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DIYbiologists as ‘makers’ of personal biologies: how MAKE Magazine and Maker Faires contribute in constituting biology as a personal technology image

Sara Tocchetti

1. Introduction

In January 2005 O’Reilly Media Inc. (O’Reilly Media) – one of the largest computer book publishers – released MAKE Magazine (MAKE), a quarterly focused on small scale electro-mechanical and digital technologies. One year later in an issue entitled Backyard Biology, the magazine featured several projects where materials such as small fish, snails, strawberries, DNA, plant’s sexual organs and mushrooms were laid out with the appropriate tools and instructions. The same year the MAKE editorial team inaugurated the first Maker Faire – a two day fair dedicated to the celebration of the ‘maker mindset’. From 2009 onwards, an increasing number of DIYbio network members became regular participants of Maker Faires. While the members of this “organization dedicated to making biology an accessible pursuit for citizen scientists, amateur biologists and biological engineers who value openness and safety” (DIYbio, 2008) started to also refer to themselves as ‘makers’.

The constitution of biologies as ‘personal’ is a broad contemporary phenomenon exceeding the purpose of this article; similarly the description of the maker’s culture itself deserves a study of its own. In this context referring at the sections of this paper as ‘snapshots’ is a way to remember that what is described here are preliminary glimpses of a contingent contemporary. The scope of this paper is therefore limited firstly to the analysis of the maker as a figuration, secondly to the description of ‘backyard biology’ as a tool of the maker and a product of his making [1], and thirdly to discuss the identification of DIYbio member with the figure of the maker. The choice of peeping at the DIYbio network through the eyes of the maker is a narrative attempt to avoid originals [2]. The aim of this paper is not to describe DIYbiologists as makers, but also as makers.

Among scholars, the emergence of the DIYbio network has been first classified as an early ramification of the biosafety and biosecurity debate surrounding synthetic biology (Schmidt, 2008 and 2009). This first interpretation has also been used to promote post-ELSI [3] “equipment” to engage with “biohackers” (Bennett et al. 2009, p. 1109). Aguiton (2009a, 2009b) is the first to frame DIYbiologists as part of a permeable space where civil society, activists, and bioartists explore more or less confrontational practices in the ‘out program’ of synthetic biology. By decomposing the “much-hyped” DIYbio ethos through the figures of the outlaw, the hacker and the Victorian amateurs, Kelty (2010, n.d) questions the types of public participation that are at stake. Such analysis is pursued in Delfanti’s work where the DIYBio network is portrayed as a case study of a reassembled ethos of Mertonian norms and hacker ethic (Delfanti, 2010). Delfanti’s work is also the only describing the relationship between MAKE and the DIYbio network. Although this is limited to a phrase mentioning MAKE as a “communication tool” and the fact that DIYbiologists like to call themselves makers (Delfanti, 2010, p.113). Finally the most recent and in-depth work is Roosth’s ethnographic encounter of the DIYbio network as an example of what she calls both “constructive biologies” and “fabricated biologies”. These categories frame her analysis of what she describes as the “efforts in the post-genomic life sciences to understand how biology works by making new biological things” (Roosth, 2011, p. 3).

The first snapshot questions the composition of the maker as a figuration, and the representations of technology that are performed through it. The roles of three central actors: Tim O’Reilly, CEO of O’Reilly Media Inc. and publisher of MAKE; Dale Dougherty, MAKE Editor and Publisher; and Mark Frauenfelder, MAKE Editor in Chief are traced through the analysis of primary literature sources. This first part is framed by Haraway’s politics of figuration as “performative images that can be inhabited” (Haraway, 1997, p. 11). The notion of the network entrepreneur as developed by Burt (2000) and adapted by Turner (2006) is used to situate the culture of entrepreneurship embodied by O’Reilly, Dougherty, and Frauenfelder. In particular Turner’s indispensable description of how computers became ‘personal’ is central to understand the category of ‘personal technology’ I use to describe technology as portrayed in MAKE. Finally I coin the term ‘forum of manufacturing’ to speak about the Maker Faire in reference to both Turner’s usage of the terms network forum and “the festival becomes a factory” (Turner, 2006 and 2009, p.89).

The second-snapshot asks what is meant by backyard biology and how does biology become backyard biology? This section proposes a preliminary discourse analysis of MAKE Backyard Biology. This analysis is informed by Roosth’s work on the usage of the term “hack” in reference to biological materials (Roosth, 2011, p.46). In order to describe the discourses and practices that are part of the category of backyard biology, the term personal biologies is coined and used with reference to Turner’s work on the computer as personal (Turner, 2006).

