ThesisPDF Available

We are Biohackers: Exploring the Collective Identity of the DIYbio Movement


Abstract and Figures

Social movements are important sociological phenomena because they are the key agents that provide societies with new ideas and ideals to change people's behavior or their understanding of the world. This thesis aims to investigate into how the collective identity of the biohacker in the Do-it-Yourself Biology (DIYbio) movement mobilizes collective action to achieve social change. The collective identity of a movement is the “we” that influences how biohackers give meaning to the collectivity and make sense of their actions and the goals they pursue based on shared beliefs, values, critiques and visions of the world. The biohacker can be understood as the bio subgenre of the hacker, whose ethic and practices of free and open-source software and hackerspaces—or in other words practices of Commons-Based Peer-Production—are adapted to the life sciences and technologies. To research how the collective identity is constructed I analyzed the practices and discourses of the DIYbio movement. I performed participant observation in movement areas where they carry out collective action; an online discussion forum and in a biohackerspace. I also performed documentary analysis of popular media articles and discourse analysis of in-depth interviews with biohackers from around the world. To understand the dynamics of how biohackers mobilize collective action I proposed a framework in which biohackers define problems and solutions based on their communal values of openness, freedom, and collaboration. The DIYbio movement coordinates collective action for social change on a political level as it aims to democratize biology and create a commons of the means of production, and on a cultural level by promoting a work ethic of freedom of inquiry and sharing under a collaborative commons.
Content may be subject to copyright.
We are
Gabriela A. Sanchez Barba
COVER PHOTO: Count the ways. Original size courtesy by Mathias Pastwa.
We are
Gabriela A. Sanchez Barba
“Information wants to be free”
- Stewart Brand
“Information wants nothing. People want to be free”
- Cory Doctorow
This work is licensed under the
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
You are free to copy and redistribute in any medium or format, and to remix, transform, and build upon the
material only for non-profit purposes as long as you give appropriate credit and indicate if changes were made,
and share the work (remixed or not) under the same license.
Del University of Technology
Faculty of Applied Sciences
Department of Biotechnology
submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of
in the program of Life Science and Technology
August, 2014
Supervisor: Prof. dr. Patricia Osseweijer—TU Del, Biotechnology and Society group (BTS)
Second supervisors: Dr. Annick Hedlund-de Witt—TU Del, BTS
Dr. Eric Deibel—TU Del, BTS
Evaluation Committee: Prof. dr. Patricia Osseweijer—TU Del, BTS
Prof. dr. Laurens Landeweerd—TU Del, BTS
Dr. ir. Ton van Maris — TU Del, Industrial Microbiology group (IMB)
Recommended Citation:
Sanchez, Gabriela Alejandra (2014) We are Biohackers: Exploring the Collective Identity of the DIYbio Movement.
Master of Science Thesis. Del University of Technology.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Introduction......................................................................................................................................1
Chapter 2 Background.......................................................................................................................................5
2.1A Hacker Origin ........................................................................................................................................6
2.1.1Free/Open-Source Soware...........................................................................................................9
2.1.2Hacking Principles.........................................................................................................................10
2.2The Internet Primer ..............................................................................................................................14
2.3The Strand of Science ...........................................................................................................................17
2.3.1Cathedral-Like Science..................................................................................................................17
2.3.2Bazaar-Like Science......................................................................................................................19
2.4A Translation into DIYbio ......................................................................................................................20
2.4.1Biology can be Hackable...............................................................................................................20
2.4.2Resources get cheaper..................................................................................................................21
2.4.3Homebrew Biotech........................................................................................................................23
2.4.4The Biohacker................................................................................................................................24
Chapter 3 Methods...........................................................................................................................................27
3.1Data Collection ......................................................................................................................................28
3.2Data Analysis ......................................................................................................................................... 29
3.3Limitations and Considerations ...........................................................................................................29
Chapter 4 Findings...........................................................................................................................................31
4.1Collective Identity .................................................................................................................................32
4.2Conflictual Collective Action ................................................................................................................34
4.3Informal Networks ................................................................................................................................36
Chapter 5 Discussions......................................................................................................................................39
5.1Relevance of this Thesis ....................................................................................................................... 46
5.2Reflections on this Thesis ..................................................................................................................... 46
5.2.1Improving the Methodology.........................................................................................................46
5.2.2Considerations for the results......................................................................................................47
5.2.3Perspective as a Life Scientist.......................................................................................................48
Chapter 6 Conclusions.....................................................................................................................................51
Credits & Attributions ................................................................................................................................61
Appendix A Participant Observation...............................................................................................................63
Appendix B Media Articles Information..........................................................................................................65
Appendix C Review of Articles.........................................................................................................................66
Appendix D Interview Guide............................................................................................................................70
Appendix E Information on Interviewees.......................................................................................................71
Appendix F Review of the Interviews..............................................................................................................72
List of Illustrations
Illustration 2.1: Cost of Raw Megabase pair DNA sequencing. Data obtained from NIH.............................22
List of Boxes
Box 2.1: Crash-Course in Intellectual Property Rights.....................................................................................8
Box 2.2: Wikipedia, Wikipedia and Wikipedia................................................................................................15
Box 2.3: Biohacker Flavors...............................................................................................................................24
List of Tables
Table 5.1: The problems, solutions and their eects of the goals and values of the biohacker.................42
List of abbreviations
AI Aer-Internet
BI Before-Internet
CBPP Commons-Based Peer-Production
CC Creative Commons
CCC Chaos Computer Club
CERN European Council for Nuclear Research
DARPA Department of Advanced Research
Projects Agency
DE Germany
DIO Do-it-Ourselves
DIT Do-it-Together
DIWO Do-it-with-Others
DIY Do-it-Yourself
DIYbio Do-it-Yourself Biology
EULA End-User License Agreement
FabLab Fabrication Laboratory
FBI Federal Bureau of Investigations
FLOSS Free/Libre Open-Source Soware
FOSS Free Open-Source Soware
FR France
FSF Free Soware Foundation
GMO Genetically Modified Organisms
GNU GNU is Not Unix
GPL General Public License
HGP Human Genome Project
HP Hewlett Packard
IAP Independent Activities Period
IBM International Business Machines
ICT Information and Communication
iGEM International Genetically Engineered
IMP Imposed Monopoly Privileges
IPR Intellectual Property Rights
IT Italy
KE Kenya
MIT Massachusetts Institute of Technology
MOOC Massive Open Online Course
NIH National Institute of Health
NGS Next Generation Sequencing
NYC New York City
OHL Open Hardware License
OSH Open-Source Hardware
OSI Open-Source Initiative
OSS Open-Source Soware
P2P Peer-to-Peer
PCR Polymerase Chain Reaction
PGP Personal Genome Project
Pro-Ams Professional Amateurization
QS Quantified Self
S&P Systems and Power
STI Science Technology and Innovation
Synbio Synthetic Biology
TAPR Tucson Amateur Packet Radio
TRMC Train Railroad Model Club
UK United Kingdom
US United States
This work would not have been possible without the support, advice, and guidance of my supervisors:
Patricia, Annick, and Eric. I thank you all for your patience and for your understanding towards my
disorganized self. This has been a very challenging experience where I have tested my confidence and
my sanity. Your belief in me and your words of encouragement were vital in the last steps of this
journey. I am also deeply thankful to my advisor Mirjam. Thank you for being so unbelievably kind and
empathetic, I would not have made it without your support.
I would also like to thank the informants of this work which would have not been possible without their
participation. Thank you for being so nice and open, for sharing your stories, thoughts, insights, and
opinions. Many thanks for sharing something that you are passionate about and that you would take
the time to explain and teach me about it. I admire you greatly for your eorts and leadership in a
movement that advocates for social change. You are all wonderful people.
Above all, I want to thank my family. My parents, for your unconditional love and support throughout
my life, many of my strengths I owe them to you. My brothers and their families, for understanding my
absence for playing the part of the fun and loving aunt. To my sister, for being a great teacher and
inspiration for being more critical (socially) of myself and the world around me and my part in it. I am
indefinitely grateful to all of you.
Finally but of course not least, to my significant other who played a big part in writing this thesis. You
were always there when I needed someone to talk to and discuss about my research, a somewhat rare
occurrence in a technical university. I am very grateful that you tried to learn more and understand with
me this ‘new’ world of social sciences and I like to believe that our professions as natural scientists and
engineers is now more rich and full of meaning. I think we have grown a lot together for the past six
years and I really want to know what will come next for us. We make a great team.
Social movements are important sociological phenomena because they are the key agents that provide
societies with new ideas and ideals to change people's behavior or their understanding of the world.
This thesis aims to investigate into how the collective identity of the biohacker in the Do-it-Yourself
Biology (DIYbio) movement mobilizes collective action to achieve social change. The collective identity
of a movement is the “we” that influences how biohackers give meaning to the collectivity and make
sense of their actions and the goals they pursue based on shared beliefs, values, critiques and visions of
the world. The biohacker can be understood as the bio subgenre of the hacker, whose ethic and
practices of free and open-source soware and hackerspaces—or in other words practices of
Commons-Based Peer-Production—are adapted to the life sciences and technologies. To research how
the collective identity is constructed I analyzed the practices and discourses of the DIYbio movement. I
performed participant observation in movement areas where they carry out collective action; an online
discussion forum and in a biohackerspace. I also performed documentary analysis of popular media
articles and discourse analysis of in-depth interviews with biohackers from around the world. To
understand the dynamics of how biohackers mobilize collective action I proposed a framework in which
biohackers define problems and solutions based on their communal values of openness, freedom, and
collaboration. The DIYbio movement coordinates collective action for social change on a political level
as it aims to democratize biology and create a commons of the means of production, and on a cultural
level by promoting a work ethic of freedom of inquiry and sharing under a collaborative commons.
KEYWORDS: Social Movement Collective Identity • Do-it-Yourself Biology (DIYbio) • Biohackers •
Hackers • Commons-Based Peer-Production
This work was developed as my thesis project as part of the requirements to obtain the degree of
Master of Science (M.Sc.) in Life Science and Technology at the Del University of Technology (TU Del).
Although I am technically educated as a natural scientist and engineer, I have always been interested in
the philosophy, history, and sociology of science. Fortunately for me the Department of Biotechnology
holds the Biotechnology and Society (BTS) research group where they research topics related to the
Ethical, Legal, and Societal Issues (ELSI) in Biotechnology with special interest in their impact in
innovation, social responsibility, and science communication. The group welcomed me to do my thesis
project with them and guided me through the work of this research.
The topic evolved (a lot) through a series of thoughts and research into the concept of ‘fair-trade’ in
relation to knowledge and technology transfer in the field of biotechnology. This led me to investigate
the dierent models of the production and dissemination of scientific knowledge and information. The
models can be understood in simpler terms as falling into a spectrum of closed/proprietary and
competitive science vs open/free and collaborative science. In the field of biotechnology, biohackers
and DIYbio are an instance of the diverse initiatives that support, advocate, and most importantly
practice the latter model which is rapidly unfolding and gaining strength with the technical resources
and culture of the Internet.
In a time of worldwide crises of impending environmental catastrophes including global climate
change, and an ineicient and unresponsive system to develop urgent solutions, has made me turn my
attention for alternatives that promise and could potentially resolve these issues at a faster, cheaper,
and more distributed way. This thesis is my small contribution to understanding some of the eorts by
many individuals and groups that are working together to produce a more open and collaborative
model of science that may lead to a more equitable and sustainable planet.
I hope you enjoy and learn from it as much as I did.
Gabriela A. Sanchez Barba
August, 2014
Del, Netherlands
Chapter 1
“Revolution doesn’t happen when society adopts new technologies
it happens when society adopts new behaviors
Clay Shirky
This thesis investigates into the emerging Do-it-Yourself biology (DIYbio) movement which is formed by
a growing international community of professionals, amateurs, and enthusiasts with a shared interest
in studying, designing, and engineering biological systems under dierent settings from traditional
scientific institutions. The life sciences and technologies will play a major role in developing solutions
in the fields of health care, agriculture, industrial processes, and environmental managing, and the
premise of the DIYbio movement is that opening access and participation in biotechnology can have the
potential to “spur global innovation and promote scientific literacy” (Frushkin, Kuiken, & Millet, 2013).
Although DIYbio is very oen defined as a movement1, so far it seems this concept has not been
properly analyzed from social movement theory. Social movements are important sociological
phenomena “because they are key agents for bringing about change within societies” (Crossley, 2002).
Movements are a ‘source of creativity’ for societies that provide new ideas, identities, and even ideals to
try to change individual and group behaviors, policies or the cultural understanding of a society ( ibid).
Paradoxically, social movements are in themselves manifestations of social change and the DIYbio
movement can be seen as contemporary to similar counter-movements that are already transforming
society towards participatory and collaborative practices like the open science and citizen science
movements (Bauwens, 2010). Studying DIYbio as a social movement can generate insight into the
dynamics of the movement in terms of how it brings about social change.
The first thing to consider in analyzing DIYbio as a social movement is to understand what is classified
as a social movement. Scholar definitions on what counts as a social movement vary. Mario Diani (1992)
proposed a definition based on a comparative discussion of definitions and defined that social
movements are a distinct social process consisting of mechanisms through which actors engage in
collective action. He identifies three mechanisms: (i) informal networks where resources are exchanged
in pursuit of common goals; (ii) political or cultural conflicts in which actors engage to initiate or halt
social change; and (iii) a shared collective identity upon which collective action is coordinated. The first
point sustains that collective action is carried out in informal networks that represent movement areas
that act as cultural laboratories where individuals are free to invest in “the experimentation and
practice of new cultural models, forms of relationships and alternative perceptions and meanings of the
world” (Melucci, 1989, p. 60). The second point asserts a conflictual factor in social movements. The
conflict arises from a tangible discontent of ‘old’ models—political, cultural, economic—to what actors
consider a public issue and therefore aim to articulate new models through collective action to enact
1 A Google Search on “DIYbio” and “movement” results in a variety of sources that define DIYbio as such.
Some examples include articles from: Wikipedia (for starters), Nature, The Scientist, h+ Magazine, The
New York Times, Popular Science, Discover Magazine, Slate Magazine, The Guardian, Vice, the BBC,
Singularity Hub, Forbes, WIRED, P2P foundation, and so forth.
social change (Touraine, 1985). The third point maintains that individuals recognize themselves and
others as a collectivity and construct a collective identity—the formulation of a “we”—that encompass
the shared belief structures that is used to dictate collective action (Melucci, 1993). The purpose of this
research is to provide the foundation to understanding DIYbio as a social movement by generating
insight into these mechanisms; through which the movement mobilizes collective action to achieve
social change.
