Distraction Free Reading

Open Science and the Ambivalence of the Digital Economy

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)

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