The third snapshot explores how member of the DIYbio network came to consider themselves to be makers and whether this identification is helpful to understand the politics of DIYbio. These questions are addressed through the analysis of participant observations conducted at two separate 2011 Maker Faires, organized in Newcastle (UK) and in San Matteo (USA) respectively. These observations are complemented with semi-structured open-ended interviews with seven of the twelve members of the DIYbio network who, by that time, had participated in the Maker Faires as stall holders, as well as additional primary literature. By describing how members of the DIYbio network came to think about themselves as makers, this final snapshot and the conclusions attempt to articulate Roosth’s analytical category of “constructive biologies” (Roosth, 2011) in relation to that of personal biologies developed in this paper. Throughout the paper more circumscribed theoretical propositions draws on works in the fields of linguistics, online communities and digital media, anthropology of craft, and science studies.

2. First snapshot: composing the figure of the maker

On the 29th of July 2004, during the third edition of OSCON (O’Reilly Open Source Convention) in Portland (Oregon), Dougherty announced the imminent release of MAKE. The same day Frauenfelder, posted a short description of the MAKE launch on BoingBoing (BB) blog. He expressed the hope that “a lot of BB readers become Make contributors, too”, and invited them to send him ideas for articles (Frauenfelder, 2004). Six month later MAKE’s first issue was released.

2.1 Tim O’Reilly Media Inc. and the Whole Earth Catalog legacy

By being presented at OSCON, the magazine was placed at the center of the vast community of IT professionals gathered around O’Reilly Media. O’Reilly and Associates was founded as an IT consulting firm, in 1978. The Boston-based company’s first success came in 1992 with the publication of The Whole Internet: User’s Guide and Catalog. Its story is narrated in a book entitled Creating Consumer Evangelists (McConnell and Huba, 2003). The authors describe how several months before the book was released, Brian Erwin, founder of the media office of the Sierra Club – the most influential US environmental organization – was hired as director of O’Reilly public relations. Erwin took over the promotion of the book by using the techniques of communication he had developed at the Sierra Club (Young, 2008). In the book a quote from O’Reilly explains:

“While Brian got us to think about activism we were on very fertile ground because we were already seeing ourselves as a voice of a community. We were writing the books for a class of people we knew really well because we were them” (McConnell and Huba, 2003, p.109).

The Whole Internet became the most popular book educating more than one million readers about the revolutionary potential of the Internet. Its success provided O’Reilly and Associates with the financial leverage to become O’Reilly Media. In 2010 the company owned twenty-four percent of what is estimated to be a four-hundred millions dollar market (Chafkin, 2010), selling each year more than one and a half million IT manuals and books worldwide (Hendrikson, 2011). Unsurprisingly the CEO’s biographical traits and the company’s aims are portrayed as identical. On the company website, O’Reilly is described as ‘a chronicler and catalyst of leading-edge development, honing in on the technology trends that really matter and galvanizing their adoption by amplifying “faint signals”from the “alpha geeks”’ (O’Reilly Media Inc. 2012a and 2012b). The book not only symbolizes the entrepreneurial evangelism of O’Reilly Media (O’Reilly Media Inc. 2012b), but also the first expression of the O’Reilly homage to “Steward Brand and crew” (O’Reilly, 2006). In a post published in the O’Reilly Radar [4] to publicize an event co-hosted by Fred Turner and Steward Brand, O’Reilly wrote: “A huge amount of the O’Reilly sensibility, a mix of practicality and idealism, was learned from the Whole Earth Catalog” (O’Reilly, 2006). More importantly in the same post O’Reilly endorses this legacy towards a future: “And of course, the Whole Earth Catalog is one of the wellsprings of the modern DIY movement, for which Make magazine is now carrying the torch” (O’Reilly, 2006). Turner’s analysis of the Catalog as a network forum that “entrepreneurially linking[ed] the countercultural and technological communities” (Turner, 2006, p. 101), is still very useful to understand why O’Reilly proudly designates MAKE as its ardent descendant. As Turner himself summarizes in the event description:

“Over forty years, they [Steward Brand and his colleagues] transformed American notions of technology and particularly, of computers. They shaped the defining notions of our digital world, including ‘personal’ computing, virtual community, and the vision of cyberspace as an electronic frontier. [...] And in the process, they transformed the ideals of the generation of 1968 into a deeply optimistic vision of the social potential of digital technologies” (O’Reilly, 2006).

The inscription of MAKE as part of the Catalog legacy is a symbolic move inviting members of the O’Reilly Media community of IT professionals to revisit or discover their relation to information technologies through the Catalog, while at the same time constituting MAKE as a forum to celebrate such legacy.