To investigate these mechanisms I decided to take the concept of collective identity as my main
analytical tool because it provides the framework for my methodology and my background. The first
reason to focus on the collective identity is because it influences and many times defines the other
mechanisms characteristic of social movements. The construction of the collective identity can arise
from individuals that orient themselves and identify others as part of the movement because they share
similar grievances and agree on the course of action (goals) to create social change. The collective
identity is also oen reproduced and reinforced in movement areas—the informal networks—that
create solidarity among members. Therefore my research questions are:
(0) How is the collective identity of the DIYbio movement defined?
(1) How do members perceive conflicts and enact goals in accordance with its collective identity?
(2) How is the collective identity reproduced through its informal networks?
My next reason to focus on the collective identity of the DIYbio movement has to do with the book
Biohackers (2013) by Alessandro Delfanti—one of the few scholars who has addressed the DIYbio
movement. In his book he presents the politics of open science as a remix between traditional
academic norms and the hacker2 ethic and he presents DIYbio as one of its manifestations. For Delfanti,
“DIYbio [is] a very interesting example of a direct translation of free soware and hacking practices into
the realm of cells, genes, and labs” (2013, p. 112) in the context of a deeper transformation of the way
science is done based on more open and collaborative web-based tools that enable a ‘proactive
approach to the production of information. Therefore my starting point is to conceptualize the
biohacker as the collective identity for the DIYbio movement.
To gain insight into the translation that Delfanti refers to I focused on understanding the three
connections he mentions give rise to the DIYbio movement: the hacker, the Internet, and open science.
To understand the degree to which biohacking is an extension of the hacker ethos it is imperative to
unfold the hacker identity as to ascertain the meanings that the biohackers copy from it. Therefore in
2 It is important to note that the word hacker carries the popular stigma of cybercriminals and ‘security
breakers’ but these are known as crackers by the hacker subculture “hackers build things, crackers break
them” (Raymond, 2001). Hackers value freedom and mutual help.
section 2.1 I review the history and the most popular narratives that form part of the hacker culture,
which includes the development of the personal computer and free and open-source soware. I then
examine the hacker ethic that was instilled in the development of both and how it has moved from
cyberspace into urban space in the form of hackerspaces. Free soware laid the foundations into a new
mode of production, governance, and distribution that has extended beyond soware into other realms
of social production. In section 2.2 I analyze these economic and cultural transformations in the context
of the Internet and its participatory architecture as to give insight into the emergence of a more open
and collaborative culture and production model described as Commons-Based Peer-Production. Next
in section 2.3, I explain the changing landscape in science from a closed and hierarchical model towards
an open and distributed model. Finally in section 2.4 I present the roots and catalysts of the DIYbio
movement and I present the biohacker community, who they are, what they do, and what they believe
in to begin to understand the biohacker collective identity.
For my methodology, researching the collective identity of the DIYbio movement enables to study the
formulation of the “we” through the shared cultural materials of the movement which are empirically
less challenging to explore than other forms of culture. Public symbols carry a set of meanings that can
be clearly identified as people use them and are defined around them. The concept of collective
identity therefore can be used to direct attention to the observable practices and the discourses
through which members of the movement give meanings to their actions. That is, the “we” is used as a
symbol through which members give meaning to the movement and their participation in it. To explore
how the movement is defined I used a combination of qualitative methods such as participant
observation (online and oline) in movement areas which included a mailing list that works as a
discussion forum and a biohackerspace where they work on their DIYbio projects, documentary
analysis of popular media articles to obtain ‘outsider’ discourse, and in-depth interviews with members
of the DIYbio movement to obtain an ‘insiders’ perspective. Since language is the medium for the social
construction of reality, analyzing discourse can provide meaningful insight into how biohackers—as the
collective identity of the DIYbio movement—make sense of the world and how the movement fits into it,
this can provide rich data into why (grievances) and how (goals) they mobilize collective action towards
social change (purpose).
Chapter 2
“Technology is not neutral. We're inside of what we make, and it's inside of us. We're
living in a world of connections—and it matters which ones get made and unmade
Donna Haraway
To fully understand the biohacker as the collective identity of the DIYbio movement it is necessary to
comprehend the central character of the hacker as to give insights into the meanings that the DIYbio
movement adopts and adapts from it (see Delfanti, 2013). A short archeology of the hacker culture
(§2.1) provides the foundation to understand the attitudes that have built much of our current
techno-culture as hackers are considered the heroes of the computer revolution and the architects of
the Internet (Levy, 2010). If we consider that technologies are infused with the values of its creators then
we must acknowledge that the hacker ethos is embedded in the Internet and propagates within it and
has thereby extended into broader realms of social production beyond soware and hardware. It is
therefore also necessary to appreciate the significance of the hacker ethos and how it is transforming
our models of production towards more open and collaborative models (§2.2) and to understand how it
is particularly transforming the realm of science2.3). This will provide the basis to understand the
context that the DIYbio movement emerges from and how the biohacker fits into it (§2.4).
2.1 A Hacker Origin
The history and culture of the hacker is best told by Steven Levy (1984) in his book Hackers and the
story starts in the late 1950s in MIT with a group of students in the Train Railroad Model Club (TRMC) of
the Signals and Power (S&P) Subcommittee who used the word hack to denote a project that not only
was constructive but was pleasurable as well. The S&P engineers would program telephone dial
switches to control the model trains, and creating a clever connection between relays could be
considered a hack but to qualify as a true hack “the feat must be imbued with innovation, style, and
technical virtuosity” (Levy, 1984, p. 10). The group became increasingly interested in the emerging field
of computing but by then these mainframe machines were reserved for authorized technicians who
they called the ‘priesthood’ who ‘zealously guarded the machines’. In 1959, t he TX-0 computer arrived
and was managed under fewer restrictions and allowed the TRMC hackers to use it; they would stalk the
computer room waiting for empty slots and would stay late nights when the computer was ‘o-hours’
just to use it. The hackers were not interested in performing complex arithmetical computations,
simulations or statistical analysis as did the ‘Oicially Sanctioned Users’, instead they just wanted to
explore the limits of the machine. They would spend their time punching out computer code to create
programming tools, music programs, and simple games. The programs developed by the hackers were
freely shared among each other as a way to admire each other's work, build on it, and even improve it.
In the following decades computers were becoming smaller and considerably more aordable with
microcomputers, nevertheless they continued to be reserved for professional settings as they were
deemed useless anywhere else. By the 1970s, hackers and entrepreneurs started to use computers for
commercial applications in the area of arcade and video games such as Pong in 1972 and Space
Invaders in 1978 by Atari which launched the computer (and video game) industry into the mainstream
market. At this time computer enthusiasts were beginning to create their own personal computing
devices. Hackers and hobbyists began meeting in hobby computer clubs to share and trade parts,
circuits, and the designs of their inventions. It was the first meeting of the Homebrew Computer Club in
1975 in Silicon Valley that inspired Steve Wozniak to design a personal microcomputer kit (Wozniak,
2007). Wozniak at the time was working at HP but did extra design work for Atari with his friend Steve
Jobs who was employed there. Wozniak presented his kit to the club in 1979 and together with Jobs it
became the Apple I computer. With seed money from Wozniak selling his car they founded the Apple
Computer Company to manufacture and market the Apple I from Job's family garage (Ceruzzi, 2003).
Personal computers were becoming no longer a hobby/do-it-yourself activity where hackers
manufactured and shared designs with each other, instead they began to compete as computers
became a viable consumer product in the market. The subsequent success of Apple II and Macintosh
(and similar ventures) were first ignored and disparaged by universities and corporate giants because of
their humble garage origins, “but soon the upstarts became the establishment and the union of capital
with this fledging science occurred at warp speed” (Conner, 2009, p. 488).
Computers are of course possible because of their hardware components but soware is what makes it
useful. When computers were mainly mainframe machines with vacuum tubes that filled up an entire
room they were very expensive, so they were leased rather than purchased with soware and services
included (Ceruzzi, 2003). The source-code (as in human-readable computer-commands) was freely
supplied and users were able to customize it to their needs and create new programs. It was until 1969
when the US government sued IBM for attempting to monopolize the computer market that as a
response IBM ‘unbundled’ the soware and services from hardware sales and ceased to share their
source-code (Burton, 2002). Soware became a new commodity and underwent legal procedures to
secure assets through the Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) regime and was deemed patentable by the
UK in 1962 and copyrightable by the US in 1974 (for a quick crash-course on IPR see Box 2.1). Soware
companies soon started to lease soware for a fee and restrictions on its use were enforced through
contract law prohibiting users to copy, share, reverse engineer or modify the product without
permission (check the Box in a Box 2.1). Licensing proprietary soware became a multi-billion dollar
industry, by no mistake it propelled Bill Gates, the co-founder of Microso, as one of the richest people
in the world (Perelman, 2003). As closed soware (executable binary code without source-code) was
starting to become the status quo, rebellious but prodigious hacker Richard M. Stallman saw this as a
threat to the communal values of the hacker community and in 1983 he started to work on the GNU
project to build a free operating system that anyone would be free to use, copy, and modify.
Box 2.1: Crash-Course in Intellectual Property Rights
Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) are legally recognized exclusive rights to creations that involve
authorship, such as music, literature, designs, discoveries, and inventions. Some of these include
trademarks, trade secrets, patents, and copyrights. Trademarks™ are designs and symbols that allow a
product, company or service to be recognized and distinguished from others. Trade secrets are just
that, designs, formulas, and information that are not disclosed to the public. Patents therefore are
supposed to work as incentives for inventors to publish their inventions to the public. Patents reserve
exclusive rights for 20 years for novel and useful technological inventions to prevent others from
commercial use of the invention without permission. The idea of this enforced monopoly control is to
recoup initial investment through monopolistic prices and by granting commercial rights to others in
exchange for a licensing fee. Obtaining a patent is a lengthy and costly procedure and an application
has to be submitted to dierent countries for approval. Those opposing the use of patents claim that
the system has created patent misuse, thickets, trolls, and ambushes. Misuse is the purposeful intent to
make patents broad, and thickets refer to the dense number of patents that make it prohibitively
expensive to develop new technologies. Trolls are companies in the sole business of licensing, and
patent ambush happens when holders allow for technology to develop and suddenly present an
essential patent for that technology and sue for infringement. Copyright© restricts use and distribution
to the copyright holder for a period of time, usually measured as author's life + 70 years (in the US since
1998). Under the Berne Convention of 1886 signed by most countries, copyright is automatic and does
not require application. The idea of copyright is to enable authors to receive financial compensations
for their creations. With digital media that can be eortlessly copied infinitely with no additional costs,
copyright infringement has become rampant as users share and remix content freely. As a consequence
new technologies known as Digital Rights Management (DRM) have been created to control the use of
digital content. Those opposing copyright argue that it restricts the free flow of knowledge and culture
and therefore hinders their (re)production. For a complete overview on IPR see Richard Stim's book
(2014) Patent, Copyright & Trademark.
Box in a Box: End-User License Agreements
Licensing is not a form of IPR but is a form of maintaining exclusive control through contract law
using End-User License Agreements (EULA); those texts you see/read just before you click “I agree
to these terms and conditions”. Restrictive EULA's are a form of DRM. Paradoxically, licensing a
soware—or any digital material for that matter—requires the user to bear a copy which is
technically copyright infringement since the licensee holds no ownership over the copy. The US
government amended the Copyright Act in 1980 to grant explicit rights for users to use a copy
without infringement. For more information on IPR in the digital world see Peter Yu's (2007)
Intellectual Property and Information Wealth.
2.1.1 Free/Open-Source Software
Stallman, dubbed as the last hacker by Levy, became increasingly discontent with the subsidence of the
hacker community to proprietary soware which he viewed as “antisocial and unethical” (Stallman,
Lessig, & Free Soware Foundation (Cambridge, 2010). In 1985 Stallman founded the Free Soware
Foundation (FSF) as a way to support the development of free soware, “Free as in free speech, not as in
free beer” Stallman said (2010, pg. 3). The GNU project was growing as developers were hired by the FSF
to contribute to the project and as volunteer and paid programmers from industry contributed as well.
In 1991 Linus Torvalds, a computer science graduate student from Helsinki, created his own operating
system as part of his master thesis and developed the Linux kernel; the missing component for the GNU
project. This led to the development of the GNU/Linux operating system which is arguably the most
successful and powerful soware in the world. Linux runs 81% percent of the total market share in
smartphones with Android devices (IDC, 2013) and runs 97% of the top 500 supercomputers in the
world (Noyes, 2014); from air traic control systems, the New York stock exchange, the largest particle
physics laboratory in the world (CERN), and even runs various web and cloud services that power
Internet giants such as Google, Amazon, Twitter, and Facebook (Amaresh, 2013).
