Biohackers

Biohackers: the politics of open science, Alessandro Delfanti, reviewed by Leigh Phillips

February 1, 2014 · 2 min read

Life hacks. Coffee hacks. Even knitting and crochet hacks. The term ‘hacker’ has long since been extended well beyond the practice of exploiting weaknesses in computer networks to describe anyone who tweaks, mashes up, short-cuts, customises or recombines anything. And since 2008, hacker spaces from Boston to Bangalore have opened up their remit to amateur biologists or ‘biohackers’, many of whom have switched over to tinkering with biology after years of tinkering with computers, partly as a product of the decline in the cost of DNA sequencing since the mid-1990s.

A book investigating biohacking is overdue, but Delfanti’s offering is not that book, despite the title. Actual DIY biohackers only feature in the final chapter of what would be more accurately described as a consideration of the overall open science biohacking ethic. The author extends these hacker values to include those of both public-sector ‘rebel’ and Italian virologist Ilaria Capua in her battle with the World Health Organisation over restricted access to avian flu data, and of ‘bad boy’ billionaire biotechnologist Craig Venter, when he dipped his toes into open science with the open-access publishing of the results of his privately funded Global Ocean Sampling Expedition to collect and sequence marine microbe genomes.

This is not to criticise Delfanti. He offers a novel insight yet to be recognised amid the cheering in some parts of the left of more traditionally comp-sci hacker-related efforts such as Wikileaks, Bitcoin, Pirate Parties, file-sharing and of course actual hacking itself. This insight is that hacking, whether of the bio or programming type – in garages, public universities or on Venter’s yacht – may be known for its radical anti-authoritarian vision but is fundamentally ambivalent about capitalism.

Hacking can either be pulled towards a collectivist strategy, or used by capitalism ‘for the sake of its own evolution, as it changes by mobilising critiques and opposing cultures and incorporating them into new cultural frameworks adapted to corporate goals’. Given the current unwarranted suspicion of synthetic biology by some on the green left, my guess is that in the end, the market orientation will prove to be more seductive to biohackers than the collectivist one.


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