” devices. The rules that have been at play for years are only now being enforced and it is shifting our relationship with computers and software companies. The cloud is about the browser as well. Increasingly our work occurs within one of many tabs in Chrome, Safari or Firefox. The browser is a powerful platform that removes the complexity that made the battles over Mac vs. PC desktop software so salient from 1990 through 2010. Even desktop software frequently requires the web-based services provided by a network. Code can be instantly updated to patch “holes,” that users slip through, for good and bad. The cloud is another piece of “society made malleable.”