Distributed Biotechnology

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Essay

* Article: Distributed Biotechnology. Alessandro Delfanti. Forthcoming in Tyfield, D., Lave, R., Randalls, S., Thorpe, C. (eds.) The Routledge Handbook of the Political Economy of Science , New York: Routledge, 2017

URL = https://www.academia.edu/23230536/Distributed_Biotechnology

Summary

"In the last two decades, an array of do-it-yourself biology groups, biotech start-ups and community labs have emerged in Europe, America, and Asia. These groups and spaces share the vision of a “distributed biotechnology” and are part of broader transformations of the relation between technological and scientific change and society.

Distributed biotechnology includes amateurs as well as an emergent set of companies that provide laboratory equipment and digital platforms designed to foster citizen contribution to biotechnology research. It differs from traditional forms of citizen science, as it draws on elements from hacker cultures and adopts molecular biology as its main scientific framework. The term “distributed” means that actors envision a biotechnology free from centralized control. They imagine biotechnology as personal, and the aggregation of individual efforts as technically and socially meaningful. Thresholds to access are relatively low, as distributed biotechnology’s spaces are open to amateurs and its techniques sometimes rudimentary. Finally, connections between different actors are created and maintained through the circulation of people, materials, and information.Regardless of the hype that surrounds it , the output of distributed biotech tends to be relatively far from any “revolutionary” scientific breakthrough. What makes it worthy of analysis is the way it imagines and implements practices that construct biotechnology as open, personal, and oppositional towards biomedical research incumbents. Distributed biotech is characterized by a perceived, and in some cases sought-after independency from, if not opposition to, incumbent institutional actors, such as corporate and university labs. Indeed, different actors share the goal of broadening life science research beyond the limits of traditional institutional laboratories. Yet, distributed biotechnology seems to emerge out of a complex relation with incumbent institutional actors, rather than in opposition to them. Also, it intersects deeply with the broader neoliberal economy of science and its innovation and justification regimes. The definition of “distributed” aims at unpacking some of these ambivalences, as it signals a plural approach to biotechnology while avoiding the lexicon of democracy implicit in definitions such as “participatory” or “citizen” science." (https://www.academia.edu/23230536/Distributed_Biotechnology)


Excerpts

From the Conclusions

Alessandro Delfanti:

"Although it could be considered marginal if compared to major fields such as agrobiotech, pharmaceutical research or academic institutions, distributed biotechnology has been central to recent political transformations in the relationship between biology and society.Distributed biotech is comprised of different actors that exchange people, material and information. DIY biology groups, biohackerspaces, start-ups, incubators, as well a seducation and academic institutions all encompass this diverse field. Its current configuration is the historical and political product of a number of genealogies that combine actors of cultural and social diversity who have in common a dissatisfaction witht he political economy of mainstream biotechnology. Distributed biotech is constructed through a complex entanglement of technical, political, and economic openness. Also, it fosters the idea that biotechnology can be a personal technology that individuals canappropriate for processes of consumption and entrepreneurship. Visions of a distributed biotechnology tend to present scientific progress as the result of the aggregation of free individual contributions. This is depicted as more efficient than centralized and bureaucratized research. Yet, while actors in distributed biotechnology communities or companies tend to construct their activities autonomously from mainstream biomedical research, processes of dependence and increased institutionalization are at play. Practitioners, pundits, and scholars alike have explicitly linked the trajectory of biohacking, DIY and distributed biotechnology to that of personal computers in the 1970s. Under the influence of post-1968 countercultures, hackers first imagined that the computer could become personal: first, a community-based tool used for collective liberation, and later, an individual tool for mediated communication. This led to the commercialization of computers as personal technologies designed for mass consumption, breaking a monopoly held by corporations that viewed computers as tools for experts and institutions. This story is often told as an edifying narrative of democratization and economic success. And yet a more nuanced analysis reveals the contestations, ambivalences and tensions that characterized the rise of personal computers within a new ideological framework as well as corporate system. Similarly, distributed biotechnology aims at disrupting current monopolies within biological research. Yet while representing a change in the current balance of power in biotechnology, it contributes to the transformation of living matter into pliable, modifiable material that can be subject to industrial processes and further commodification. Furthermore, it presents the individual as the main subject that can produce a socially meaningful biology, either alone or through the aggregation of plural contributions into an emergent order. Nevertheless, the existence of groups that aim at reappropriating its processes and techniques for collective and autonomous purposes signals that, within this general framework, distributed biotech can be tweaked towards quite different ends. The political and technological evolution of distributed biotech is still open."