This paper investigates how groups of ‘citizen scientists’ in non-traditional settings and primarily online networks claim to be challenging conventional genomic research processes and norms. Although these groups are highly diverse, they all distinguish their efforts from traditional university- or industry-based genomic research as being ‘participant-driven’ in one way or another. Participant-driven genomic research (PDGR) groups often work from ‘labs’ that consist of servers and computing devices as much as wet lab apparatus, relying on information-processing software for data-driven, discovery-based analysis rather than hypothesis-driven experimentation. We interviewed individuals from a variety of efforts across the expanding ecosystem of PDGR, including academic groups, start-ups, activists, hobbyists, and hackers, in order to compare and contrast how they relate their stated objectives, practices, and political and moral stances to institutions of expert scientific knowledge production. Results reveal that these groups, despite their diversity, share commitments to promoting alternative modes of housing, conducting, and funding genomic research and, ultimately, sharing knowledge. In doing so, PDGR discourses challenge existing approaches to research governance as well, especially the regulation, ethics, and oversight of human genomic information management. Interestingly, the reaction of the traditional genomics research community to this revolutionary challenge has not been negative: in fact, the community seems to be embracing the ethos espoused by PDGR, at the highest levels of science policy. As conventional genomic research assimilates the ethos of PDGR, the movement’s ‘democratizing’ views on research governance are likely to become normalized as well, creating new tensions for science policy and research ethics.'Steve Jobs, Terrorists, Gentlemen and Punks: Tracing Strange Comparisons of Biohackers' by Morgan Meyer in Joe Deville, Michael Guggenheim and Zuzana Hrdlicková (eds) Practising Comparisons: Logics, Relations, Collaborations (Mattering Press, 2016) comments
In this paper, I want to reflect and shed new light on one of my current research topics: biohacking. While I have been researching biohacking for a few years now, to date I have not yet examined its comparative dimension. The themes I have investigated thus far revolve around the materiality, boundaries, and ethics of biohacking. However, so far I have not problematised or made visible the issue of comparison, despite the fact that comparisons abound in discussions about biohackers. This article is thus an opportunity to use a comparative optics to ‘make new discoveries’ (Yengoyan 2006) on a subject that I felt I already knew well.
Biohackers are people who hack and tinker with biology. On the one hand, the phenomenon of biohacking can be easily localised (both temporally and spatially). The movement emerged in 2007/2008 and has largely developed in large US and European cities. On the other hand, in order to understand and analyse the phenomenon, comparisons with a wide and heterogeneous set of figures are made by science journalists and practitioners alike. For example, biohackers are concurrently compared to the following: seventeenth-century gentlemen amateurs; terrorists (whom Western powers usually locate in the East); the punk movement that emerged in the 1970s and their do-it-yourself ethics; and Steve Jobs and the Homebrew Computer Club.
The term biohacking is used today to designate a wide array of practices including the hacking of expensive scientific equipment by building cheaper alternatives; producing biosensors to detect pollutants in food and in the environment; and genetically re-engineering yoghurt to alter its taste, make it fluorescent, or produce vitamin C. Biohacking mobilises and transforms both molecular biology techniques and the ethics of hacking/open source. As such, it can be seen as a recent phenomenon. Its emergence as a distinct and visible movement can be traced back to the past eight or nine years. In 2008, for instance, DIYbio (the first association dedicated to do-it-yourself biology) was created. Two years later, the Biopunk Manifesto (2010) was written by Meredith Patterson, one of the leading figures in the biohacking movement. In addition, at the time of writing this paper, there are a number of associations, laboratories, wikis, websites, and so on, dedicated to biohacking.
The rise of the biohacker movement has caught the attention of journalists and academics alike. Academics have followed and analysed the movement since around 2008 (see Schmidt 2008a; Bennet et al. 2009; Ledford 2010), and two books dedicated to the subject have recently been published: Biohackers: The Politics of Open Science (2013), by science and technology studies (STS) scholar Alessandro Delfanti, and Biopunk: DIY Scientists Hack the So ware of Life (2011), by science journalist Marcus Wohlsen. In one way or another, this body of work has examined the ethics, risks, potentials, and openness of the movement.
The geographical spread of biohacking – like its temporal emergence – can also be delineated. According to the main website in the field (DIYbio.org), there are currently eighty-five DIY biology laboratories in the world, of which twenty-eight are located in Europe, and thirty-five are in the US on either the east or west coast. There are now biohacker labs and biohackers in cities like New York, Boston, Paris, San Francisco, Manchester, Vienna, and in recent years, initiatives have developed in places like Japan, Indonesia, and Singapore. The political geography of biohacking (and consequently, the arguments developed in this paper) thus needs to be emphasised. The biohacker movement is developing in Western and Westernised countries; laboratories are usually located in urban or suburban settings; and English is the lingua franca for the majority of the websites, articles, mailing lists, discussions, and wikis devoted to biohacking.
This paper focuses on how, and to what, biohackers are compared. This is a challenging question, for as we will see below, biohackers are compared to rather unlikely bedfellows. Not only are plentiful comparisons being made, but they are also drawn between different cultures and times, and between different – sometimes opposing – values and ethics. Unlike the ‘comparator’ which needs to be actively assembled, fed, and calibrated in order to provide comparisons (Deville, Guggenheim, and Hrdličková 2013), in the case of biohackers, comparisons are ‘already there’ and they are omnipresent. The frequency and disparity of these comparisons are what caught my interest in comparison and what compelled me to write this chapter. Why are such comparisons mobilised and why are such unlikely gures put side by side? What kinds of effects do such comparisons afford? How should we analyse these comparisons?
