A feature by Margaret Talbot in the New Yorker on the movement to decentralise pharmaceutical manufacturing caught my attention this week, my last to decompress after the exertions of Consensus: Distributed earlier in the month.
Things about decentralisation generally draw my attention because of the opportunity to apply lessons to the cryptocurrency world. In this case, there are striking parallels between the “DIY-bio movement” and what we might call the DIY-money movement in crytocurrencies and the broader blockchain space, not least of which are the existence of a class of bros in both:
The D.I.Y.-bio spectrum includes anarcho-libertarians. To the frustration of people like Jorgensen and Canine, this bro-ish element tends to attract media attention, because of a predilection for live-streaming stunts. In 2018, at a conference in Austin, the twenty-eight-year-old biohacker Aaron Traywick live-streamed his self-injection of a D.I.Y. treatment for genital herpes. (It’s unclear if it worked; Traywick died later that year, in Washington, D.C., while using a sensory-deprivation tank.) This part of the movement includes gonzo self-experimenters, transhumanists seeking to extend their life spans, and people eager to become cyborgs—by, say, implanting microchips in their arms which contain their medical records. One person I spoke to called this cohort the “You did what?” crowd. Another said that such people followed a credo of “because it’s cool, and because we can.”The Rogue Experimenters by Margaret Talbot, May 25, 2020 issue of the New Yorker
To be fair, it’s not just the bros that bear a similarity to the crypto space, although I might be falling into the very same media-attention trap that so frustrates some bio-DIYers.
Talbot talks of the “earnest” scientists and “do gooders” who populate community labs, which are basically hackerspaces for biology.
In recent years, it has become relatively easy for people to acquire sophisticated lab instruments such as PCR machines, atomic-force microscopes, and environmental sensors. For example, when new biotech companies fail, they tend to sell off their equipment for a discount, and community labs and biohackers scoop it up. Wilbanks told me, “D.I.Y. bio is very similar to the home-brew, hacker-club culture of the late seventies in Silicon Valley. If you’ve not gone on eBay to shop for a DNA sequencer that they can ship to you in twenty-four hours, check it out—there’s a massive secondary market.”
Here, there are echoes of blockchain believers with their constant refrains about helping the unbanked, or saving Venezuelans from the tanking Bolivar, or shielding the ordinary person from the vampiric fees of Visa or Mastercard.
These people are not the anarcho-libertarians who hoard bitcoin or inject herpes viruses into their bodies; as Talbot says of the more sober DIY-bio folks, some of them are “modest, serious, and … steeped in social justice activism”. Think of the last earnest bank innovation lab guy, trader-turned-blockchain VC, or CS professor preaching a new token you met at a crypto conf.
Another interesting quirk is compliance. While some crypto businesses are at pains to prove that they follow the rules, sometimes going overboard to prove to regulators how legit they are, these actions can make them seem desperate for the legitimacy of the very institutions they are meant to overturn. But the community labs Talbot visits go the extra mile with compliance precisely because commercial settings often can’t find the profit motive in carrying out scientific protocols. One community lab member was conflicted over the sentience of the jellyfish he planned to work with, Talbot writes.
The catastrophe of Covid-19 has been a catalyst to both the DIY-ers and crypto people. In the pandemic both scenes see portents for a new world, a world that finally provides the evidence for the rightness of their movements. For crypto, unlimited quantitative easing makes the corruption of fiat currency self-evident; for the DIY-ers, the virus proves that the community approach of sharing instead of hoarding data, reagents, and protocols, was right all along.
Maybe every scene has its misfits and nerds. But the interesting thing that Talbot does is map out how these factions regard each other; and where they make common cause. The biohackers and the community lab people both reject the notion that science can only be conducted with the blessing of officialdom. They go to the same conferences, and they abide by the principles of working in the open and sharing their data.
Talbot’s telling has the DIY-bio movment starting in the mid-2000s, giving it a few years’ headstart over the cryptocurrency world. Despite increasingly cheaper hardware, software, and data, the movement remains on the fringes, still negotiating its factional disputes. (Some people also directly straddle both scenes, like the “Macgyver” taking on Covid-19, Bruce Fenton, and figures with careers in both like Balaji Srinivasan).
But the feeling that this is an elaborate science-meets-Silicon Valley cosplay is offset by the huge benefits produced by some of the projects Talbot covers, like e-NABLE, which 3D-prints prosthetic arms for free. A new arm or digit is self-evidently more useful than closing out a monster long at BitMEX—or even the idea that a cryptocurrency could let a worker turn her bolivars into dollars, sent beyond the reach of Maduro’s Venezuela.
There’s still a sense of the unreal around cryptocurrencies. Maybe more biohacker bros should hang out with crypto bros.