The turns and ramifications that life sciences took in the scarce 18 years of XXI century have been undeniably attached to scenarios in which the late neoliberalism project successfully implemented new reticular models applied as ‘revolutionary rework’_s, in order to increase control scope over citizen bodies and at the same time, generate profits for private investors, based on established scientific and technological apparatuses.
Over all, the now enriched and reinforced bio·techno_logic complex took the lead role as ‘the promising life science’, mining the numerous/mutative meanings of ≤life≥ into new legal, ethical, commercial and geopolitical grounds. Is not surprise that inside the wide gamut of specialization in life sciences, biotechnology fulfilled the qualities to become a convenient stock market profile discipline, due to its power to potentiate cheap costs of production, speculative profiling based on microscopic logics, the full + limitless manipulation of living organisms, government control, entrepreneurial investing, unavoidable genocentrism_s, pharmaceutical targeting, etc.
Inside the broader spectrum in which biotechnology is unfolded, consumed and validated, Alessandro Delfanti’s research takes a deep understanding of how biology and its extended knowledge is distributed and redesigned outside the approved spaces traditionally destined to be applied.
I had an interview with Delfanti in 2014 to talk about a prophetic dialogue he had with Steve Kurtz (founder member of Critical Art Ensemble), biohacking, amateur biology/DIYbio, privatization of genetic material/wetware, pharmaceutical/data surveillance, hacker cultures, biocapitalism, new strategies in the use of scientific information and many other subjects developed widely in his book Biohackers. The politics of open science.
In 2010 you interviewed Steve Kurtz, member of Critical Art Ensemble, in this dialogue were discussed earlier notions regarding the privatization and reification of genetic material as interchangeable capital as well as corporative interests behind the biotechnology industry and the combination between scientific research with political activism.
What impression leaves you this diagnosis conversed four years ago in relation to the current situation of politics in life sciences?
I believe that those ideas were well timed and captured the transition of biotechnology towards today’s model, embodied by synthetic biology and rooted in a culture of entrepreneurialism which values distributed innovation and production as a change towards a neoliberal biomedical sector. Kurtz was signaling that the use of DIY approaches to biotech as a form of critique of the industry was being replaced by forms of DIY biology that are integral to neoliberalism. Indeed, especially in the US several DIY communities and groups have strong links with the world of startups and venture capital.
Some of the topics found in your research are related with the power and influence of technologies in the flow of knowledge and information.
How these technologies are applied in the production of scientific knowledge in the field of Open Science and Peer-to-Peer dynamics?
The influence of technological evolution on science is broad and it would be difficult to acknowledge all the different impacts that we are witnessing. First, I would mention one cultural change, which is the influence of information technology on the epistemologies of biology. For example, the use of extreme informational metaphors taken from computers to describe and understand living matter (life as software code). Second, as a more direct effect on P2P dynamics I would mention digital technologies used to capture data and use it for scientific innovation. This is something happening at all levels in the digital sphere — think of Facebook using your data to provide a better advertising experience or turning it over to surveillance agencies. But when it comes to health, illness and bodies this phenomenon has some specificities. Just to give an example, both new web-based companies and old pharmaceutical giants are interested in organizing people on platforms in which they are compelled to share data related to their health — illnesses, drugs, family history, etc — in order to use the aggregated data as a source of knowledge for drug innovation. Public participation is redirected towards corporate goals and not towards power redistribution.
How is it that the hacker culture, information technologies and biocapitalism coexist in something as complex as the transformation of science institutions?
I believe that hacker cultures have been contaminating scientific cultures and are now part of them. Hacking is a very broad and diverse set of subcultures, but characteristics such as openness, distributed innovation or distrust for institutions are sort of cultural and rhetorical tools that some scientists are playing in the public sphere in order to re-position themselves in the world of contemporary science and in relation to the market.
As it happens in hardware and software development, hacker politics can be ambivalent and support both oppositional practices directed towards goals of collective liberation, and the disruption of old monopolies in order to open new markets. Biocapitalism is interested in hacking because it is one of the fuels of digital capitalism.
A few years ago Bill Gates said that if he were a kid today, he would be hacking biology rather than software, and I believe this signals how he sees market opportunities for new forms of innovation in the life sciences.
In Is do-it-yourself Biology being co-opted by institutions?, you analyse the revolutionary value of biology according to their alliances and codependency with government and state agencies, as well as three major areas: scientific institutions, market and the state.
Is there a real project of emancipation within movements derived from DIYbio?
What is the effectiveness of these intentions?
Are the contributions of DIYbio a real change in the democratization of knowledge?
Right now it is very difficult to interpret DIYbio as a project of emancipation. The birth of its current incarnation is strictly related to the emergence of the synthetic biology industry, and its practices are co-opted by institutions at several levels: the state reproduces the dream of a distributed and open laboratory in museums, diluting its emancipatory promises. The industry sponsors biohacking as an incubator of new startups that can be bought by big pharma if they produce something interesting. This is a well established model in software development and outsources all risks of innovation to startups, which as we know have a very low rate of success: most fail and get bankrupt, only a few succeed and get incorporated by big corporations. Finally, academia is interested in citizen science as long as it can control and direct it, for example through projects of distributed research in which people can participate by gathering data or solving problems but cannot decide the goals, let alone slow down or stop the process. On the other hand, hacking teaches us that opening up technologies to different kinds of expertise that are only partially internal to institutions is per se an emancipatory process: this is the reason why I believe that biohacking might in the future emerge as a source of alternatives.
Are there chances to know if Open Science is having a proto-institutionalization process, or is a movement that is committed to the resistance to the privatization of commons?
I would tend not to collapse open science in a single entity, as several different actors and practices are involved. That said, if by ‘open’ we mean the problem of property and the role of open source in biology: yes, open science resists older forms of accumulation based on information privatization through intellectual property rights. Yet if we focus on licenses we miss out the emergence of new forms of appropriation which are based on computational power, service providing, organization of online platforms for data sharing and the like. These are just different forms of private profit that rely on a more dynamic but probably not less exploitative mode of accumulation.
Alessandro Delfanti is an assistant professor of Culture and New Media at the University of Toronto, with appointments at the Institute of Communication, Culture, Information and Technology and the Faculty of Information. His practice research includes digital labour, hacking and digital countercultures, and the political economy of science and technology.
In the past he worked and/or taught at University of California Davis and McGill University. He has a PhD in Science & Society from the University of Milan (and visited or studied at SISSA, UCLA and Edinburgh).