Free soware is made possible because of its licensing scheme. In 1989, Stallman with the help of a law
professional published the GNU General Public License (GPL). Free Soware is distributed under a legal
copyright framework that instead of strictly allocating producer control it stresses the rights of the user
and guarantees them “the freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve upon the
soware” however they seem fit (Stallman et al., 2010, p. 3). More essential is that the GPL holds an
EULA (see Box in a Box 2.1) that requires that all subsequent copies and derivatives thereof bare the
same license, eectively locking the source-code as unrestricted commons. This ‘viral’ license is called
Copyle as a play on the word Copyright ©. In 1997 Eric Raymond published his book The Cathedral
and the Bazaar where he provides a reflective analysis on the dierent dynamics between
organizational models for the production of soware—aer being intrigued over the success of the
Linux system which he attributed to the bazaar model; as self-organized, decentralized, and distributed
(over the Internet) based on voluntary cooperation. The bazaar model describes a model of soware
production where users are treated as co-developers and soware programs are continuously
developed and released. Raymond postulated that the bazaar resulted in better soware essentially
because of what he called ‘Linus Law’ encapsulated in the aphorism “given enough eyeballs, all bugs
are shallow”, making reference to harnessing the potential of many contributors, a kind of collective
intelligence. In 1998 Netscape inspired by the potential superiority of the bazaar model that Raymond
suggested released its browser's source-code and it became Mozilla Firefox. This event incited a group
10 │ CHAPTER 2
of people to suggest a rebranding of Free Soware as a strategy to make the model more
‘business-friendly’. The group founded the Open Source Initiative (OSI) in 1998 and suggested the label
Open-Source Soware (OSS) which appealed to a more pragmatic stand rather than an ideological one
like Stallman's Free Soware (FS). Indeed Stallman (1998) maintains that FS and OSS have fundamental
dierent values and ways of looking at the world “For the Open Source movement, non-free soware is
a suboptimal solution. For the Free Soware movement, non-free soware is a social problem and free
soware is the solution”, and thus he dierentiates them as “OSS is a development methodology; FS is
a social movement” (Stallman et al., 2010, p. 84). The term Free/(Libre) Open-Source Soware
(F(L)OSS)3 is oen used to encompass both terms. FLOSS can have distinct philosophical origins (moral
vs pragmatic) and their definitions on what makes a soware free or open-source do vary to the extent
that all free soware is considered open-source but not vice versa, they both however do create copyle
soware and use a development methodology—more oen than not—of a bazaar-like model.
2.1.2 Hacking Principles
The hacker mentality was instrumental in developing the hardware and the soware industry. Hackers
more than just eager tech-enthusiasts shared a communal set of unstated pragmatic and aesthetic
principles which was defined in 1984 in Levy's book Hackers as the hacker ethic:
Hacker Ethic
Access to computers—and anything which might teach you something about the way the world works—
should be unlimited and total. Always yield to the hands-on imperative!
All information should be free.
Mistrust authority—promote decentralization.
Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not bogus criteria such as degrees, age, race or position.4
You can create art and beauty on a computer.
Computers can change your life for the better.
Levy tried to illustrate how hackers distasted restrictions and permissions of all kind, especially
bureaucratic ones. They firmly believed that access to ‘things’ is fundamental and that information is a
key component to ‘do’ anything. Hacking was something that was to be appreciated for its visionary
quality, quirky styles, and innovative techniques, and so hackers should be admired for their feats
3Libre is sometimes used to supplement the word Free to emphasize that it refers to Freedom and not to
Free of Charge as in Gratis. Stallman (2007) argues that FLOSS is better suited as a neutral term to
encompass both FS and OSS.
4 Note this norm does not explicitly include gender and although the hacker culture promotes openness
and inclusion there is a substantial gender gap in hacker communities. Unfortunately this discussion is
out of the scope of this thesis but a review on women's exclusion from FOSS-like communities can be
found in “Free as in sexist?” Free culture and the gender gap by Joseph Reagle (2012)
alone. They also believed that computers could bring joy for personal satisfaction or communal
fulfillments. It is easy to see how the hacker ethic influenced the organizational structure of the FLOSS
development model for its open and horizontal features (like a bazaar).
The hacker ethic has also been revised by Pekka Himanen in his book The Hacker Ethic and the Spirit of
the Information Age (2001). In the prologue written by Torvalds, he reclaims ‘Linus's Law’ from Raymond
and suggests that motivations escalate from survival, social life to Entertainment with a capital E; “the
kind that gives your life meaning” (Himanen, 2001, p. xvi). Torvalds posits that hackers do things
because they find them interesting and they want to share this interesting thing with others fulfilling
both the entertainment part from doing something interesting and the social part from sharing it with
others. Himanen goes on to argue that the hacker ethic represents a dierent work ‘attitude’ from Max
Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (2001). He discusses the current domination of
the protestant work ethic where work is seen as a dutiful necessity that is motivated by money and
strives towards optimality, consequently work hours are separate from play (leisure) hours. This ethic as
explained by Weber is central in the capitalist system. On the other hand hackers value above all
passion, creativity, and creating value.
For Himanen hackers are not anti-capitalistic, he explains that for hackers money are the means (rather
than ends) to gain freedom and more leisure time. However, George Dafermos and Johan Söderberg,
argue that the model of FLOSS explicitly organizes labor in an alternative model based on common
ownership of the means of production (libre access to source-code), volunteer participation (free
association), and self-expression (directed by passion and value-creation), they thus argue that the
hackers personify the struggle against the informational capitalism of IPR and to the organized waged
labor of centralized market-oriented hierarchies (Dafermos & Söderberg, 2009). Gabriela Coleman and
Alex Golub (2008) maintain that the hacker ethic applied in the genre of FLOSS can then be understood
as a combination of dierent moral principles of liberalism. The philosophy of FS invokes issues of
freedom and access to knowledge and information that invoke “virtues of sharing and pedagogy” (ibid
p. 26). OSS advocates for freedom as well as eiciency in the market, as Raymond (1998) suggested that
open-source creates ‘better’ soware because the motivations of hackers rely on joy and recognition
rather than based on a salary-incentive. Coleman and Golub also maintain FLOSS ensues viewing work
as a creative form of expression and carries an awareness of connection with a community; of
acknowledging their contributions to a commons that can be freely used, and reused (ibid). The hacker
ethic and FLOSS can be then be understood as a new ethos towards the economic, social, and cultural
arrangements of the production of valuable goods, and this challenge could extend beyond the realm of
computers, as Levy (1984, p. 37) proposed in his book:
12 │ CHAPTER 2
And wouldn’t everyone benefit even more by approaching the world with the same inquisitive intensity,
skepticism toward bureaucracy, openness to creativity, unselfishness in sharing accomplishments, urge to
make improvements, and desire to build as those who followed the Hacker Ethic?
Levy's book was fundamental in describing the hacker community and culture, it gave it a history, an
identity and an ethic. During the next years hackers were starting to form more formal collectives, some
of these would become the seeds for hacktivism; a dierent genre (application) of the hacker liberal
values (G. A. Coleman & Golub, 2008). Eventually hackers started to create dierent kinds of
communities; public communities in dedicated urban spaces known as hackerspaces.
2.1.3 Hackerspaces
Nick Farr (2009) has categorized the emergence of hackerspaces in a ‘Toleresque’5 framework of
successive waves. He identifies the first wave in the early 90s with the establishment of hackerspaces in
the US. The second wave emerged in Europe with spaces such as C4 established in 1994 and c-base in
1995 in Germany. These spaces began to shape a more sustainable model for an open and more
formally organized space gainingrecognition from the government and respect from the public by
living and applying the Hacker ethic in their eorts” (Farr, 2009). The third wave of hackerspaces came
in 2007, aer North American hackers organized a trip called ‘Hackers on a Plane’ to tour around
European hackerspaces and to attend the Chaos Communication Camp, which is an international
meeting of hackers organized every four years since 1999 by one of the oldest and most recognized
hacker clubs, the Chaos Computer Club (CCC) in Berlin founded in 1981. The hackers inspired, upon
returning to America established their own hackerspaces such as NYC resistor in New York City and
Noisebridge in San Francisco (Borland, 2007). This third wave of hackerspaces represents the current
generation of hackerspaces. founded in 2007 acts as the main online hub and
presents a comprehensive user-maintained list of all active hackerspaces throughout the world
counting 1040 so far and 347 in planning. Hackerspaces define themselves as “community-operated
physical places where people can meet and work on their projects”. Jens Ohlig, a pioneer on the early
hackerspaces, defined hackerspaces as: “An alternative educational institution, a place where people
can learn about technology and science outside the confines of work or school. It's where people build
things because they want to, not because they need to make money.” (Newitz, 2009).
The growth of hackerspaces is deeply linked with the development of the Maker culture which vows to
the educational model of ‘learning by making’ and to the belief that creating something new and
learning new skills is personally enriching and satisfying (Dougherty, 2012). The maker movement has
5 ‘Toleresque’ refers to Alvin Toler's (1981) book The Third Wave where he describes the technological
history of societies in three successive waves: agricultural, industrial, and information-based.
its origins in Make magazine which focuses on DIY6 technology projects and publishes instructions and
tutorials to make them. Make magazine was founded by Dale Dougherty in 2005 and he initially wanted
to name the magazine Hack however his daughter didn't like the name as it sounded too oriented
towards programming, instead she suggested calling it Make because “everyone likes making things”
(Cavalcanti, 2013). Some DIY individuals and groups have adopted the word maker over the term
hacker as they think it better accommodates non-engineers or to avoid the popular pejorative
perception of hackers as mischievous cybercriminals (Seckinger, Park, & Gerhard, 2012). Although the
term maker, hacker, and tinkerer have subtle dierences in meaning they are widely used
interchangeably inside the maker/hacker culture (Osborn, 2013).
Along with makerspaces and hackerspaces another similar model emerged around 2005 known as
FabLabs which describe themselves as providing “widespread access to modern means of invention”,
but can be understood as a global network of small-scale workshops for personal digital fabrication.
The concept was developed by the Center for Bits and Atoms at MIT's Media Lab with the intent of
empowering under-served communities with technology at a grassroots level (Mikhak et al., 2003). The
founding principle of FabLabs is to provide a core set of tools such as 3D printers (adds material), CNC
mills (subtracts material), laser and waterjet cutters and so on, that allow individuals to ‘make (almost)
anything’. Access to these tools have dramatically reduced the costs of prototyping and production
allowing individuals to develop customized products unavailable is the mass-production market. These
new grassroots models of—predominantly digital—fabrication have gathered a lot of attention for their
potential to encourage user innovation, entrepreneurship, and sustainable alternatives (Smith et. al.,
2013). Jarkko Moilanen has noted that even though these communities might use dierent
denominations to classify themselves (hackerspaces, makerspaces, or FabLabs) “they are all mainly
concerned about projects led by users and about having an impact on the social environment”
(Moilanen, 2013, p. 6). He found they hold similar values of sharing, collaborative work, openness, and
transparency (Moilanen, 2012). Moilanen has equated these spaces as a third place as defined by
Oldenburg; a place separate from work and home where people develop communal ties.
Fablabs, makerspaces, and hackerspaces are all interlinked models which are open co-working spaces
where people socialize, learn, collaborate, and share knowledge, tools, and space (Moilanen, 2013).
They also organize international community events such as fairs, festivals, conferences, camps, and
hackatons7. These DIY communities have revived the DIY hardware ethic of the original hackers and
6 The most popular term used is DIY for Do-it-Yourself, but many also use the terms DIT (Do-it-Together),
DIWO (Do-It-With-Others), or even DIO (Do-it-Ourselves) to imply that DIY is really a collaborative eort.
7 Examples: Maker Faire in Rome, IT, FabLab Festival in Toulouse, FR, Kids Hacker Camp in Nairobi, KE.
Hackathons are events in which people from varying disciplines come together, form teams and focus on
prototyping a solution or idea with digital technologies in a range of dierent spaces such as academia,
14 │ CHAPTER 2
hobbyists but have surpassed it in scale thanks to the Internet which has greatly facilitated creating and
sharing designs, schematics, and ‘how-to’ instructions manuals through digital format. Moreover, they
have taken the FLOSS model to physical objects practicing open design and most notably Open-Source
Hardware (OSH) which includes sharing design files, schematics, firmware, soware, and instructions
for manufacturing—all is made free to use and remix under copyle licenses such as OSH, FLOSS, and
CC (Creative Commons c), or OHL (Open Hardware License)8. New successful business models
surrounding open-source hardware have emerged such as Arduino, Adafruit, and Sparkfun where the
user (consumer) of the product becomes a co-developer and a producer of his own as well.
The hacker ethos in FLOSS and hackerspaces is not an isolated phenomena, instead it should be
understood from the transitions of a social/technological paradigm shi caused by Information and
Communication Technologies (ICTs) and a cultural/economic paradigm shi of commons-based
peer-to-peer production.
2.2 The Internet Primer
As our global society transitions into the Information (Digital) Age9, we are living under new
socio-technical conditions created by the increasing and pervasive use of microelectronics and digital
communication networks which have become intrinsically embedded in almost every aspect of our
modern human lives. Sociologists Manuel Castells (2000) and Jan van Dijk (2006) have defined this new
social (infra)structure as the Network Society where ICTs constitute the integral backbone that
maintains and develops our economies, our societies and our cultures. Joi Ito calls this new world the
Aer-Internet (AI) world in contrast to Before-Internet (BI), and says that the AI radically reduced the
cost of connectivity and democratized participation to all users of the Internet which enabled a more
diverse and greater production/innovation capacity at an unprecedented scale (Ito, 2013). New web
technologies of the web 2.010 have furthered reinforced the architecture of participation of the Net as
they are designed to support and encourage user-generated content (O’Reilly, 2007), or in other words
the work of amateurs. Amateurs in this sense refers to individuals that partake in an activity by the
engineering, music, fashion, government, and so forth (Briscoe & Mulligan, 2014).
8 OHL like the TAPR OHL and the CERN OHL follow the philosophy of FLOSS however hardware is
considered ‘useful’ work so it is protected under patents and not copyright as ‘creative’ works. Thus the
hardware in reality is released into the public domain where anyone can manufacture it without
permission and only the design and documentation files are protected under copyle licenses.
9 As of 2012 about a third of the world's population has been online according to the Internet World Stats.
The Digital Divide is of great concern as it aects economic and social inclusion, however it is not
addressed in this paper but is elsewhere, refer to The Digital Divide by Pippa Norris (2001).