2.2 Dougherty and the myth of “grassroots American innovation”

When Dougherty presents MAKE at OSCON and invites attendees to participate in the journal, he operates as an extension of O’Reilly Media by ‘honing in on technological trends’. The ‘signals’ coming from the projects that the ‘alpha geeks’ attending OSCON carry out in their spare time are about to be ‘amplified’ in MAKE. In the welcoming editorial of MAKE’s first issue entitled The Making of Make, he writes:

“More than mere consumers of technology, we are makers. [...] MAKE is a new magazine dedicated to showing how to Make technology work for you. […] A MAKE project is rewarding and fun as en experience and it produces something that you can share with your friends and family” (Dougherty, 2005, p.7).

In January 2011 at TED@MotorCity in Detroit [5], Dougherty gave a talk entitled We are makers. In it he narrated the myth of the maker from its present to its origin. He begins:

“All of us are makers. We’re born makers. We have this ability to make things, to grasp things with our hands. We use words like ‘grasp’ metaphorically to also think about understanding things” (Dougherty, 2011).

Later on he shares a fragment of his inspiration, a film collage entitled American Maker and produced in 1960 by Jam Handy Organization as a commercial visual communication for the Chevrolet division of General Motors. Before the movie begins, Dougherty actualizes these representations as part of his contemporary America:

“Makers today, to some degree, are out on the edge. They’re not mainstream. They’re a little bit radical. They’re a bit subversive in what they do. But at one time, it was fairly commonplace to think of yourself as a maker” (Dougherty, 2011).

The films starts with a large view over a deserted beach, the camera slowly focus on two lone white, male children who are putting the finishing touches on a sand fortress that harbors an American flag. A typical 50s-60s male narrator’s voice explains:

“Of all things Americans are, we are makers. With our strengths and our minds and spirit, we gather, we form, and we fashion. Makers and shapers and put-it-togetherers”.

This diachronic synchronization of the yearning to make is followed by several portraits of the makers of today and their inventions: a drill powered mini-scooter, electric muffin go-karts, electronic fabrics, 3D printing, non-military drones and autonomous vehicles, Arduino the open source micro-controller platform, and DIY space explorations. While Dougherty’s closing remarks powerfully resonate as a symbolic discourse of economic revitalization: “What will America Make? It is more Makers” (Doughery, 2011).

By mobilizing images of American middle class D.I.Y. culture as represented in the short film, Dougherty anchors the maker to a powerful myth, that of USA homemade innovation and manufactured self-sufficiency. As these specific images participate in the mediation of social relations, the maker as a relational identity becomes spectacle [6]. The figure of the maker Dougherty has infused the magazine with dips into the mythical imagery of a conservative American society united in what becomes the foundational act of manufacturing. Dougherty is also the conceiver of the Maker Faire. In April 2006 on the San Mateo Fairgrounds, at the heart of the San Francisco Bay Area, the first Maker Faire took place. Only five years later, more than twenty Maker Faires and Mini Maker Faires have been organized across the USA, Canada, UK, Ghana and Egypt, while according to the organizers, the 2011 Bay Area Maker Faire was visited by more than 70 000 attendees. On the event website, Maker Faire is presented as “the premier event for grassroots American innovation. [...] The World’s Largest DIY Festival. [...] A showcase of invention, creativity and resourcefulness and a celebration of the Maker mindset” (Maker Faire, 2012). In a short article entitled Genuine Ingenuity and published in the MAKE Backyard Biology Dougherty writes about his experience as an organizer:

“The new interest in DIY is more than just fun; it is part of a deeper search for authentic experiences, something our contemporary culture just doesn’t offer enough of. Maker Faire was highly engaging. Unlike so many tech events, there was no one sitting in a corner with a computer checking email or Iming someone. Everyone was fully present, in body and spirit, kids and adults alike” (Dougherty, 2006, p.48).

As isolating instant messaging (Iming or IM-ing) becomes an anecdotal fragment of what Dale Dougherty critically experiences as a form of digital disembodiment, Maker Faires constitute the place where the trans-generational bonding experience of ‘grassroots American innovation’ becomes its antidote. Similarly to the way Fred Turner describes the relationship between the Burning Man festival (which statues and installations are also showcased at Maker Faire) and Google employees with the expression “the festival becomes the factory” (Turner, 2009, p.89), the Maker Faire can be understood as a forum of manufacturing where social networks are formed and perform around the promises of small-scale manufacturing. While a “deeper search for authentic experience” becomes an attractive welcoming message on the maker’s ‘home’.

