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24/11/2014

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Biohackers: the politics of open science, by Alessandro Delfanti. Pluto, 2013

Amanda Rees finds an odd concoction

Amanda Rees finds an odd concoction.

If you could combine the gangling garage physicists of Robert Heinlein’s early science fiction novels with John Wyndham’s prescient acknowledgement of biology as the queen of the sciences, you might wind up with the figure of the ‘biohacker’: committed to pursuing knowledge for its own sake, unwilling to be constrained, whether by bureaucratic, legal or institutional impediment. In this book, Delfanti has done an excellent job of outlining the hopes and embodying the optimism that lie behind this approach to research and knowledge.

Hackers as heroes

Essentially, what he does is to show how the language (metaphors, narrative structures) used by or about those involved in such projects complements and resonates with that used to describe earlier – and more morally uplifting – periods in scientific history. So, the hacker is a heroic figure, even a heretic, comparable to Galileo, Newton and Einstein.

They act in a way commensurate with the scientific ideals of the mid-20th century, which themselves derive from the values that emerged during the Scientific Revolution. Knowledge should be publicly available, should be assessed on its merits and (crucially) should not be the source of monetary profit for the knowledge producer.

Many of these values, not all of which were consistently adhered to, seem to have been lost as knowledge becomes increasingly digitalised and monetized through the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Naturally, the story is a lot more complicated than this – as Delfanti is careful to acknowledge – but he is interested primarily in how the politics of the open science movement are influencing the doing of science, and how both are inflected (or, oddly, ‘contaminated’, in his term) by the values and social mores of the hacker community.

Thin case studies

The trouble is that this is an enormous topic, and this is a very short book (only 140 pages). Delfanti’s outline of his main thesis, which comprises the first three chapters, is not really very well supported by his three case studies (Craig Venter, Ilaria Capua and DIYbio), all of which would have been improved by the inclusion of more detail and data.

As things stand, his discursive analysis is allusive and thought provoking, but could have done with being rather more tightly tied to the earlier discussion of the studies of scientific practice and institution. This would have given greater context and wider significance to his analysis of the relationship between science, democracy, capitalism and neo-liberalism. 

No ethics

In addition, Delfanti’s clear enthusiasm and approbation of the hacker attitude, while enormously enjoyable to read, is in danger of blinding him to some less salubrious aspects of this approach to ‘open science’.

In his introduction, he notes that a scientist friend worried for his physical safety in the context of poor US regulation of dangerous chemicals – but the question of the potential misuse either of resources or knowledge does not recur. Given that much of the study’s focus is on language and morality in the consideration of intellectual property issues, it is rather odd not to see some of the other criminal aspects of hacking at least referenced.

Both at an individual and at an international, even global level, there are grounds for more and more concern about the relationship between cyber security and personal safety. In an era where scientists are asked to consider actually suppressing data, for fear of its misuse by terrorists, it’s odd to read a book about biohackers that has an index entry for ‘entrepreneurship’, but not one for ‘ethics’.

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Dr Amanda Rees
Dr Amanda Rees is Senior Lecturer at the Department of Sociology at the University of York
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