10 The term was coined by Dougherty to denote a new generation of the Web that is user-centric—users
create content with tools such as wikis, blogs, social networking sites, video hosting sites, etc.
sheer pleasure and satisfaction they get from it rather than for strictly financial or professional gains. As
the technologies, skills, and knowledge required for the production and distribution of content become
more easily accessible and aordable through new forms of digital media and tools, amateurs have
increased the quality of their work enough to compete with larger, hierarchical, professional
organizations, such is the case of the blogosphere vs professional publishing (Shirky, 2002). This
process has been labeled by Clay Shirky as mass amateurization (2008) and by Charles Leadbeater and
Paul Miller (2004) as professional amateurization (Pro-Ams). Shirky analyzes mass amateurization from
the media revolution of the Internet as the first medium that has ever combined two-way group
communication which has enabled group forming and group action. In the AI world, people can freely
share, converse, collaborate and coordinate collective action through the Net. Shirky (2008) maintains
that when content can be produced more easily in a networked and participatory environment it
undermines the scarcity model of top-down professionally mass-produced content. Consequently, the
traditional linear relationship between producer → consumer is disturbed as leisure becomes an active
form of production and is no longer passive consumption. As end-users increasingly (co)produce more
content, Axel Bruns (2008) suggests the term produser (producer/user) to denote user-led content in a
fluid, heterarchical, collaborative commons model like the famous example: Wikipedia (check Box 2.2).
Box 2.2: Wikipedia, Wikipedia and Wikipedia
Wikipedia is cited as one of the most iconic examples of the current shi towards a free, open,
decentralized, distributed, and collaborative model of production. Wikipedia is the most popular
encyclopedia in the world with a reliability compared to that of traditional encyclopedias (Giles,
2005). The success of Wikipedia is oen contrasted with the failure of its predecessor Nupedia,
created in 2000 by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger. It was to be the first free online encyclopedia in
English written by highly qualified expert volunteers and the articles would go under formal
peer-review. By the first year they had created 21 articles. Sanger learned about the wiki technology
and proposed to attach it to Nupedia as a feeder for discussions and ideas for new articles. They
named it Wikipedia and launched it in 2001. By the first year Wikipedia had 18,000 articles. It
currently holds over 30 million articles in 287 languages with over 21 million user accounts.
But before Wikipedia there was of course Linux. Raymond (1999) tried to understand FLOSS through the
bazaar model; as a permissionless and distributed development model. The socio-economic
production model of FLOSS is explained by Yochai Benkler (2002) as Commons-Based Peer-Production
(CBPP) which describes how content is created and maintained collectively in a commons by a
distributed and decentralized community of peers (users and developers) that contribute freely to a
project mostly by intrinsic motivations without the need of hierarchical organizations (firm production)
16 │ CHAPTER 2
and/or financial compensations (market-based production). Michel Bauwens (2005) calls it Peer-to-Peer
(P2P) production and dierentiates this model as a new mode of: Production, which is oriented towards
use-value (for-benefit) rather than exchange-value (for-profit); Governance, which are peer to peer
horizontal hierarchies; and Distribution, which is a shared ownership of tangible and intangible
commodities. Bauwens further identifies five key infrastructures required for P2P production: (1)
Technological Infrastructure that enables distributed access to capital; (2) Information and
Communications Infrastructure that allows autonomous content creation and communication between
cooperating agents; (3) Soware Infrastructure that produces collaborative tools; (4) Legal
Infrastructure that protects creative works from being appropriated; and a (5) Cultural Infrastructure, a
type of “cooperative individualism needed to sustain an ethos that enables P2P projects”. Peter Troxler
(2010) thus argues hackerspaces can be seen as the result of applying the CBPP model to both
immaterial and material goods.
A key issue in CBPP is the turn to viewing information, knowledge, and culture as a commons; as
collaborative authorship that is created collectively and cumulatively as opposed to something that is
created individually and thus allows for it to be expressed in terms of individual ownership. Lawrence
Lessig (2004) in his book Free Culture describes the latter as permission culture referring to the
traditional producer-control model that enforces IPR11 to restrict the creation of derivative work which
he argues discourages innovation and the (re)production of content. Lessig thus advocates for a default
free culture where content is freely shared to build and improve upon by changing, modifying or
remixing it—or ‘forking’ in soware terms. Just like free soware, free culture concerns itself with the
freedom of ‘produsers’ rather than on the exclusive rights of the producer. These transformations have
been widely observed and analyzed by new media theorists such as Henry Jenkins (2009) in his account
of participatory culture, which he characterizes by having low barriers for creative expression and civic
engagement, support for creating and sharing knowledge, informal mentorships for transferring
knowledge and experience, and a sense of people valuing their own contributions and that of others.
It started all with Linux, it spread through the web 2.0, it became renown with Wikipedia, and it was
transformed “from bits to atoms” by DIY community spaces. All realms of social production have been
aected by the AI world, including the production and distribution of science. Unlike other areas of
social production like popular culture where the authority over culture is of the folk, science is an
established institution with a set of norms that are part of the description of what makes science
11 Or as Stallman humorously calls them Imposed Monopoly Privileges (IMPs) (Stallman, 2004)
2.3 The Strand of Science
Science can be recognized as both the organized body of knowledge in any area of inquiry (natural or
social) and the social processes and activities of obtaining that knowledge (Bhattacherjee, 2012). This
body of knowledge has been accumulating for thousands of years, from the Paleolithic Era to the
Post-Modern Era—from stone tools to quantum computers. Throughout history, artisans, philosophers,
amateur and professional scientists have contributed to this stock of knowledge (Conner, 2009).
Science as we recognize it today is the result of the institutionalization and professionalization of
science. In the 17th century early scientific societies composed by gentlemen scientists started to
emerge and eventually modeled what would become the modern form of science as a body of authority
and control over scientific knowledge and practices (ibid.). Modern Science was then defined as a
cumulative and collective endeavor that would provide public knowledge and would serve as a modern
system for innovation in capitalistic economies (Zilsel, 2000). At the end of WWII a new model for
scientific knowledge production emerged that separated scientific inquiry into two dierent but
complementary purposes: knowledge for the sake of knowledge (pure knowledge) in academic science,
and knowledge for the sake of profit (practical applications) in industrial science (David, 2005).
2.3.1 Cathedral-Like Science
Academic science was established as a social contract as part of a gi-economy12 between professional
scientists and society (Vermeir, 2012). Academics require capital means to carry out their research and
to sustain themselves financially, these funds are provided by society through the patronage of the
state. In exchange for freedom of inquiry professional scientists are expected to openly disclose their
knowledge, inventions, and discoveries, and to contribute to higher-education in the case of
universities. In return for their ‘gi’ of knowledge they receive recognition and esteem as the material
compensation. Robert Merton (1973) maintained that recognition was the reward mechanism for
academics rather than money. He explained in his essay The Normative Structure of Science the social
norms of science as CUDOS, a mnemonic for: Communalism, which acknowledges scientific knowledge
as a public-commons, Universalism means that anyone can contribute equally and knowledge is treated
critically equally, Disinterestedness in personal gains and focus in ‘neutral’ science, and Organized
Skepticism13 signifies how science should be openly reviewed and scrutinized.
12 An economy describes the activities related to the production and exchange of goods and a gi
represents these social exchanges. Gis are not subject to the cost-benefit reasoning and calculated
pricing of the market but instead rely on the rule of reciprocity or altruism.
13 Ziman (2002) has replaced the Organized in CUDOS for Originality to describe how science favors
innovative approaches and address new problems; it is the counternorm of Expert in the PLACE norms.
18 │ CHAPTER 2
Industrial scientists on the other hand work inside the market-economy where in exchange for financial
compensations they develop knowledge in secrecy protected under IPR to maximize profits through
commercial exploitation. Industrial science therefore follow the counter norms of CUDOS which John
Ziman (2002) coined as the PLACE norms: Proprietary to denote how knowledge is privatized, Local
means it addresses technical problems rather than general understanding, Authoritarian describes how
scientists work under managerial hierarchical control, Commissioned means it has a practical goal, and
Expert refers to how scientists are hired as problem solvers and not for their curiosity.
The demarcation between academic and industrial science has not always been clearly defined, as
“new knowledge produces new practices and vice versa, hence basic research and technological
development (except for cosmology) “in the long run become indistinguishable” (Ziman, 2002, pp. 171–
172). But in the last century academic science no longer strictly follows the idealistic CUDOS norms—if
it ever did—but according to Ziman, it follows the PLACE norms and is now a post-academic science
which represents the reorganization of science under market principles as research projects are
established on the interests of funding agents such as private firms and government departments. Thus
academics no longer engage in science as a free exploration but instead science is commissioned under
the demands of the sponsors.
Academic research is measured primarily by contributions to peer-review publishing which represents
the ultimate form of currency that determines the success of a scientist (Long, 1978). This is exemplified
in the aphorism of “Publish or Perish”. Hence publishing has become an ends instead of the means of
scientific research. The distribution of scholarly literature belongs to publishers which establish
copyright control—in the digital world the copy is licensed not owned. Meanwhile, public funded
research has expanded their eorts to appropriate the intellectual capital of knowledge-workers by
patenting scientific discoveries for commercial applications (David, 2004). Increased partnerships with
private interests have also resulted in developing knowledge in secrecy as academics trade in
publishing in academic journals for financial compensations in the form of a job or licensing fees from
patenting (Ziman, 2002). The current model of science has thus succumbed to competitive behaviors
under a reward system that measures scientific progress through publications and market potentials,
where knowledge and information are treated as commodities rather than as public -commons
(Vermeir, 2012). Furthermore, the enclosure of these immaterial assets through proprietary regimes
create an artificial scarcity that has considerably constrained the free flow of knowledge and is
considered to deter the development of Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) (Heller & Eisenberg,
1998). This artificial scarcity however, is hard to justify and maintain in the AI world where information
and knowledge can be shared at a near zero marginal cost.
2.3.2 Bazaar-Like Science
ICTs have significantly changed the way science can be produced and distributed. Knowledge and
information is more easily stored and shared in digital format and web 2.0 technologies have improved
the dialog of science by increasing and facilitating communication and collaboration. This new
web-based approach to the organization of science is described as science 2.0 (Waldrop, 2008), or
networked science as defined by Michael Nielsen (2012), will require to change the culture of science
from a competitive ordeal towards a collaborative one that openly shares scientific content. This shi is
being facilitated by the open science movement which is part inspired by the FLOSS development
model (Willinsky, 2005).
The open science movement aims to make science more accessible to all levels of society by making
scientific knowledge free to use, re-use, and distribute without legal, technical or social restrictions
(Open Knowledge Foundation, 2014). Open science advocates for open access (libre and gratis) to
scientific literature, primarily scholarly journals but also includes dissertations and books. Open access
publication initiatives have been steadily growing and proving to be successful, such as the Public
Library of Science (PLOS) project founded in 2000, in which the open access journal of PLOS ONE is now
the world's largest journal (Van Noorden, 2013). Open access can also require the non-textual elements
of accompanying scientific publications and research and it is sometimes separately addressed as open
science data. Open science also promotes new ways of doing research such as publishing the ongoing
research process online through digital open notebook science which includes raw data. Another issue
that open science advocates is for sharing all of the data obtained, that includes negative results which
would otherwise be deemed as ‘unpublishable’. Open science can also encourage the engagement of
citizen scientists and amateur scientists—whether they work with, at the edges or beyond mainstream
science. Citizen science can exist as an extension to institutionalized science where computing
resources and cognitive labor is capitalized (crowdsourced) from the public to produce information and
knowledge (Hand, 2010). Examples of these include Folding@Home, a screen-saver that performs
protein folding simulations and other types of molecular dynamics, and EteRNA, a web-based game
where players solve RNA folding mechanics puzzles. On the other hand, citizen science can emerge as
grassroots initiatives; as self-organized and autonomous peer-to-peer communities that engage in the
development of STI. One example of a community-led science network is the Do-it-Yourself Biology
(DIYbio) community.
20 │ CHAPTER 2
2.4 A Translation into DIYbio
Amateur biology hit the DIY scene when Make magazine published its special section in Backyard
Biology volume 07 in 2006. The section included tutorials on how to freeze and revive a garden snail,
how to extract and characterize your own DNA and build a thermal cycler and run PCR14 for replication,
and how to hack your plants with graing techniques. In the same issue, the featured profile (proto)
was entitled “Garage Biotech: For a safer world, Drew Endy wants everyone to engineer life from the
ground up”. The article featured Drew Endy and his latest campaign to promote the growth of garage
biotech arguing that the world would be a safer place if engineers could see biology as hackable. The
article ends by saying “Endy hopes that, in a few years, biology will be further demystified as just
another technology, the price of gene synthesis will become more aordable, and rank amateurs will
take on ambitious projects. The bugs and the bees may never be the same again” referring to the
introduction the author gives to Endy as pointing to a bumblebee noting it is an editable reproducing
machine saying “Why can't I just hack this stu?” (Parks, 2006).
2.4.1 Biology can be Hackable
Endy is one of the pioneers of synthetic biology (synbio), a burgeoning field that instead of copying
genetic parts and pasting them in other organisms (genetic engineering), synbio envisions biological
systems as controllable systems that can be engineered with standardized parts and devices that can
be modulated and (re)designed from the bottom-up15. The field of synbio has been essential in instilling
the sense of understanding living organisms by analogy with electronic devices; cells as the hardware of
biology and DNA as the soware of life. Endy together with computer scientist Tom Knight at MIT
designed the BioBricks DNA assembly standard in 2003 which is commonly explained as Lego-like
building blocks (Shetty, Endy, & Knight, 2008). BioBricks are standardized and interchangeable
sequences of DNA which are assembled like electronic components into synthetic biological circuits
and operated inside living cells. The whole premise of standardized parts in engineering is that the
specifications are shared among ‘manufacturers’ to facilitate automation and part re-use. Endy and
Knight founded in 2003 the Registry of Standard Biological Parts, an open-access repository for
BioBricks that are collectively created and communally shared. Endy and Knight together with Randy
Rettberg and Garry Sussman, established a class in 2003 providing ‘hands-on introduction to the design
14 The PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) is a thermo-chemical reaction (carried out in a thermo-cycler) in
which heat is applied to a DNA molecule to split the two strands of the DNA, it is then cooled down to the
polymerase enzyme's optimal temperature that replicates the two strands of DNA (1 DNA → 2 DNAs). This
process cycles until suicient amount of DNA is replicated for analysis. This technology is extensively
used in molecular biology for DNA sequencing, DNA cloning, genetic diagnostics, gene analysis, etc.