2.3 Frauenfelder: Making as ‘unplugging’

Frauenfelder first became known among members of the cyberpunk subculture as the co-founder, with his wife Clara, of the ‘zine’ [7] bOING bOING. In 1989 he swapped what he describes as an extremely specialized job as a parts engineer, with the hectic world of freelance zine writing and publishing. Frauenfelder recalls that being in charge of the entire production process and creating a space where they could explore and share the “coolest, wackiest stuff” they could think about was at the core of their motivations (Rowe, 2011). bOING bOING pages covered classical zine themes such as self-publication, pirate radio, bizarre forms of worship, cyberpunk literature, LSD, as well as less common themes such as cryptography, nanotechnology, rocketry and software politics. A style that became its manufacturer’s mark and that corroborates O’Neil analysis of the zine as “personal media” (O’Neil, 2004a, p.47). A communication technology obsessed with the expression of extreme and often marginal subjectivities where authors position themselves as an alternative and revelatory information source to mainstream media and its conventional representations (O’Neil, 2004b). In less than four years bOING bOING grew into a zine with a 17 000 copies in distribution. While in 1996, an enlarged bOING bOING editorial team pioneered the Weblog boom by inaugurating a blog with the same name. became and still is one of the blogosphere’s most read blogs (Walker, 2011). The tradition of the zine as a personal medium passed over to its technological descendant.

Meanwhile Frauenfelder continued to develop his career as a freelance writer working for what Turner would define as different stages of techno-libertarian media (Turner, 2006): the Whole Earth Review, Wired, and Wired Online (of which he was the founding editor-in-chief). In 2005 Frauenfelder became Editor in Chief of MAKE. In his last book, entitled Made by Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World, he narrates how this job offer coincided with a second major turning point in his life. In 2003, as the freelance-journalism market in California was hit by the dotcom recession, he and his wife decided to move out from the “over-caffeinated routine of school, work, driving, takeout meals and weekends filled with kiddie birthday parties” life of Los Angeles and landed in Rarotonga, a small island in the South Pacific (Frauenfelder, 2004, p.1). Frauenfelder describes how by backing their bread and picking up coconuts from the garden they also learned “how to slow down and to take more control over the systems that kept us alive and well” (Metzger, 2010). Only four months later they moved back to Los Angeles and their lives resumed to how they had left it. But as Frauenfelder was offered a job at MAKE, he became involved with the maker community, “hanging out with people who do this not just with food but with everything” (Metzger, 2010). He started keeping bees and chickens, made his own yogurt, constructed guitars out of cigar boxes and robots from computer mice (Metzger, 2010). These, as Frauenfelder calls them, “analogue activities” became his way to “unplug” – to “cut through the absurd chaos of modern life and find a path that was simpler, direct and clear” (Frauenfelder, 2004, p. 2).

By becoming MAKE’s Editor in Chief Frauenfelder was offered the possibility to network BoingBoing readership and techno-libertarian editorial style with O’Reilly Media community of IT professionals. More importantly Mark helped framing ‘analogue activities’ as tools to ‘unplug’ from the speed of hyper-digital societies and the alienation of perpetual informational connection. What Sarah Franklin has named a “back-to-the-tool” [8] experience is a contemporary rewrite of the escape from the hundredth backlash of the techno-utopian search for emancipation as it is felt by an increasing portion of funders and inhabitants of the digital generation [9]. This first snapshot captures the maker as a complex and composite figuration. Following Leo Spitzer’s proposition, “the linguistic creation is always significant, and one must say, conscious” (Spitzer, 1970, p.51). To paraphrase him, in the history of its linguistic creation one can find the cultural and psychological diagnostic of a social group at work (Spitzer, 1970, p.52). Each in their specific way, O’Reilly, Dougherty, and Fraunfelder have entrepreneurially networked the implosion of carefully chosen “semiotic-material fields” (Haraway, 2007, pp. 190). Namely, the Whole Earth Catalog legacy, the spectacle of the grassroots American innovation, and a digital generation in search of unplugged socialities.

MAKE magazine as a contemporary version of the network forum is an information technology (Turner, 2006). A scaffolding from which the myth of the maker can be told and contributed to. Maker Faires become one of the main homes of the maker, a forum of manufacturing, where its embodiment is performed to re-discover forms of unplugged collectivities. As in MAKE the term maker is used as a synonym for: tinker, hacker, geek, technologist enthusiast, crafter, citizen scientist, amateur, innovator, and fabber; the synchronic extension of maker figuration works as a semantic umbrella, a linguistic term used here to designate the network of relationships and processes that converge in the maker. By extension, the diachronic depth of the maker builds on the ontological power of the conservative myth of “American grassroots innovation” as a recent chapter in the cultural history of manufacturing [10]. More broadly, MAKE and Maker Faires are tools and the product of a curatorial practice. The evangelical role of O’Reilly Media, similarly to the applied conservation biology of the Sierra Club, is designed to curate makers communications and gatherings as natural and national resources of innovation. By catalyzing the implosion of hobby and innovation, spare time and work time, the maker embraces the entrepreneurial responsibility of transforming his house in a business incubator.

