06 October 2015


'The Biopolitical Public Domain' by Julie E. Cohen comments
 Within the political economy of informational capitalism, commercial surveillance practices are tools for resource extraction. That process requires an enabling legal construct, which this essay identifies and explores. Contemporary practices of personal information processing constitute a new type of public domain — a repository of raw materials that are there for the taking and that are framed as inputs to particular types of productive activity. The raw materials consist of information identifying or relating to people, and the public domain of personal information is biopolitical — rather than, say, personal or informational — because the productive activities that it frames as desirable are activities that involve the description, processing, and management of populations, with consequences that are productive, distributive, and epistemological. As a legal construct, the biopolitical public domain shapes practices of appropriation and use of personal information in two complementary and interrelated ways. First, it constitutes personal information as available and potentially valuable: as a pool of materials that may be freely appropriated as inputs to economic production. That framing supports the reorganization of sociotechnical activity in ways directed toward extraction and appropriation. Second, the biopolitical public domain constitutes the personal information harvested within networked information environments as raw. That framing creates the backdrop for culturally-situated techniques of knowledge production and for the logic that designates those techniques as sites of legal privilege.
Meredith Patterson's 2010 A Biopunk Manifesto (an echo of Hughes' Cypherpunk Manifesto and Barlow's Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace) states that
... Citizen science has suffered from a troubling decline in diversity, and it is this diversity that biohackers seek to reclaim. We reject the popular perception that science is only done in million-dollar university, government, or corporate labs; we assert that the right of freedom of inquiry, to do research and pursue understanding under one's own direction, is as fundamental a right as that of free speech or freedom of religion. We have no quarrel with Big Science; we merely recall that Small Science has always been just as critical to the development of the body of human knowledge, and we refuse to see it extinguished. 
Research requires tools, and free inquiry requires that access to tools be unfettered. As engineers, we are developing low-cost laboratory equipment and off-the-shelf protocols that are accessible to the average citizen. As political actors, we support open journals, open collaboration, and free access to publicly-funded research, and we oppose laws that would criminalize the possession of research equipment or the private pursuit of inquiry. 
Perhaps it seems strange that scientists and engineers would seek to involve themselves in the political world -- but biohackers have, by necessity, committed themselves to doing so. The lawmakers who wish to curtail individual freedom of inquiry do so out of ignorance and its evil twin, fear -- the natural prey and the natural predator of scientific investigation, respectively. If we can prevail against the former, we will dispel the latter. As biohackers it is our responsibility to act as emissaries of science, creating new scientists out of everyone we meet. We must communicate not only the value of our research, but the value of our methodology and motivation, if we are to drive ignorance and fear back into the darkness once and for all. 
We the biopunks are dedicated to putting the tools of scientific investigation into the hands of anyone who wants them. We are building an infrastructure of methodology, of communication, of automation, and of publicly available knowledge. 
Biopunks experiment. We have questions, and we don't see the point in waiting around for someone else to answer them. Armed with curiosity and the scientific method, we formulate and test hypotheses in order to find answers to the questions that keep us awake at night. We publish our protocols and equipment designs, and share our bench experience, so that our fellow biopunks may learn from and expand on our methods, as well as reproducing one another's experiments to confirm validity. To paraphrase Eric Hughes, "Our work is free for all to use, worldwide. We don't much care if you don't approve of our research topics." We are building on the work of the Cypherpunks who came before us to ensure that a widely dispersed research community cannot be shut down. 
Biopunks deplore restrictions on independent research, for the right to arrive independently at an understanding of the world around oneself is a fundamental human right. Curiosity knows no ethnic, gender, age, or socioeconomic boundaries, but the opportunity to satisfy that curiosity all too often turns on economic opportunity, and we aim to break down that barrier. A thirteen-year-old kid in South Central Los Angeles has just as much of a right to investigate the world as does a university professor. If thermocyclers are too expensive to give one to every interested person, then we'll design cheaper ones and teach people how to build them. 
Biopunks take responsibility for their research. We keep in mind that our subjects of interest are living organisms worthy of respect and good treatment, and we are acutely aware that our research has the potential to affect those around us. But we reject outright the admonishments of the precautionary principle, which is nothing more than a paternalistic attempt to silence researchers by inspiring fear of the unknown. When we work, it is with the betterment of the community in mind -- and that includes our community, your community, and the communities of people that we may never meet. We welcome your questions, and we desire nothing more than to empower you to discover the answers to them yourselves. The biopunks are actively engaged in making the world a place that everyone can understand. Come, let us research together.