15 See Synthetic Biology Explained for a crash-course on synbio.
and fabrication of synthetic biological machines’ to undergraduates during MIT's Independent Activities
Period (IAP); a “four-week period where students engage in innovative projects that combine learning
and fun” (Brown, 2007). The 2004 IAP grew into an intercollegiate summer competition with five schools
from the US with the goals to increase interest in synbio research and to foster interdisciplinary
collaboration (Campbell, 2005). Thirteen teams participated in the 2005 jamboree and included two
international teams from Toronto and Zurich; transforming the jamboree into the international
Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition. The teams received non-hierarchical awards such
as ‘Coolest Part’, ‘IKEA Idea Award’, ‘Best “Quantitative” Answer’, and ‘Most Innovative Abuse of
Expensive Laboratory Equipment’. The IGEM competition and the BioBricks Registry according to Peter
Robbins (2009) have broken traditional paradigms of science by pushing towards with their
open-source innovation model, interdisciplinarity and engagement with social concerns such as
biosafety and corporate control. IGEM has since expanded to include high-school students (since 2011),
entrepreneurs (since 2012), and community labs (for the first time in 2014). The competition has been
widely successful, with 246 teams from Europe, Asia, North and Latin America registered to compete in
2014 with projects that focus on the environment, health and medicine, food and nutrition, energy, and
new tracks that focus on art and design, policy and practices, soware, etc.
2.4.2 Resources get cheaper
Endy's desire for a demystified biology expressed in his proto piece in Make of 2006 was starting to take
shape as students were building complex machines, but aordable machines were still lacking at the
time. In 2005 the first Next-Generation DNA Sequencing (NGS) technology hit the market with the 454
Life Sciences Genome Sequencer at a price tag of $500K (Perkel, 2006). In 2008 using 454's sequencer
the full-genome of James Watson, the co-discoverer of the double helix, was sequenced in about 2-4
months time for a cost between $1-2M (Davies, 2008). NGS was a significant breakthrough compared to
other sequencing projects, like Craig Venter's16 full-genome sequence took years at a cost of almost
$100M, or the international consortium for the Human Genome Project (HGP) which took 13 years and
$3B (Bartfai & Lees, 2013).
Aer the HGP was complete in 2003, George M. Church, a genomics and synthetic biology pioneer,
founded the Personal Genome Project (PGP) as an oshoot in 2005 which intends to sequence and
openly publish the complete genomes and medical records of 100,000 volunteers. Church rued the cost
16 Craig Venter is one of the most influential and controversial characters in genomics and synthetic
biology. For one, Venter tried to compete with the HGP through the private sector (Celera) which
intended to profit by charging a subscription fee to a value-added database of genomic data. The public
consortium published the human genome first. For more refer to The Genome War (2007) by James
Shreeve. Venter is also one of the inventors of the first self-replicating bacterial cell.
22 │ CHAPTER 2
of the HGP and wanted to make personal genomics a possibility by reaching the holy grail of genomics:
the $1,000 genome. At the time, Church's group at Harvard Medical School, were working on a new NGS
technology that used “polony bead amplification of the template DNA and a common digital
microscope to read fluorescent signals” (Church, 2006). The sequencing machine was launched in 2008
as the Polonator G.007 at a price tag of $150K; a 1/3 of the price of the 454 sequencer. The Polonator
used of-the-shelf components and embodied an open-source platform with hackable hardware,
soware, and protocols. The machine was praised as the ultimate eort to make the technology as
accessible and customizable as possible (ibid). Jason Bobe, the Director of Community of PGP since
2007, inspired by the DIY low-cost open-source sequencer and its potential for dropping costs cheap
enough that everyone would want to have one in their garages decided to name this new garage hobby
as DIYbio and registered the Internet domain in 2007 (Tochetti, 2013).
The rise of the amateur biologist can be seen as the Pro-Ams of biotechnology as the technologies,
skills, and knowledge required become more accessible, approachable (easy), and aordable.
Biohackers are enabled by web 2.0 technologies for communication, coordination and collaboration in
a decentralized and distributed fashion. The capabilities for self-learning have increased dramatically as
people have free access to scientific knowledge in the form of open access scientific literature, through
Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), or through more informal sources such as wikis and how-to
instructions. The resources required for DIYbio are not solely confined to those of the cyberspace but
also include physical resources of the meatspace17, these include things such as glassware, plasticware,
chemicals and media, wetware, and hardware equipment that are obtained from DIY and institutional
settings alike (Kuznetsov, Taylor, Regan, Villar, & Paulos, 2012). Low-cost tools can be obtained from
o-the-shelf components or from repairing, repurposing, reverse engineering, or designing their own
tools and usually share the instructions online. Many second-hand source their equipment, either
bought or donated from universities and
companies. Cheap equipment results from the
‘leovers’ of bankrupt biolabs or from the rapid
turnover of equipment in established biolabs
(Wolinsky, 2009). This turnover results from the
rapid advancements in molecular biology
techniques which have not only dropped costs,
they have plummeted at an even faster rate than
Moore's Law (see Illustration 2.1).
17 Meatspace is the world outside of cyberspace; the world of flesh and blood. The term originated from
cyberpunk novels.
Illustration 2.1: Cost of Raw Megabase pair DNA
sequencing. Data obtained from NIH.
2001 2003 2005 2007 2009 2011 2013
Time (Year)
log $ per Megabase
Moore's Law
2.4.3 Homebrew Biotech
Jason Bobe would meet with Mackenzie Cowell in 2008 at a co-working space in Boston (Tochetti,
2013). Cowell had been working at iGEM before he quit because he “wasn't learning new things
(Bousted, 2008). Cowell sold his car for seed money and together with Bobe founded which
in their own words is an organization that aims to be “An Institution for the Do-it-Yourself Biologist” and
established the DIYbio mailing list (Google Groups platform) which currently holds over 3,700 members
and over 4,700 topics discussed. Bobe and Cowell called for the first DIYbio meeting to discuss the
future of amateur biology. Around 25 biotech enthusiasts gathered at the Irish Pub in Cambridge to
discuss biotechnology as a serious hobby “Can be the Homebrew Computer Club of
biology?” they asked (Bobe, 2008). Along these lines DIYbio represents a biological genre of the
computer hacker: the biohacker (for the breakdown of biohacking see §2.4.4).
DIYbio started with people tinkering in the garages and kitchens of biotech enthusiasts (Bloom, 2009;
Wolinsky, 2009), and eventually moved to dedicated community labs18 that have integrated into the
hackerspace model, either by setting up biolabs in existing hackerspaces or setting up new dedicated
biohackerspaces (Kuznetsov et al., 2012). The community lab of Genspace19, was one of the first to open
its lab to the public in 2010 in Brooklyn, New York, founded in part by molecular biologist Ellen
Jorgensen. Biohackerspaces finance themselves through dierent mechanisms, some of these include
sponsorship through government and university subsidies, crowdfunding, membership fees, etc. has become somewhat of the central hub for a global DIYbio network and accounts for 21
DIYbio groups in North America, 18 in Europe, 2 in Asia, 2 in Oceania, and 2 in Latin America in their
website. Biohackerspaces comprise diverse sets of individuals such as scientists, designers, soware
developers, hobbyists, and enthusiasts, that work on a wide range of projects such as citizen science
initiatives, amateur science, product development (incubators), artistic work, and educational
workshops and courses (Landrain, Meyer, Perez, & Sussan, 2013). Individuals share the infrastructure
provided in DIYbio labs to develop and contribute to projects out of their own interests and motivations
with no expected outcomes in terms of market potentials, feasibility or social worth, all they have to do
is “follow safety guidelines” (Jorgensen, 2012).
The potential widespread access of synthetic biology have caused alarming concerns over biosafety
and biosecurity issues (Edwards & Kelle, 2012; Schmidt, 2008), even the FBI has sponsored several
conferences since 2009 as outreach workshops to the DIYbio community. The conferences have been
18 In a survey conducted by the Wilson Center, they determined that about 90% of DIYbio'ers work in group
spaces rather than alone in their homes (Frushkin, Kuiken, & Millet, 2013).
19 For a look into what a biohackerspace looks and ‘feels’ like watch Visit to Genspace by Make magazine
24 │ CHAPTER 2
successful for building a positive dialogue and bringing awareness for biosecurity and biosafety issues
(Jeerson, 2013). Cowell has expressed that building a relationship with the FBI feels counterintuitive
but is important “If we're going to walk the walk, we have to be able to talk to the FBI” (Lempinen,
2011). The DIYbio community has also taken a pro-active stand towards good practices. Two regional
networks, the European and the North American draed each a code of ethics in 2011 that expressed
commonality calling for open-access, transparency, safety, education, responsibility towards living
beings and the environment, and for only peaceful purposes (an insightful comparison is done by
Eggleson, 2014).
2.4.4 The Biohacker
The Homebrew ‘Biotechnology’ Club was envisioned before Bobe in 1988 by Michael Schrage in his
article “Playing God in Your Basement” in The Washington Post. Schrage makes a comparison between
the homebrew hobbyists and the ‘artistic’ hacker subculture that started the personal computer
revolution and suggests a similar “technology subculture could grow around DNA just as one did for
silicon soware”. He named this new hacker genre the bio-hacker20. The label biohacker has been
broadly adopted by DIYbio and by other groups that adhere to other types of biohacking like cyborg
hacking (grinders) or sleep and diet hacking (Quantified Self)21 (see Box 2.3).
Box 2.3: Biohacker Flavors
At least two types of self-proclaimed biohackers can be distinctly discerned from the general brand
of DIYBio based on their particular interests. These groups perform self -biohacking to extend and
enhance human capacities and many subscribe to the transhumanist philosophy of transforming
the human condition through technologies. Self-called grinders perform practical, and sometimes
extreme DIY body-enhancements with electronic hardware through body-modification and
self-surgery. They are also interested in the use of nootropics and drugs to improve mental and
physical functions. The other branch of biohackers can be distinguished by their extensive eort to
self-measure and monitor behavioral, physical, biological and genetic metrics for self -knowledge
and improvement and fall under the Quantified Self (QS) movement. Some of these groups extend
to the DIYbio group and vice versa as well. What unifies these groups is the idea of hacking
biological systems; of trying to understand how something works by experimentation (hacking)
and they are sharing their hacks with others.
20 This is the earliest citation according to Word Spy of the word biohacker. Excerpts from the article can
also be found in Alictor.
21 These variations can hold dierent values, goals and conflicts and are thus not included in this study.
In the DIYbio/FAQ wiki page they answer Who is a “biohacker”? and reference to the hacker subculture;
the homebrew computer club, free soware, the hacker ethic, and DIY enthusiasts. It also notes that
biohacker “might be somewhat related to biopunk”. The term biopunk originates as a science fiction
subgenre of cyberpunk, both of which involve narratives of dystopian and dreary futures of high
(bio)tech and a subversive culture (punks and hackers) that struggle against the social control of
oppressive governments or megacorporations. The term biopunk therefore accompanies meanings of
the (cyber)punk ideology and its critiques towards neo-liberalism, late capitalism, and individualistic
consumer society, however these philosophies are not necessarily expressed (Schmeink, 2011), as is the
case of Marcus Wohlsen's book Biopunk (2011), in which he uses biopunk interchangeably with
biohackers to refer to amateur biologists and DIYbio to refer to Another example is Meredith
Patterson in A Biopunk Manifesto (2010) where she claims:
As biohackers it is our responsibility to act as emissaries of science, creating new scientists out of everyone
we meet (…) We the biopunks are dedicated to putting the tools of scientific investigation into the hands of
anyone who wants them.
Overall the labels DIYbio, biopunk, biohacking, and amateur biology can be portrayed as the same
thing22 (Alper, 2009; Bloom, 2009; Frushkin et al., 2013; Whalen, 2009). Biohackers have been
characterized for their mode of exploration which relies on understanding biology by making (Delgado,
2013; Roosth, 2010). Moreover, by comparing themselves to computer hackers and open-source
soware they transfer meanings of the right to access, the right to use, and the right to modify
(biological) things (Delgado, 2013, p. 66). Sophia Roosth argues that biohackers beyond trying to
“democratize” biology they aim to make it “quotidian, personal, apprehensible” (2010, p. 105)—or as
Mac Cowell later responded, they want to ‘domesticate’ biology (100 ideas, 2009). Roosth continues to
say “This is biology as a mode of political action, in which practitioners frame doing biological research
as a right rather than a privilege” (2010, p. 105).
According to Ana Delgado et al. (2013) and Alessandro Delfanti (2013) biohackers can be understood as
a reaction to the current post-academic model of science which is commissioned, managed, and
increasingly privatized which in their own views replaces individual curiosity and creativity. Delgado
(2013) claims that herein lies the dierence between institutional biology and amateur biology; “a
renewed enthusiasm for exploration and discovery”. Christopher Kelty (2010) characterizes the
(bio)hacker as someone who takes pleasure in understanding and modifying a system and values
openness and sharing. Kelty compares the hackers with other figures in participatory biology by
22 A discussion over a Wikipedia cleanup in the DIYbio mailing list was split, some agreed on them being
roughly the same, while other strongly maintained that these labels have dierent meanings and
therefore bring distinct imaginaries that depend on the historical and cultural origins of the words.
26 │ CHAPTER 2
emphasizing that hackers work together, not alone, unlike the outlaws who take delight themselves in
solely demystifying and bringing access to biology, or the Victorian Gentlemen scientists, who are
well-connected eccentric intellectuals that pursue knowledge on an aesthetic and pure intellectual
For Delfanti (2013), biohackers make biology ‘hackable’23 in several ways: First, hacking is the ultimate
motive and requirement; you don't need a PhD, you just have to be curious and share your knowledge.