3. Second Snapshot: biology as backyard biology

MAKE Backyard Biology was published the 24th of August 2006. Its title, more importantly the cover’s composition, marks a first and important distinction. A zoomed-in image portrays two impersonal hands: one holding a lily while the other holds a pair of tweezers near the lily’s stamen (where the pollen is stored). The picture depicts the act of removing the stamens – ‘emasculation (ouch)’ as described by the editors, at times a required step before hand pollination. If the choice of the impersonal hand is a classical way to represent the possibility of participation (Panese, 2003), in this context the image is also a visual celebration of how maker performs as an umbrella term. This is a first for MAKE, the media upon which the act is performed is not an electro-mechanical device, but a colorful and imposing flower. The maker and the lily form a new and peculiar figurative pair whose relation needs to be explained. The image is therefore combined with the exhortation “hack your plants” followed by the proposal of “nine backyard biology projects”. Hand pollination, a classical technique used in horticulture since the 19th Century, becomes a ‘hack’ and ‘hacking’ plants becomes a ‘backyard biology’ project.

The backyard as a place of production has been part of MAKE since its first issue. As an example the column Made on Earth: Report from the world of backyard technology, is entirely dedicated to the presentation of the maker activities practiced in the domesticated exterior of the backyard. The relation between places, technologies and values is an extremely vast area of study. Following Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton’s work (1981) on the home and the self, the backyard becomes an additional place where the appropriative activities of the maker marks the threshold between the mass-produced and impersonal incoming objects and personal home-made ones. After the basements, the workshops, the garages, and the kitchens, the backyards are also celebrated as place of homemade innovation and not only as one for storage and leisure. Although the compound noun as backyard biology has not yet been inscribed in dictionaries [11], a search for the term shows that it is used by actors in the field of education and environmental awareness. In this context it refers to a subset of outdoor activities for children and young adults concerned with the scientific observation of living organisms and natural phenomena in areas of proximity, where urban and natural elements coexists. In some rare cases the term is used synonymously with particular citizen scientists’ activities (Reece, 2011), and to refer to conservation biology research projects (Galluzzi et al. 2010). Given this preamble, how is the category of backyard biology used in MAKE?

3.1 Hacking biology between synthetic biology and the maker

On page forty-two, although not directly inscribed in the section Backyard Biology, the front page exhortation to “hack your plants” is expanded to bugs, “living stuffs” and biology at large [12]. In a section entitled Proto – Profiles of corporate Makers who have managed to parlay their hacker sensibility into a career – Drew Endy a leading figure in the emerging field of synthetic biology is portrayed [13]. The piece entitled Garage Biotech describes Endy irritated by “bugs” as objects that “should be editable”, questioning “why can’t I just hack this stuff?”. While in a conclusive comment he states “if engineers [could] only see that biology is simply another substrate to hack” (Parks, 2006, p.42). Through the words of Endy, engineering biology as hacking becomes part of MAKE and disseminated through it. As Endy explains:

“there’s a visceral satisfaction to making a physical object. But the first time I cut and spliced a piece of DNA, I felt the same joy of making something. I was like, ‘Holy crap! It works!’” (Parks, 2006, p.43).

Engineering biology as ‘hack’ becomes an additional type of making among the ones portrayed in the magazine. Roosth, who traces more closely the role of Endy and his colleagues in the displacement of the term hack, argues that as synthetic biology has conditioned the formation of the DIYbio network, in particular in respect of the use of the term hack, its usage as a synonymous of a construction oriented biology is a foundational gesture organizing the DIYbio network too (Roosth, 2011). In conversation with her valuable work, I would like to suggest that by following hack as it has been recently included under the maker’s umbrella, a different history of the biologies produced by DIYbiologists could be highlighted.

3.2 Hacking biology as in backyard biology

As the eleven pages separating Endy’s portrait and the Backyard Biology Special Section are filled with the journal’s usual content, while backyard biology simply becomes part of MAKE’s usual content. Together the articles bring an up-to-date specific representation of technoscience. In the first entitled Life and Death at Low Temperature, cryobiology is portrayed as an activity transgressing boundaries by “challenging conventional concepts” such as death (Platt, 2006, p.55). In the first and second articles, the figure of the “solitary” and anti-institutional scientist/maker is opposed to the institutionalized elitist experts not to be listened to (Platt, 2006 p.55). The Kitchen Counter DNA Lab details the instructions on how to unveil the “extraordinary and miraculous blueprint of life itself”, with only salt and soap (Shawn, 2006, p. 59). While in Home Molecular Genetics, the authors explains how to construct homemade laboratory equipment such as an electrophoresis chamber out of Tupperware and Lego, and a thermal cycler made with cheap electronic components (Nakane et al. 2006). The agency of horticulture is exhorted as “hack your plants!” (Luhn, 2006, p. 71), and finally, the fabrication of a sterile hood out of a plastic box and a HEPA filter used to cultivate mushrooms is portrayed as a “cultural revolution” (Ross, 2006, p.100).

