Garage ribofunk going mainstream

Paul Raven @ 18-10-2010

Interesting to see it’s taken less than a year for coverage of DIY molecular biology to graduate from the comparative fringedom of H+ Magazine to a mainstream science publication like Nature [via SlashDot]. Notable lack of scare-stories and hand-wringing involved, too… though I suspect we’ll have this meme picked up by the tabloids before the end of the year; that’s a nice juicy OMG-terror-security-panic!!1 story just waiting to shift units to the easily frightened, right there.

What’s impressive is the level of sophistication involved, which (as others have pointed out) mimics the enthusiastic adoption of home computing by the cutting edge of geek enthusiasts back in the day:

Many traditional scientists are circumspect. “I think there’s been a lot of overhyped and enthusiastic writing about this,” says Christopher Kelty, an anthropologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has followed the field. “Things are very much at the beginning stages.” Critics of DIY biology are also dubious about whether there is an extensive market for garage molecular biology. No one needs a PCR machine at home, and the accoutrements to biological research are expensive, even if their prices fall daily. Then again, the same was said about personal computers, says George Church, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts. As a schoolboy, he says, he saw his first computer and fell in love. “Everybody looked at me like, ‘Why on earth would you even want to have one of those?'”


No one knows how many of those 2,000 are serious practitioners — Bobe jokes that 30% are spammers and the other 70% are law-enforcement officials keeping tabs on the community. But many DIY communities are coalescing: not only in Cambridge, but also in New York, San Francisco, London, Paris and the Netherlands. Some of these aim to develop community lab spaces with equipment that users could share for a monthly fee. And several are already affiliated with local ‘hacker spaces’, which provide such services to electronics enthusiasts. For example, the New York DIYbio group meets every week at the work-space of an electronics-hacker collective called NYC Resistor, which now has a few pieces of basic molecular biology equipment, including a PCR machine.

Of course, there are real risks that come with the growth of a movement like this, but there’s also a whole lot of potential, which I think outweighs the risks if they’re managed sensibly (i.e. by oversight, transparency and strong networked communities, rather than by blanket bans and heavy-handed restrictions that would drive the movement underground, as well as potentially into a position of political radicalism). Viewed in parallel with the surge of interest in 3d printing and electromechanical hacktivism (which really is spreading very fast, alongside the hacker spaces that house them), things don’t look entirely unlike some unpublished proto-prequel to Bruce Sterling’s Schismatrix. Who will you be: Mechanist or Shaper?

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.

DIY junk lathe

Paul Raven @ 05-10-2009

building a DIY latheThere are some mighty resourceful and inventive people out there, and arguably the best thing about the intermatubes (at least in my humble opinion) is that it’s easier than ever before to learn from them. Example: say you wanted a lathe, so as to teach yourself woodturning or some such similar craft. Now, lathes are pretty pricey pieces of hardware, even if you find one second hand – so why not just build one from scratch using readily available junk? [image from Instructables]

Time is money, as the old saying goes, but it seems to me that time is becoming more valuable than money, at least for those of us in the West – in that, if you’ve got the time and the motivation, you can build yourself affordable versions of technologies that would otherwise be way out of your reach. Mash that up with the rise of garage fabbing enterprises, and you’ve got the potential for a very different form of post-industrial economy on the horizon.