Garage ribofunk redux – DIY biohacking gaining popularity

Paul Raven @ 27-01-2010

While we’re on the subject of garage industries, here’s a piece at pop-transhumanist organ H+ Magazine on the expanding field of garage biotech [via GlobalGuerrillas; image by mknowles]. We’ve covered DIY biohackers and ribofunkers here before, but the H+ writer has a cautious optimism about the scene’s potential once the dabblers have fallen by the wayside:

It‘s not just enhancement technology that can benefit from DIYbiology. As the popular distrust of doctors grows, people will want to understand and monitor their own body. Likewise, as personalized medicine becomes a reality, we will probably see a rise in the number of hobbyists who treat their own bodies as machines to be worked on — like a radio or a car — branching out from personalized genomics to things like DIY stem cell extraction and manipulation, DIY prosthetics, DIY neural prosthetics and sensory enhancements (infrared vision, anyone?), immune system testing, and general tweaking of whatever system strikes the hobbyist‘s fancy. This hacker‘s paradise has not yet come to pass, but it is, perhaps, our exciting future.

[Given that most distrust of doctors that I’m aware of is based in religious beliefs, I’m not sure the demographics are going to overlap quite that much… though the idea of the First Church Of Jesus Christ Geneticist is an appealing story hook.]

The road to true DIYbiology will not be easy. It‘s not a magic bullet. It will probably not produce the next Bill Gates, at least not for a long time. Biology is hard, messy, and failure is more common than success. The knowledge required takes time and effort to acquire, and even then, so-called textbook knowledge is being revised almost daily. Many are attracted by the glamour of it all. They‘re drawn to the romance of being a wetware hacker — the existential thrill of tweaking life itself. They tend to become quickly disappointed by the slow, tedious, difficult path they face.

I’m struck again by the similarity between DIY biotech and Chris Anderson’s recently-mooted maker-manufacturer revolution; the latter is much closer to reaching some sort of real economic escape velocity, granted, but the essential concepts and culture behind both movements are very alike.

Personally, I’m all for the ability to mess with my meat-machine, but I think I’ll wait until the field is a little more mature before getting my wetware tweaked. After all, if a hack-mod of my computer or car goes wrong, I can always switch off and try again, or – if the worst comes to the worst – replace the broken device; to the best of my knowledge, that facility doesn’t yet exist for the human body.

However, that’s not going to stop people more desperate than myself from turning to black clinics in the hope of fixing problems that the medical establishment won’t mess with. Hell, people already fly to Eastern Europe for cheap no-questions-asked cosmetic surgery… so when some back-street lock-up in Chiba City starts promising a fix for a congenital illness, a failed organ, a missing limb or just the ravages of ageing itself, the customers will come.

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2 Responses to “Garage ribofunk redux – DIY biohacking gaining popularity”

  1. Denni says:

    At least cosmetic surgery follows tried-and-tested medical procedures. Untried stemcell ‘therapy’ in places like China and elsewhere is a different kettle of fish altogether. Those clinics really prey on the despair patients feel at the perceived slow progress of scientific research.

  2. Nancy Jane Moore says:

    Actually, I know a lot of non-religious (at least in the traditional sense) people who don’t trust doctors or modern medicine in general — folks who assume herbs are always better than drugs, who tell stories of those who beat cancer with some diet.

    Me, I wouldn’t mind a biohack or two — though I’m more interested in replacement cartilage for my knees and the ability to read without glasses (Lasik doesn’t work on presbyopia and anyway Lasik has some problems) than I am in infrared vision. But I want a pro to do it. As I told the helpful bystander who, seeing my kneecap was in the wrong place, suggested I just shove it back: “Doctor. I want a doctor.”