Clearly the imagery of the backyard is not only that of a place where the backyard biologist can meet “living creatures with interesting stories to tell” (, n.d). It becomes a place of experimentation and production where life and death can be given or taken; the blueprint of life itself can be duplicated and analyzed. And when the act of making is technologically weak, as in the case of grafting and hand pollination where few tools are required, it is reinforced by being called a hack.

As biology is crafted into a subject of interest for MAKE’s readership; its experience needs to be mediated by the fabrication of small-scale homemade laboratory tools. The inscription of cryobiology, molecular biology, horticulture and mycology as backyard biology extend the claim “adapting technology to our needs and integrating it into our lives” (Dougherty, 2005) to the biological. Biology thus enters the home from the backyard and becomes a material for personal experimentation. As such, the yet not clearly localized device of the home laboratory joins the basement, kitchen, home workshop, hackspace and garage as sources of grassroots American innovation. When combined, they find a place as an O’Reilly Media project; a faction of its entrepreneurial conservation.

This second snapshot proposes that the informational and digital epistemology of biology has again mutated. The use of the term hack to refer to a way of interacting with living material could be interpreted as yet another move towards what Haraway, among others [14], has described as the “translation of the world into a problem of coding, a search for a common language in which all resistance to instrumental control disappears” (Haraway, 1991, p. 164). In synthetic biology the use of the term hack stands for a double attempt. On one side, the paradigm of the living as information and software is pursued and actualized under the contemporary discourses and practices of open source software and hardware, while on the other, the living as a material to engineer becomes hardware (Roosth, 2011). In order to analyze this movement, Roosth suggests that a shift from the cyborg as a useful analytical category to that of Open Source software, which is: “modifiable, shareable, collaboratively written, ubiquitous” might be necessary (Roosth, 201, p.108).

I have described how the category of backyard biology becomes the recipient of displaced biotechnological bodies that together with small-scale laboratory becomes new tools placed into the maker’s hand. Following this, I would like to suggest that the cyborg and its politics of kinship is still a very useful analytical figure for this subject, but perhaps its modes of production and composition have changed. The information:machine:biology recursive assemblage has become open source software:open hardware:personal biology. In this respect, cyborgs are still the products of this technocultural endeavor, but similar to how computers transitioned from ‘institutional’ to ‘personal’, the maker is now developing the language, the tools, and the spaces to think about their production as ‘personal’.

4. Third Snapshot: DIYbiologists also as makers

Certainty it is possible to trace a multitude of ways through which DIYbiologists came to identify themselves also as makers. In this last section I chronologically trace two of them: their usage of the projects portrayed in the Backyard Biology edition of MAKE, and their participation to Maker Faires and the Maker community.

In June 2008, almost three years after the publication of Backyard Biology, the second meeting of the newly formed DIYbio network was held in Boston. As one of their first collective activities, the attendees followed the instructions of the DNA Extraction article in the The Kitchen Counter DNA Lab project portrayed in the magazine (Roosth, 2011, p.133). The first Maker Faire stall maintained by a member of DIYBio was held at the 2009 Bay Area edition, entitled Re-Make America. In a conversation on the 15th October 2011, Tito Jankowski mentioned that he ended up supervising almost one thousand DNA extractions from visitors’ saliva. Ten months later the second European Maker Faire was held at Life – Science’s Centre, during the Newcastle Science Fest. This was the first occasion for two funders of the Europe-based DIYBio network to physically meet at a co-hosted stall. Brian Degger, “a scientist, part time cryptozoologist, interdisciplinary researcher, and artist” (Degger, 2007) constructed a DIY magnetic spinner at the table. While Cathal Garvey, a recently graduated geneticist, was prevented by airline policies from bringing his bioluminescent bacteria over, he therefore could only showcase the protocols for their isolation from squids and the rotor of its first invention; the Dremelfuge [15]. Their ‘débutante’ proposition captured the attention of a journalist from the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), who distributed a video of them performing a DNA extraction from kiwifruit with household reagents on their website (Ward, 2011). In December of the same year, Cathal’s Dremelfuge was also featured in a Make Blog in a post from Becky Stern, its Associate Editor.

Two months later, Bay Area DIYbiologists held two stalls at the San Mateo Maker Faire. Jankowski was in the company of Josh Perfetto a software engineer and autodidact biotechnologist with whom he co-founded OpenPCR. As part of a workshop entitled Hate Brussels Sprouts? Blame your genes! based on a Singular Nucleotide Polymorphism (SNP) genotyping experiment, they showcased the Open Gel Box 2.0 [16] and the OpenPCR – Open Source, hackable PCR machine – they designed [17]. Although they had only presented the first prototype, more than ten visitors signed up for pre-orders. At a stall nearby, Eri Gentry and Joseph Jackson, co-founders with Jankowski of Biocurious – the Bay Area biology collaborative lab space – distributed leaflets presenting the project at its early stage and advertising membership deals.