It is not unusual for hackers and computer programmers to be compared. Computer hackers, for instance, have been compared to public watchdogs, whistle-blowers, elite corps of computer programmers, artists, vandals, and criminals (see Jordan and Taylor 1998), while recent hacker networks like the Anonymous group have been compared to industrial machine breakers, and to Luddites (Deseriis 2013). The Homebrew Computer Club (initially a group of ‘hobbyists’) eventually became a group of ‘business entrepreneurs’ (see Coleman 2012), and Steve Jobs is today being compared to people like Thomas Edison or Walt Disney.
Using biohacking as a case study, I will reflect upon and problematise comparison. The list of potential benefits of comparison is long, and it is worth mentioning a few, such as how they help to explore new, unanticipated routes; move beyond national frameworks by varying scales of analysis; and identify social patterns while highlighting the singularity of the cases studied (de Verdalle et al. 2012). The practices, methods, and problems of comparison have been discussed in a number of academic texts over the past decade or so. For instance, Richard Fox and Andre Gingrich (2002) have made an important contribution by revisiting and (re)theorising comparison. Arguing that comparison is a basic human activity that deserves academic scrutiny, they lay out a specific programme for comparative approaches. Differentiating between weak or implicit comparison, and strong and explicit comparison, Fox and Gingrich push especially for the latter and highlight their plural nature (2002: 20). The explicit focus on comparison has now become increasingly common, so that people talk of a ‘comparative turn’ in the social sciences (see Ward 2010). In this sense, comparison is actively engaged with, problematised, and theorised. This interest is visible beyond the Anglo-Saxon world as well. In France, for instance, two collections of essays on comparison have been published in 2012 alone: one is in the journal Terrains et Travaux (featuring on its cover an orange and an apple – a classic image that at once depicts sameness and difference, and is one of the chief challenges of comparison). The other is in an edited book called Faire des Sciences Sociales: Comparer (Remaud, Schaub, and ireau 2012).
In this article, I want to draw on this body of work in several ways. First, I am interested in several authors’ emphases on ‘thick’ and multidimensional comparisons. Ana Barro, Shirley Jordan, and Celia Roberts (1998) have argued that comparison should be explorative, thick, and multidimensional. Jörg Niewöhner and Thomas Scheffer – who also argue for a ‘thick’ comparison – further emphasise that comparisons are performative in that ‘they connect what would otherwise remain unconnected, specify what would otherwise remain unspecified, and emphasise what would otherwise remain unrecognised’ (2008: 281). In a related way, Joe Deville, Michael Guggenheim, and Zuzana Hrdličková (this volume) talk about approaches that actively ‘provoke’ comparisons, while Tim Choy (2011) examines what comparisons do.
Second, I do not want to ‘solve’ the issue of comparison, nor tell a coherent account of what biohackers are and what they are not. I am, rather, exploring the problems that biohackers and their identities entail. In this sense, I follow Adam Kuper (2002) who reminds us that we have to ‘begin with a problem, a question, an intuition’ (2002: 161). He further writes:
I remain convinced that methodological difficulties are the least of our problems [...] We lack questions rather than the means to answer them. What we need in order to revive the comparative enterprise is not new methods but new ideas, or perhaps simply fresh problems (Ibid. 162).
I hold that biohackers are possibly such a ‘fresh problem’ since their identity is somewhat ambiguous and unclear, and since the probable risks and innovative potential of their activities are currently being debated. Discussions about biohacking reveal that there are many uncertainties and that it seems diffcult to put their identity into neat categories. The questions that seem to drive most biohacking comparisons – Who are they? How can we make sense of them? Are they to be feared or hailed? – seem to have no clear answer.
Third, I also draw on Donna Haraway’s and Marilyn Strathern’s ideas around ‘partial connections’ and positionality. In her discussion about situated knowledge, Haraway writes:
[h]ere is the promise of objectivity: a scientific knower seeks the subject position, not of identity, but of objectivity, that is, partial connection. There is no way to ‘be’ simultaneously in all, or wholly in any, of the privileged (i.e. subjugated) positions (1988: 586).
I am arguing for politics and epistemologies of location, positioning, and situating, where partiality and not universality is the condition of being heard to make rational knowledge claims [...] Feminism loves another science: the sciences and politics of interpretation, translation, stu ering, and the partly understood (Ibid. 589).
In her book Partial Connections (1991), Strathern further draws on Haraway’s work and uses the term ‘partial’ to say that ‘for not only is there no totality, each part also de nes a partisan position’ (1991: 39). The trope of ‘partial connections’ can be – and already has been – engaged with in work on comparisons.
For instance, Endre Dányi, Lucy Suchman and Laura Watts (cited in Witmore 2009) have compared seemingly incompatible field sites (a renewable energy industry, the Hungarian Parliament, and a research centre in Silicon Valley) and noted that there can be a ‘remarkable repetitiveness’ when these sites are connected through specific themes (such as newness, centres/peripheries, place, and landscape). Others have talked about ‘partial comparisons’ (Jensen et al. 2011) as a way to think about multiplicities while still recognising that ‘there exists no single, stable, underlying nature on which all actors have their perspectives’ (Ibid. 15). In this paper, I want to use these ideas in order to avoid one pitfall: the depiction of biohackers as a coherent whole that is able to be summated according to the different parts and comparisons reported in this article. In other words, the comparisons made can only be ‘partially connected’. I will thus refrain from taking an analytical view ‘from above’, one that is detached from what takes place ‘on the ground’. Instead, I will follow the actors themselves and consider their comparisons and knowledge claims to be valid and legitimate. In the remainder of this paper, I look in turn at four comparisons of biohackers (Steve Jobs, punks, amateurs, and terrorists). I will think with biohackers about comparison, rather than think about biohackers’ comparisons. In doing so, I not only seek to examine what comparisons do and produce, but I will also be reflexive and critical about my own previous research.