Second, biohackers understand biology as programmable information which can be made standardized
and modularized to make it cheaper and more accessible. Third, they open up community labs beyond
the exclusive domain of Big Bio24. Fourth, they entrepreneur in the new business models of the
open-source development model. Biohackers are enabled by and foster the grassroots CBPP model of
distributed and decentralized open production of common goods that challenge the monopoly of
top-down, proprietary ‘Big Bio slow giants’. Thus Delfanti maintains the biohacker as the direct
translation of hacking into the realm of biology:
DIYbio embodies dierent faces of hacking such as openness in data and knowledge sharing as well as
openness of the doors of scientific institutions, but also rebellion, hedonism, passion, communitarian
spirit, individualism and entrepreneurial drive, distrust for bureaucracies.
Furthermore, Delfanti recognizes that biohackers, much like the hackers (G. Coleman, 2004; Kelty,
2008), value their cra as social and creative expressions and oen deny their political intentions.
Nevertheless hackers and their FOSS philosophy has extended into the wider publics and has sparked
“a commons movement, centered on the idea of creating public goods to reinvigorate democratic
principles” (G. Coleman, 2004, p. 514).
23 Or in other words, it is changing, modifying, remixing the system.
24 Big Bio in reference to “the ensemble of big corporations, global universities, and international and
governmental agencies that compose the economic system of current life sciences” (Delfanti, 2013, p. 6).
Chapter 3
“We are all mediators, translators
Jaques Derrida
28 │ CHAPTER 3
As explained in the Error: Reference source not found I intend to direct attention into the construction
of the collective identity, the “we” of the DIYbio movement. To research how participants describe
themselves and the practices of the movement, qualitative methods are the most appropriate for
tracing processes of meaning-making within the context of a particular community (Krauss, 2005). In
the study of social movements semi-structured interviews in combination with participant observation
can provide insight into the individual and collective visions, imagining, hopes, expectations, and
critiques of their social world and how the movement fits into it 25.
3.1 Data Collection
Participant observation was carried out in movement areas with the purpose to immerse myself into
the practices and discourses elaborated there. The research was done online mainly through direct
observation of discussions in the DIYbio mailing list and other social networking sites such as Facebook
groups, and oline in a biohackerspace with direct participation in a workshop and in a safety training
The interviews were done in a semi-structured manner that involved an interview guide (see Appendix
D). The guide was designed with the intent to develop insight into the dierent meanings and
perceptions of the DIYbio movement by those who identify themselves as members. The questions
were meant to encourage informants to elaborate their responses and were given the freedom to bring
new topics into the conversation they considered relevant. Interviewees self-selected themselves to
participate in the interviews based on my inquiry in the biohackerspace I attended to and from a social
networking site related to DIYbio which I will keep confidential to keep the anonymity of my informants.
A total of seven interviews were performed throughout the course of the study through face-to-face
interactions or video chat. Informants were selected based on their active engagement to DIYbio groups
from dierent regions; three from Western Europe, two from Latin America and two from Southeast
Asia. A comparative table on demographics and on the stats of the interviews can be found in Appendix
E. DIYbio members from North America did not self-select themselves for interviews 26, fortunately their
voice is one of the most prominent discourses of DIYbio—as the movement originally started in the US—
and is widely available online and accessible to English-speakers. Therefore I focused on obtaining a
broader range of meanings from dierent cultures that have joined the movement.
25 For a review of the implications and usefulness of semi-structured interviews in social movements, refer
to Semi-Structured Interviewing in Social Movements (2002) by Kathleen Blee and Verta Taylor.
26 This could be due to a wrong assumption of the diversity of nationalities in the social networking site
where I asked for volunteer participation.
Interviews provided an insiders perspective on the DIYbio movement, to compare I also collected
documentary sources from popular media outlets as to get an outsiders perspective. My documentary
sources were obtained based on a Google Search with the quoted words “DIYbio” and “movement”.
Some of the results from this query are listed in the number 1 footnote in page 2 of this thesis. The
articles selected chosen were two daily newspapers: The Guardian and The New York Times; one
academic journal: Nature; and four magazines that focus on various topics such as business, life
sciences, technology, and popular culture: Forbes, The Scientist, Wired, and Vice respectively. A
comparative table on publisher and article info can be found in Appendix B.
3.2 Data Analysis
The analysis of documentary sources and interviews implies regarding language as data and discourse
analysis is concerned with the expression of language as a way to transmit knowledge to create
meaning. Discourse analysis can provide rich data on the comprehension of the movement from an
outsiders (articles) and from an insiders perspective (interviews), and to intentions, feelings and
purposes that actors give to the movement. The articles were analyzed and relevant snippets
concerning my research questions were taken verbatim or summarized and aggregated in Appendix C.
The recorded audio from the interviews was transcribed manually with a specialized soware (see
Credits & Attributions) and the interviews from the Latin American region were translated from Spanish
to English by me (a native bilingual Mexican-American). Literal sections were then selected and some
are presented as quotes in the text and the rest are aggregated in Appendix E.
3.3 Limitations and Considerations
It is important to establish a rapport with the informants so that they feel comfortable and can adjust
their discourse to the context. In the interview I first introduced myself and noted that I have a
background in engineering and biotechnology as to establish a common jargon. Interviews involve the
disclosure of thoughts and feelings of individuals which are considered private. Issues of confidentiality
and anonymity were assessed and discussed with informants before and aer the interviews were done
and permission was granted orally from the informants to record the audio of the interview for
transcription. Aer the analysis was complete and a rough dra of this thesis was edited, a copy was
provided to the informants for them to review the interpretation (and translation if applicable) of their
personal thoughts to reduce interpretive authority on my behalf. A final consent form for permission
was obtained from them to be able to use the material.
Semi-structured interviews can reduce compatibility between interviews but it allows for interviewees
30 │ CHAPTER 3
to develop their own coherence which is valuable in itself (Patton, 2002). Also, working in a small-scale
research implies that the research is not representative but instead it can provide a rich glimpse into the
ethos and diversity of the movement.
Chapter 4
“The composition of a common world would be the definition of politics.
Bruno Latour
32 │ CHAPTER 4
As I posited in theError: Reference source not found I am interested in gaining insight into the collective
identity of the DIYbio movement. My findings were obtained, as I laid out in my Methods, by analyzing
the practices and discourses of the DIYbio movement through participant observation in an online and
oline DIYbio network (broad descriptions of my experience in them can be found in Appendix A), and
discourse analysis from seven popular media articles and seven interviews with informants (info sheets
available in Appendix B and Appendix E respectively). For analyzing the articles (Appendix C) I roughly
categorized data that conveyed how the authors describe the DIYbio movement and its members, their
motivations and values; on how they perceived goals and grievances of the movement; and on the
descriptions of how the DIYbio movement operates, particularly how they portray community labs and
operate in informal networks. The analysis of the interviews was more divergent as data was highly
heterogeneous and not always comparable. I separated applicable quotes into certain themes
(Appendix F) roughly following the same categorization as the articles—though the data was far more
extensive. The informants were given color code names to keep their anonymity: Blue, Green, Grey,
Black, Brown, Red, and Orange.
The findings are divided in relation to the three mechanisms of social movements. In §4.1 I address how
the collective identity of the movement is described or defined—who is the “we” of the movement . In
§4.2 I lay out the conflicts and their respective counter-solutions proposed by the DIYbio movement.
Finally in §4.3 I briefly show how the informal networks are understood from the discourse analysis and
what are the common elements observed from my participant observation.
4.1 Collective Identity
The first issue I encountered was on the (dis)agreement on how DIYbio and biohacking are defined. The
articles (§C.2) reviewed use both terms synonymously and don't oer a special distinction when using
the term biopunk27. The informants on the other hand expressed some nuances on their meanings ( §F.1,
F.2). Mostly DIYbio was explained in terms of opening access to biology. DIY was portrayed as
inexpensive inventions and workarounds and the term (bio)hacking held a general consensus (§F.2.1) to
mean to understand how something works, many times by disassembling it, and then modifying it to
change its original function. The activities of DIYbio were acknowledged by the informants as covering a
wide range of interests. Grey said that the communality lies in an interest in science, technology,
informatics and electronics that gives rise to the “DIYbio idea: a mix between DIY, hacking, biology and
27 The term biopunk is situated in the context of Wohlsen's book (2011) Biopunk which as previously
mentioned does not stress the biopunk ideology of subversion, rather the biopunk ideology of
Meredith Patterson and her biopunk Manifesto of opening access to biology.
science”. Only Blue saw this diversity of communities of practice as conflicting in defining DIYbio as he
recognized how grinders and QS can be considered to fall under DIYbio while he considers home beer
brewers DIYbio “but at the same time those people do not feel associated with DIYbio at all”, he pointed
out. The boundaries of who is a biohacker were a bit more strict (§F.2.2). Some noted how the term can
scare people, Green said this is why he choses the term DIYbio. Red mentioned that he has heard the
word used in a pejorative sense by groups that are against Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)28.
Only Brown and Red placed biohacking strictly in high-(bio)tech endeavors such as grinding (in the
context of biopunk sci-fi) and synthetic biology and bioengineering. Disagreements were prompted
when asked if synthetic biologist Craig Venter and iGEM'ers are biohackers. Some agreed they are as
they fulfill the tinkering requirement of the biohacker, as Grey explained “because they look at nature
with interest and disassemble pieces to understand how it works”. Some disagreed whether these
actors can be considered biohackers in terms of whether they are considered part of mainstream
science or not. Others expressed that biohackers have to share the knowledge and have to contribute to
the ideals of the movement. Green pointed to this boundary from members and non-members of the
movement from his iGEM experience:
It is not that [the people from the iGEM group] are not doing anything to help the DIYbio movement, but
they don't see what I see; this way in which we can change how innovation can be done, the way people
can use the knowledge of biology.
Furthermore, I tried to explore what it is that interests them and others to join the DIYbio movement as
to allude to the meanings they attribute to participating in the DIYbio movement (§F.3). Some
mentioned learning as their main motivation, especially to learn and teach across disciplines. They
recognized their interest in fulfilling personal curiosities and recognized that DIYbio gives them the
freedom to pursue their own interests. The informants also expressed a pronounced sense of making a
change; to contribute something of value to society. Blue mentioned the interest in social change as the
main reason why people join DIYbio, he calls it:
Social innovation through biotechnology, and it can be either science, business, philosophy, activism, it
can be art, it all has certain impact on how people perceive the world and how they behave. But their
attitude is the same.
When asked for the values of DIYbio many responded with the same themes (§F.4): opening access to
biology for everyone by sharing and creating open-source tools, a commitment to the freedom to
pursue their own interests, approaching things with creativity and curiosity and learning by tinkering.
The articles expose similar values and interests (§C.2) and describe biohackers as passionate, playful,
28 In my research of biohackers, this is the first instance that encountered where the term of biohacker is
used with this connotation.
34 │ CHAPTER 4
and entrepreneurial. The Scientist magazine said biohackers are “dedicated to education, innovation,
problem solving using a new model in the human spirit of curiosity and exploration”. There was also
another feature characteristic of biohackers that was highlighted, and that was their concern for
biosafety (§C.3). Almost all articles pointed to the fear of biohackers having free access to technology
that might produce the next global threat, deliberately or accidentally. However biohackers are
described as educated scientists that have a proactive approach with a sense of responsibility towards
mitigating risks. The Scientist stated “Much of this alarm is overblown, as critics overestimate the
current abilities of the DIYbio movement and underestimate the ethics of the participants”29. The
informants acknowledged the societal concern over the widespread access to biotechnology (§F.5) but
distanced themselves from nefarious activities as Black said “We all want to do something good,
constructive, we don't want to create bioweapons (…) I think that is something very clear in the
movement”. Non of them expressed any distaste over safety and ethical oversight regulations, on the
contrary they highlighted it as necessary. They noted the importance of responsibility in DIYbio as
Orange said “Handling living creatures is entering a very dierent techno-sphere”.
Black highlighted how these fears parallel with the concerns that arose when the computer industry
was starting saying back then “people thought they were going to build a terminator that would end
humankind”, not only did that not happened, he said, but 30 years later we all have smartphones
instead. The comparison made with the computer industry is something that was highlighted oen
(§F.6), even Forbes magazine made the comparison “Biohackers are to biotechnology what Steve Jobs
was to the IBM S/360 mainframe”. The comparison is oen made of the DIYbio movement bringing
biotech to the masses to the transformation of the computing industry—from mainframes in university
labs to personal pocket-size Internet-ready microelectronics.
4.2 Conflictual Collective Action
The conflicts can be understood as a dichotomy between the movement's grievances and goals. The
articles (§C.4) portray the goal of DIYbio as lowering the barrier to entry to biology for citizen scientists,
amateurs, and entrepreneurs. The informants (§F.7) expressed in a clear way the goal of the movement
as opening access to science and technology to the public; bring science to the people; democratize
technology, and so on. When asked whether they considered the DIYbio movement as a political,
economic, technological, or cultural movement the response was overwhelmingly cultural or what
some called ideological. The goal of opening access is contrasted to the perception of biology as closed,
unaccessible outside traditional institutional settings C.5,F.8). Some informants noted that for now
29 This phrase by the author, although not stated must have been inspired by Ellen Jorgensen's TED Talk
Biohacking — you can do it, too.
only individuals with specialized degrees can work/play with biology which restricts participation from
people of dierent fields of study or without the privilege to formal education. They denounced that
even those that do have access (like themselves) don't have the freedom to pursue their own interests
since as a researcher one must climb the academic ladder and play into the competitive game of
publishing in order to receive grants and have the possibility to manage their own labs or projects
(§F.10, F.11). Black succinctly summarized it as “I think scientists have lost a lot of freedom in academia
to practice their profession”. Green contrasts this by saying that in DIYbio no one has to justify things in
terms of profits or generating new knowledge, “you can explore things just for fun”. In this sense they
described DIYbio as a new model of doing science, that is more open and collaborative. They generally
note that normal science is to big and slow to change.
Many of the informants expressed that access to education and technology is essential in the GMO
debate as they considered that people hold an unfounded fear as they don't understand the science. As
Black said:
[With knowledge people] can understand what is DNA, they can understand that their cells have DNA,
understand how a scientist can produce a GMO to produce bioplastics and understand what risks does that
involve; what are the ethical and biosafety implications that it entails.