In the autumn of the same year, three funding members of the New York DIYbio network (soon to become GenSpace –New York City’s Community Biolab) participated in the World Maker Faire, which was held at the New York Hall of Science. While there, Daniel Grushkin, Russell Durrett and Ellen Jorgensen invited visitors to join their ‘DNA extraction Party’. An account of this activity was published by Gentry on MAKE Blog [18], for which she and Jankowski have since been appointed as Citizen Science Guest Authors (Gentry, 2010). About his participation Grushkin recounts: “I remember how amazing it felt to join this group of makers. A home coming of sort” [19]. In 2010 members of the DIYbio network participated at least in five different Maker Faires, respectively in Newcastle, San Mateo – Bay Area, New York, Brighton and Cairo.

As Garvey left 2010’s Newcastle Maker Faire with the impression that he didn’t show much, he mentioned: “next Maker Faire I said no! Let’s do this properly – and the next year we had a load of stuff on the table” [20]. Wearing a thick pair of red rubber gloves and casual clothes, Garvey displayed the essential elements of his own home made laboratory while under his sterile homemade hood [21]; participants were invited to inoculate homemade potato starch media with a culture of Bacillus subtilis and to bring it home. While Garvey recalls the favorite moments from his latest Maker Faire, he explains:

“Where the message of DIYbio which is probably the wrong message to say ‘you can do science too!’, I think a better message is what make scene is doing as a start, to not even mentioning the word science, let’s do DNA extraction, let’s sequence your DNA, let’s hack that bacteria, let’s program that petunia, it is not science it’s hacking, it’s making, it’s playing, it’s fun” [22].

From his participation to what he calls the maker scene, Cathal realizes that by removing the word science or stereotypical representations such as the lab coat, he could allow visitors to experience science, in his case microbiology and genetics as common, normal and belonging to the familiar space of the home. At the 2011 San Mateo Maker Faire, entitled ‘Take the world in your hand’, the DIYbio presence and proposition again grew larger and more sophisticated. Jankowski and Perfetto presented their progress on the almost ready to ship OpenPCR and they advertised their first social outreach project. The 7 Days 7 Schools Initiative aimed to raise money to deliver seven OpenPCR machines to schools around the world that could not afford the cost of a professional thermo cycler. At the adjacent stall five funding members of BioCurious, proposed to observe different slides under the microscope and to test the production of electricity from Winogradsky columns. Visitors could win free classes at BioCurious by taking a picture in an empty hole of the BioCurious Mad Scientist Hall of Fame. At the end of the day, Biocurious was given the Maker Faire Education Award (Brokelynn, 2011). Ery Gentry’s motivations, one of BioCurious co-funder were tainted with pragmatism:

“I was told Maker Faire was a good way to expose many people to Biocurious. Since it was important to get support, I went”. [23]

Finally a month later GenSpace members were invited to Maker Faire Cairo. While there Ellen Jorgensen, Oliver Medvedik and Sung won Lim (two of GenSpace’s co-founders) proposed two three hour long workshops and a talk. Participants could practice personal genotyping using SNP sequences and build their own laboratory equipment. During the talk won Lim, an undergraduate student in physics presented his preliminary work on software aimed at facilitating the downloading and use of sequences from the BioBrick registry [24]. Wom Lim recalls that “Genspace participation in Maker Faire was a great idea. I felt like we really belonged there” [25]. While Medvedik speaking about his relation to the maker movement mentioned:

“I wish I was a maker, I wish I had my workshop outside Genspace, I wish I was tinkering out more, building my own car, it is ingrained in American culture, and I appreciate the movement. That whole core principle of self-sufficiency it is a very protestant American core principle and in that sense I think it is immensely positive”. [26]

The immediate benefits DIYBiologists get by participating in the Maker Faire are explicit. Additionally in the course of their participation, they learn how to narrate DIYbio in ways that engages makers thereby exercising part of their identity through the maker figuration.

5. Conclusions

Peeping at the DIYbio network through the kaleidoscopic figure of the maker is an attempt to narrate its formation as a more swarming and seething semiotic-material assemblage of the Whole Earth Catalog legacy, the spectacle of the grassroots American innovation, and a digital generation in search of unplugged socialities. The inclusion of backyard biology projects and the identification of DIYbiologists with the maker culture are the points of circulation of these imploded values. By unpacking the do, the it and the yourself in DIYbio, Roosth’s work describes DIYBio as an example of “constructive biologies”. In her work the specificity of the do is an amateur gesture of ‘making do’ opposed to other observation-driven amateur activities (i.e. ornithology, botany), and the undisciplined and bricolage biologies as opposed to the professionally disciplined one of synthetic biology (Roosth, 2011, p.112). The it is the biological which for biohackers is both ‘life’ as it gets made as much as it is biological things that are hackable and shareable as Open Source software (Roosth, 2011, p.123). Simultaneously, yourself refers to “a means of fashioning themselves as both biological subject and political actors” (Roosth, 2011, p.138).