Blue agreed that democratizing science is important as it allows people to “make good decisions about
[biotechnology]” and so that people can “express themselves with biotechnology and can then find
new applications for it. The things to be able to achieve that; cheap tools, sharing designs, those are all
side eects of that”. Expensive lab equipment is stated in the articles as one of the main obstacles
biohackers try to overcome and the informants (§F.9) expressed an overall discontent over needlessly
expensive equipment as Gray said upset:
Why does a PCR machine cost €20,000? it is just an easy device. It is more complex to make a microwave
and you can buy them at €20 in the supermarket. Why can't I buy a PCR in the supermarket for €20?
All informants agreed that DIYbio and open-source foster low-cost science and technology, and
although they noted the DIYbio movement does not hold any formal norms that forbid knowledge
produced in biohackerspaces from being patented, ultimately the goal of the DIYbio movement will
always try to be open-source as it remains the ultimate truism in opening access. Orange strongly
defended that everything should be open-source because it provides access to marginalized
communities and because it is more adaptable to people's needs:
36 │ CHAPTER 4
What open-source also allows is that with the knowledge you can actually localize it to your own needs
which makes it more inclusive. People can adapt it and hack it to things that are relevant to their
communities and their culture.
When it comes to DIYbio and its relationship with academia and industry (§F.12), biohackers
acknowledge DIYbio as complementary to academia and industry not as antagonistic. They consider
DIYbio as a new way to learn and develop STI, where biohackers are intrinsically motivated by their own
ideas and curiosities. They also recognized—an albeit weak—relationship with academia an industry as
these institutions value DIYbio as a learning and innovation center. For Black, advancements have been
made,up to a point [sic],by universities and industries but says DIYbio wants to be part of the solution
and see if they can advance better and faster.
4.3 Informal Networks
From the discourse analysis, only descriptions or mentions to the spaces were obtained. The articles
(§C.6) generally portrayed community labs as alternative, eclectic, and frugal spaces with ‘makeshi’
lab equipment that are open to anyone regardless of scientific background and are unailiated with
traditional institutions. The informants (§F.13), highlighted the openness of DIYbio labs and online
networks; there are no qualifications required to join and everyone is free to choose how to engage, on
what and why. Preserving the freedom was highlighted as essential, and the origins of funding was
problematized by Green “If money comes in, it doesn't have to restrict my freedom in any sense.
Orange maintained that this is why hackerspaces try to remove themselves from the system but
maintains that at the same time they are being co-opted with private funding.
From the participant observation the practices and discourse of the free spaces was more evident. First,
it was very easy to join in; no requirements and no fees. The biohackerspace (see § A.1) I attended to is
sponsored by a variety of government funds that support art, science and technology. The first
workshop felt informal, and attendees were from dierent backgrounds and disciplines, most of them
artists and designers. The workshop was intended for discussing projects involving genetic
modification, their potentials and risks. The meeting had included free dinner and drinks and aer the
session was concluded many stayed behind, finished the drinks and got to know more about each
other. All the attendees started networking, everyone spoke enthusiastically about their interests in
DIYbio, their current and future projects and exchanged contact information for potential
collaborations. The second workshop was a safety training for using the wetlab. We reviewed laboratory
safety techniques that included YouTube educational videos which were informative as well as
humorous. We were given a written exam to test our new safety knowledge and at the end we all went
through the test and discussed the right answers together. The organizers pointed out that these safety
rules would become clearer as one starts working in the lab and assured that you can always ask
someone for help. We also received a tour of the hackerspace, saw where the equipment was located
and how to use them, as the manager of the lab said “we want you to feel at home”.
The online DIYbio mailing list (§A.2) involves actors from many countries and it is encouraged to have all
discussions in English. The language used is a mix between informal talk, Internet slang, and biotech
jargon. The topics include people updating on their current projects and sharing current events, but
most of them have to do with exchanging scientific and technical knowledge—people ask for help,
advice, or for expertise. When projects are shared, people inquire about specs and encourage each
other to share all the information as to foster collaboration. Topics can then quickly gravitate towards
issues of IPR and they discuss strategies and mechanisms to make their projects free/libre. There are
moderators to the list but they only ‘weed out’ spam and have taken a stance against deleting posts
upon requests in an attempt to avoid censorship. The moderators are the original creators of the
discussion site and so far their role has not been questioned or challenged on the contrary it has been
Overall both the biohackerspace and the DIYbio mailing list primarily serve as networking places where
members apart from serious engagement in the science, they socialize and establish relationships for
future and ongoing collaborations.
Chapter 5
“Science is an integral part of culture. It's not this foreign thing, done by an arcane
priesthood. It's one of the glories of the human intellectual tradition
Stephen Jay Gould
40 │ CHAPTER 5
In order to provide the foundation to understanding the DIYbio movement my research questions focus
on investigating into the mechanisms characteristic of social movements which includes a shared
collective identity that abides by similar values and meanings of the world, a conflictual relationship
with the dominant culture and clear goals to enact social change, and informal networks where
members communicate, organize, and carry out collective action. I directed my attention to the
construction of the collective identity of the movement which influences how individuals and groups
make sense of their actions, in how they define opportunities and restraints within a system; and
activates the relationship of “being together”, it gives sense to the “we” and the goals they pursue
together (Melucci, 1993). Therefore my research questions focus on (0) defining the collective identity
as the expression of values and beliefs of the movement which (1) dictate collective action to
challenge the barriers for social change (the problem-solution), and (2) on the solidarity that develops
in the free spaces of the movement. To make the case more concrete I focused on the biohacker as the
basis of the collective identity that provides the DIYbio movement the collection of cultural
understandings that give meaning to the movement. So the analysis begins by analyzing:
(0) How is the collective identity of the DIYbio movement defined?
Firstly, the term biohacker is not necessarily adopted by all members of the DIYbio movement. Its
meaning is attached to dierent concepts that widely aect what people understand what biohacking
refers to and thus the concept of biohackers is fractioned which can aect the cohesiveness of the
DIYbio philosophy as a derivation of the hacker ethos. The broader issue in defining biohackers is
between the perception of hacking as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Among the general population the word hacker
can refer to nefarious cybercriminals30 that hack passwords and bank accounts which applied to the
realm of biology brings understandable concerns over widespread access to user-friendly biotech
(Schmidt, 2008). To avoid this misconception some biohackers may use more ‘neutral’ labels such as
DIYbio, citizen science, amateur science, or biotinkering—the same choice has been seen in the creation
and use of the word maker and makerspaces. Those who choose to use the term biohacking clearly
distinguish it from nefarious activities which they label exclusively separate as bioterrorism. The
caricature of the rogue biohacker is demystified in a purposeful eort to define biohacking as
constructive and not destructive and conducted or at least supervised by academically trained
individuals that follow biosafety guidelines and expert advice on ethical and safety issues. Whether they
do so remains unclear and would require an in-depth investigation into the practices of biohackers.
The other tension in the word biohacker has to do with defining boundaries which can preclude and
30 Although the recent uprising of hacktivism with groups like Anonymous might be changing the societal
perception of hackers as political cyber activists that hack for social change but this remains unclear.
include dierent actors from dierent fields of interest. Taking into account that a hacker is an
enthusiast or an expert that enjoys solving problems and the meaning of ‘hack’ can be characterized as
“an appropriate application of ingenuity” anyone can be considered a hacker. Herein lies the process of
construction of the collective identity as the movement defines for example whether what Craig Venter,
iGEM'ers, grinders, and home beer brewers do is biohacking, DIYbio, or part of the movement. The
collectivity of the DIYbio movement in itself can be clearly defined as biohackers can discern those who
are part of the movement and those who are not based on a sense of solidarity of sharing the same
values, beliefs, and critiques that incite collective action.
The motivations and values expressed by biohackers do reflect what has been previously described in
the literature (Delfanti, 2013; Delgado, 2013; Kelty, 2010) which in turn derive from the hacker ethos.
Biohackers claim their main drivers are based on learning and curiosity and the desire to solve
problems and create social value. They appraise working with passion and creativity and are thus
dedicated to innovation and self-expression. They also strongly object to imposed requirements and
restrictions of any kind that may exclude people from access and participation or infringe on their
freedom of inquiry. These values in a way could be understood as contributing to the Entertainment
motivation in Linus's Law, the one that provides personal gratification and a sense of personal
enrichment, while their values of openness, sharing, and collaboration reflect communal values and
fulfill the social life part of Linus's Law.
The collective identity of the DIYbio movement does prove to be a kind of sub genre of the hacker ethic.
The mobilization of the hacker ethic as I explained elsewhere resulted in the creation of new cultural
models and forms of relationship in the shape of FLOSS and hackerspaces for the production of
immaterial and material goods. Biohackers mobilize through similar models that can ultimately be
described as CBPP which is a new form of organizing production, governance and ownership.
Considering DIYbio as a social movement acknowledges their premise for social change. Change is
perceived as necessary due to grievances with an ‘old’ and dominant model that conflicts with how
they make sense of the world and therefore formulate goals towards new models that match with their
worldviews. The conflictual factor of social movements with the dominant culture can be considered as
the main driver that mobilizes collective action to enact social change. Since collective action is
directed by the collective identity my next research question addresses:
(1) How do members perceive conflicts and enact goals in accordance with its collective identity?
In short, biohackers challenge the status quo of the organization of science, or in hacker terms: they
challenge the ‘priesthood’ and the ‘cathedral’ of the life sciences and technologies. They oppose the
social construction of science as an exclusive activity and therefore try to reduce the barriers to entry to
42 │ CHAPTER 5
allow and encourage individuals from dierent disciplines or without formal education to engage and
contribute by providing the resources necessary for biological research. In this respect lies their goal to
democratize biology—biology as knowledge, as science, and as a technology. Furthermore biohackers
denounce the Authoritarian, Commissioned and Expert PLACE norms of post-academic science; the
counter norms to Universalism and Disinterestedness of CUDOS. Biohackers claim scientists have lost
the freedom in their profession and so they counteract with a deep commitment to freedom of inquiry
so that scientists, designers, artists, or entrepreneurs can freely engage and pursue their own interests.
Finally, biohackers denounce the reward system of scientists which fosters competitive behaviors
towards priority (publications) and market potentials, which are furthered protected under IPR which
they consider makes science and technology needlessly expensive. Biohackers in this sense advocate
for the FLOSS model to revive the Communalism of CUDOS by preserving scientific knowledge and
technical information in a commons.
To understand the relationship and dynamics between how the DIYbio movement aligns collective
action with their collective identity, in Table 5.1 I try to outline what could be considered three
communal values that reflect the perceived conflicts as problems and the corresponding solutions as
goals that align with their new values; which are given as openness, freedom, and collaboration.
Table 5.1: The problems, solutions and their eects of the goals and values of the biohacker
Value/Purpose Problem Solution Eect
Openness: Scientific research
requires specialized
degrees and access to
professional labs (the
scientific elite).
Provide accessible,
aordable, easy-to-use
resources with no entry
requirements or
qualifications needed.
People from dierent disciplines
come together and engage in
continuous learning and oer
more diverse approaches to
problems and solutions.
Freedom: Scientists comply with
developing knowledge for
publications or private
Everyone can freely
pursue their own interests
and curiosities. No
justifications needed.
People can express themselves
and find meaning and
satisfaction from what they do
(activism, science, art,
Collaboration: Competition for priority
and monopoly prices
keeps knowledge a secret
and an expensive
Share everything as free
and open-source.
People can freely improve and
customize things to their needs.
Innovation is faster as more
people collaborate and
compete with new ideas not
keeping secrets.
The eects from the proposed problem-solution framework may represent goals in themselves for
some biohackers, for example some may state their goals in terms of education, social innovation,
self-expression, or entrepreneurship. However these should be considered as eects because they are
the outcome of the opportunities that the movement creates by democratizing biology.
The practices of DIYbio can be considered as a mode of ‘political action’ (Roosth, 2010) as they frame
science as a right rather than a privilege, and they also question issues of ownership and distribution.
Although the term ‘democratization’ is a politically charged subject, and in eect CBPP is about
managing the means of production as a commons which challenges the capitalistic notion of property
and waged labor, biohackers much like FLOSS are politically agnostic (G. Coleman, 2004) and frame the
DIYbio movement as a cultural paradigm shi—to change the perception that biology can be hackable
by anyone and that a CBPP model is a more eicient and productive model for the development and
distribution of STI. This aligns with Alan Scott's argument that new social movements31 are first cultural
and second, if at all, political (Scott, 1990). Developing a cultural ethos of “cooperative individualism” is
considered by Bauwens (2005) as one of the key infrastructure to enable P2P projects.
In social movement theory, there is also a debate whether social movements are reactionary, proactive
or ambivalent towards the dominant culture (Buechler, 1995). As recognized by Delfanti (2013),
biohackers portray a general ambivalence towards capitalism, and it is this respect that biohackers
reflect the moral ambiguity of OSS in contrast to the moral imperative of FS against IMP. DIYbio is not
necessarily antagonistic towards Big Bio institutions, as it depends on their productive activities and
sometimes on their funding. The challenge to these institutions lies in their use of a scarcity -based
model that is in crisis that oers little to no competitive edge in the AI world of abundant information,
and distributed capital and cognitive resources32. Big Bio institutions are thus in the midst of a
transition themselves with initiatives such as open access and citizen science from academia, and open
innovation and open-source business models from industries33. This can explain how academia and
industry have established relationships with DIYbio as they recognize its potential as low-cost learning
and innovation centers. Given that these institutions are big and with well established reward
mechanisms, transformation can be slow, therefore DIYbio still operates in symbiosis with big
institutions but is able to practice new cultural models in alternative spaces. Which brings me to my last
research question:
(2) How is the collective identity reproduced through its informal networks?
31 New Social Movements is a theory of social movements that maintains that social movements in
post-industrial societies (since the mid-1960s) are dierent from previous proletariat mobilizations in
that they are related to post-materialistic values. For a review see New Social Movement Theories (1995)
by Steven M. Buechler.
32 As for example projects like Wikipedia and Linux, or crowdfunding and peer-to-peer business models.
33 Tesla Motors announced in June in a blog post they were releasing their patents “in the spirit of the open
source movement, for the advancement of electric vehicle technology”.
44 │ CHAPTER 5
The informal networks, or otherwise known as free spaces, movement areas, cultural laboratories or
spheres of cultural autonomy are dierent names for the same thing to denote “small-scale settings
within a community or movement that are removed from the direct control of dominant groups,
voluntarily participated in, and generate the cultural challenge that precedes or accompanies political
mobilization (Polleta, 1999, p. 1). Free spaces are essential for social movements as they constitute the
places where solidarity, skills, and collective action are developed and identities, values and ideas are
reproduced. From my experience in both online and oline networks these spaces eectively do that as
dedicated work/play environments where members socialize and establish cooperative relationships;
personal and professional, reinforcing the bond of the community. Moreover, these spaces strongly
endorse open-source and biosafety practices which are part of the biohacker identity.
Many scholars argue that free spaces must be insulated from the dominant culture to avoid ideological
intrusions and maintain a safe space where challenging ideas and tactics can be easily formulated
(Friedman & McAdam, 1992; Morris & Mueller, 1992). As for many contemporary movements,
Internet-based social networks provide the necessary spaces of autonomy for social movements to
mobilize collective action (Castells, 2012), and the DIYbio movement thrives in cyberspace as online
networks are independently managed and members are free to join and contribute. The solidarity in
the DIYbio movement is extended through online social networks beyond a geographic location which
enables them to mobilize action at a global scale; as they perceive the lack of access to biology as a
structural problem of science as an exclusive and expensive activity and thus establishing
biohackerspaces is the local solution to a much broader change. However, the autonomy of community
labs in urban space—which are construed as open and alternative community-managed labs—can be
compromised by being hosted and financed by formal institutions as some informants suggested their
commitment to freedom of inquiry could be co-opted by sponsor interests. Francesca Polleta on the
other hand argues that more than the physical separation from the dominant culture, mobilizing action
relies on the cultural content, “what is crucial is the set of beliefs, values, and symbols institutionalized
in a particular setting” (1999, p. 20). Moreover, to talk about a dominant culture fails to recognize that
culture is not static, and that it is at the ‘cracks and fissures’ of this apparently hegemonic culture where
social movements emerge from (Johnston & Klandermans, 1995). Mobilization in conjunction with
traditional institutions, rather than co-optation, could signify the symbiosis between the biohacker and
a new model of open science and open innovation—or what could be considered as the broader shi
towards CBPP. A couple of informants disclosed the nature of their DIYbio labs as ‘hybrids’ because they
are entirely hosted under universities but are combined with biohacking practices of developing
open-source tools, sharing knowledge, and opening access to people beyond the ‘Oicially Sanctioned
Users’. For example, although the wetlab I attended is sponsored under a host institution it did not
aect the ‘shoe-string’ budget characteristic of community labs which forces them to be thriy and
resourceful and the fact that I was able to attend educational workshops free of charge demonstrates a
commitment to public outreach and engagement, and the lab safety course shows their approach to
responsible biosafety.
These informal networks represent the conflictual spaces where their values of openness, freedom, and
collaboration have to be defended against any intrusion of private interests to restrict participation,
command projects, or seek profits through knowledge-hoarding (refer back to Table 5.1). The
relationship and the subsequent power dynamics between biohackers and sponsoring institutions
should be furthered studied as to ascertain whether there is a holistic integration of the hacker ethos, or
the movement is at risk of exploitation as a cheap source of cognitive capital. Moreover the particular
interests from these funding agencies can be called into question, as was the controversial case in the
Maker movement of the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, donating
$10M to expand the hackerspace model to 1,000 high schools in the US by 2014. The program was
criticized by many members of the maker community who stood against the program including
prominent hacker and co-founder of Noisebridge Mitch Altman “Having these programs in schools is
fantastic, but the military calling the shots in American education? (…) I don't see that as a positive
move” (O'Leary, 2012). DARPA funded projects are not exclusive to military purposes and are not new to
hackers, aer all the agency initiated the ARPANET project in 1969; the progenitor of the Internet (Levy,
1984). Back then, Levy explains, hackers defended DARPA sponsorship by claiming the projects were
not for the military, which Levy denounced as denying the obvious “who was to say that all that
‘interesting’ work in vision and robotics would not result in more eicient bombing raids?” (Levy, 1984,
p. 125). So could DARPA funded biofuel research be considered as a non-peaceful purpose as its
intention is to be used in military aviation34? Or is it considered positive as it reduces their dependency
to petroleum-derived fuels? How the biohacker movement will develop strategies and manage
relationships with funding agencies and their interests while preserving their collective identity will be
essential in the movement's success in maintaining solidarity and cohesiveness and ultimately achieve
social change. The recent announcement of DARPA's new program, the Biological Robustness in
Complex System (BRICS) for the development of synbio applications, might provide needed funding for
biohackers35, but it might also put up to debate how the community can maintain alignment with their
proposed worldview—which include peaceful purposes—and the encroachment of an agency whose
purpose is to develop technology for armed forces that are sanctioned to use lethal-force.
34 Which in all fairness can serve for humanitarian aid or for warfare.
35 Whether the program will oicially support biohacking is unclear but is suspected as a biohacker in an
online forum claimed DARPA was scheduled for a visit to their community lab. Supporting
biohackerspaces could be expected given their recent interest in financing the maker movement.
46 │ CHAPTER 5
5.1 Relevance of this Thesis
This thesis contributes to understanding a new sociological phenomena, the DIYbio movement, by
generating insight into the mechanisms through which it mobilizes collective action towards social
change. The proposed problem-solution framework identifies the key strategies that the movement
mobilizes and dierentiates these goals—openness, freedom, and collaboration—from more personal
goals of biohackers such as learning, or entrepreneurship. Overall the DIYbio movement is part of a shi
into P2P science (Bauwens, 2010) which is part of a broader phase transition; Jeremy Rifkin's (2014)
Collaborative Commons, Benkler's (2006) CBPP, where the free culture of FLOSS equivalents are
mutualizing knowledge, while the sharing economy of hackerspace equivalents are mutualizing the
physical infrastructure (Bauwens, 2014). The DIYbio movement can be seen as the key agent to bring
about social change in the life sciences and technologies by promoting the transformation into open
science, open technology, and open innovation, that is towards CBPP. As academics, industrialists, and
policy makers, unite to confront the global challenges of environmental degradation and climate
change, the DIYbio movement can be seen as an inclusive and low-cost methodology to crowdsource
cognitive and capital resources to face these issues together; the institutions with civil society, and the
global north with the global south through the collaborative commons.
5.2 Reflections on this Thesis
The limitations and implications of this research are worth reflecting on critically; on the methodology
and how it can be improved and on the nature of the data obtain. I also provide my personal and expert
opinion as a life scientist on the DIYbio movement.
5.2.1 Improving the Methodology
Combining several research methods such as participant observation and discourse analysis was
helpful in immersing myself in the movement, but it came at a cost of fully analyzing each one of these
parts. The participant observation was especially diicult to gather data. In the case of the online forum
the information was vast and continuously dynamic and thus complex to code. Also access to the
biohackerspace only included workshops in a controlled public outreach setting so I was unable to
observe fully how it is that members reinforce their beliefs through their everyday activities in the lab.
Therefore I suggest that quantitative discourse analysis of the online discussion forum could provide
more substantial data into the topics and themes that are discussed and participation in more
biohackerspaces could yield insights into how communities reinforce and reproduce their cultural
materials and how they create solidarity between members and how they use it to recruit new actors.
From the interviews, the interview guide was helpful in drawing meanings and values of the informants,
however, the questions could have been better designed as to elicit more coherent and concrete
answers. The semi-structured format was appropriate for exploring meanings and it provided rich data
but it proved to be complex and diicult to manage. The interviews at times would take unexpected
turns as the interviewees would interpret questions in dierent ways, even when I tried to insist for a
specific ‘answer’ they would try to iterate their initial response. I would not push the issue as to avoid
taking complete control over the interview as I wanted them to express their own ideas and
interpretations. Therefore I would suggest a more structured interview could give more amenable data
for comparison. Another issue was the sample size of the interviews conducted (only seven) which can
put into question whether dierent and commons perspectives were missed. Performing more
interviews until reaching saturation would be a good method to ensure more representative data. The
data obtained from the interviews provided rich data taking into account the global spread of the
DIYbio movement with participants from three dierent regions of the world and six dierent
nationalities. The median age was 24, they were all highly educated, and the majority were male; only
one female interviewee. I therefore suggest that it is important to obtain a more heterogeneous mix of
social conditions as the opportunities that the movement creates for each may be dierent and
therefore the motivations, values, and grievances might change.
5.2.2 Considerations for the results
The DIYbio movement portrayed in this thesis concerns itself with opening science which reflects the
discontent with post-academic science. But the DIYbio movement is not just for scientists (as all
intervieews were see Appendix E) as there are other identities that integrate into the movement, such
as artists, activists, and entrepreneurs that may bring dierent critiques and visions that will influence
the overall collective identity and dictate future collective action. Artists and activists may bring more
provocative or subversive themes while entrepreneurs may bring leadership and independence which
could aect the relationships between the challenging culture of DIYbio with that of the ‘dominant’
culture. I would suggest expanding data from these perspectives and analyze how they influence and
are being influenced by the overall collective identity of the DIYbio movement.
The discourse that was captured was in its majority overwhelmingly techno-progressive and pro-DIYbio
as I did not gather opposing or challenging views towards biohacking in my data collection. The insiders
point of view was expected to be positive, but the outsiders perspective (articles) did not oer
significant counterpoints towards the movement. Opposing views are important as they also shape the
collective identity by oering dierent meanings. These negative perceptions could come from
concerns over biosafety or biosecurity, or from bioconservatives that oppose modifying or enhancing
48 │ CHAPTER 5
living organisms. Whether the concerns of these individuals are justified or not is beyond the scope of
analysis of this thesis in understanding DIYbio as a social movement, however the debate and
decision-making on regulations, oversight, and restrictions will most certainly influence the DIYbio
movement in terms of creating new strategies of compliance, compromise, or workarounds that should
keep in line with the collective identity.
5.2.3 Perspective as a Life Scientist
With my former education as a food scientist and engineer I learned how we could use and adapt yeast
and bacteria to produce beer and yogurt, and as a life scientist with a major in cell factory 36, I now
understand the potentials of using and adapting microorganisms to produce biopharmaceuticals,
bioenergy, biomaterials or even for biomining and bioremediation. The dierence is that food is
mainstream while biotech is not, and this is what the DIYbio movement is trying to change. It is in this
contrast where I can draw a meaningful comparison from my experience as a professional in both.
As a food scientist I take my knowledge into the kitchen as I understand and adjust conditions to
achieve better fermentations or caramelizations. Most importantly I exercise basic food safety practices
to avoid microbial growth, cross contaminations, and I rotate my sanitizers to avoid the proliferation of
resistant bacteria. In this respect I can understand why DIYbio has a strong value towards biosafety, as
if the production of food were an exclusive practice to food scientists like me, and we were starting the
food hacklabs movement, we would implement and teach these basic principles. In its majority all
DIYbio labs have highly qualified individuals and they are instilling basic safety practices into DIYbio
labs from the get-go.
As a food enthusiast I continue to enjoy and appreciate food for its artisanship and its science. But as a
life scientist the practice of biotech is still somewhat unreachable beyond a formal occupation as a
student or as an employee in a university or a company. The DIYbio movement empowers scientists like
me to explore biotechnology in a way that is meaningful for us. DIYbio may not produce the next
synthetic cell anytime soon, but as I come from a developing country I see more value in developing
low-cost technology that has great social and environmental impacts while the open-source philosophy
ensures free knowledge and technology transfer.
36 Cell Factory is basically the idea of understanding microorganisms as a factory, where raw materials
come in, they undergo an engineered production process, and out comes a finished product.
Chapter 6
“The degradation of labor, education, and the environment is rooted not in technology
per se but in the antidemocratic values that govern technological development
- Andrew Feenberg
50 │ CHAPTER 6
In this thesis I try to understand DIYbio as a social movement from social movement theory by
generating insight into the mechanisms through which the movement mobilizes action for social
change. For this, I focused on the collective identity of the movement which I recognized as the
biohacker; an adaptation of the hacker ethic and FLOSS practices into biology which overall fit into the
new socio-technical paradigm of ICTs and the cultural/economic paradigm of CBPP. The collective
identity serves as an analytical tool to understand how members of a movement recognize themselves
and others as part of the movement and reorient themselves and their actions based on shared
meanings of the world. To investigate how members construct the collective identity I researched into
the practices and discourses of the movement where they express their motivations, values, and
critiques of the social world and how the movement fits into it. I drew my attention into the
characteristics, values, and motivations of biohackers, how these collide with the mainstream culture
and thus direct collective action for change, and finally how these are reproduced in the online and
oline networks where they mobilize action.
What I found is that the word biohacker is a contentious term between the diering connotations of
‘good’ and ‘bad’ hacking and thus biohackers take a proactive approach in defining themselves as
constructive not destructive, and assert their identity as strongly oriented towards good biosafety
practices and distinct from bioterrorist activities. Defining the boundaries of biohacking between actors
and fields of interest proved to be problematic as they disagree on for example whether someone like
Craig Venter is a biohacker. However, the biohacker as the collective identity of the DIYbio movement is
clearly defined as members recognize themselves and others as part of the movement as they share
the same values, beliefs, visions, and critiques that incite collective action for social change. To
understand the dynamics between these imaginaries I proposed a problem-solution framework based
on three main values from the numerous values and motivations of the biohackers—which proved to be
a subgenre of the hacker ethos—which reflect concrete actions that the DIYbio movement mobilizes in
the informal networks (movement areas) to achieve social change. The first one is openness which
conflicts with the exclusive practice of science to professional scientists in professional labs, in