Another way of understanding do-it-yourself would be MAKE-it-personal, where MAKE is the specific culture of making as embodied in the figure of the maker. It, is additionally intended as life as a small-scale technology in the entrepreneurial hands of the maker. Finally, personal while still being both about biological subjects and political actors becomes specific to the context of a reassembled counter-cultural and entrepreneurial self. It arises from the lineage of the ‘personal’ as in personal computing. The personal in ‘personal biologies’ is not only to claim that biology should be practice by everybody, but more importantly that a small-scale and therefore socially meaningful biotechnology can only be produced by ‘people’.

Furthermore, as DIYbio becomes an evidence of the ‘expanding frontiers of hacking’, its cultural history as reassembled in the maker figuration invites us to consider this expansion not only in terms of its extension but more importantly with respect to its historical depth. Finally, the expression ‘makers of personal biologies’ is a conclusive attempt to linguistically enclose the recursive politics of a social group where its subjects are valued in relation to the specific objects they manufacture, and where biology in turn thus becomes a tool for the manufacturing of communal subjectivities.


This article was inspired by early comments from Alain Kaufmann and Marc Audetat. While Sarah Franklin and Sara Aguiton provided patient and engaged readings. For her meticulous make up work transforming my English into one recognizable as academic, I am in debt to Susanna Finlay. Finally in the same way Roosth’s work surprisingly bypassed the maker as a conditioning figure, I was about to omit Roosth’s work. For enabling this unexpected and extremely valuable connection I am grateful to Britt Wray.

One of Sara Tocchetti‘s many selves was trained as a biologist of Evolution and Conservation and then moved on to a degree in the social science studies of science and technology at the now defunct BIOS Centre at the London School of Economics. Her current research projects is aimed to describe the cultural significance of the emergence of a network called DIYbio.

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[1] The intentional use of his reflects the dominant social composition of the maker’s body: white middle and upper class men, working for the IT sector and aged between twenty and fifty years old, accompanied by their families.

[2] Although the critical scope this paper is limited I refer to ‘avoiding originals’ as a method of “record the history of interaction, interference, reinforcement, difference” as described by Haraway (1997, p. 267).

[3] Post-ELSI refers to the critical assessment of the Ethical, Legal and Social Implications as part of the Human Genome Project.

[4] O’Reilly Radar – Insight, analysis and research about emerging technologies- is a networked tool to monitor the emergence of new trends in technology.

[5] TED conferences are contemporary network forums where leaders, entrepreneurs, scientists and artists meet to share “Ideas Worth Spreading” (TED, 2012).

[6] The word spectacle is used here to refer to hypnotic relations based on images that highlight certain elements of more or less fabricated reality while explicitly or implicitly obfuscating others. As such it is loosely inspired by Debord concept of spectacle as a critique of the relationship between representation and consumption (Debord, 1967).

[7] Common abbreviation for the term fanzine that became referential in the scene of independent publication (O’Neil, 2004a).

[8] Personal conversation on the 1st December 2011. The expression back-to-the-tool is used in reference to Fred Turner history of the back-to-the-land communes as ‘communities of consciousness’ (Turner, 2006, pp. 73-78).

[9] In the last five years the theme ofunplugging has been emerging as a collective attempt to redefine the relationship to communication technologies. An iconic example is the call for a National Day Of Unplugging: “With roots in Jewish tradition, this idea of taking a tech detox as a modern day of rest was developed by Reboot as a way to bring some balance to our increasingly fast-paced way of life and to reclaim time to connect with family, friends, the community and ourselves” (Sabbathmanifesto, 2010). Traditionally the analysis of what is described as information overload and disembodiement, are more often the subject of the sociology and psychology of addiction, for an introduction see Gackenback (1998). More generally the relationship between information, accelleration and disembodiement has been described by many scholars, for an introduction see Virilio (1995 and 1998).

[10] The expression cultural history of manufacturing, refers to the myth of manual creation, craftsmanship and tool production as a fundamental trait of manhood, see Heiddeger (1982). For a recent anthropological encounter see Sennett (2008). In the context of MAKE the maker is the craftsman, but his economy is the one of the prototype as transition object that performs both within the symbolic of the unique, as kits produced in low number of copies but also potentially as part of mass manufacturing.

[11] The Oxford Dictionary definition of backyard includes a note on the informal usage of the term as “the area close to where one lives, regarded with proprietarily concern: children must be made aware of environmental issues in their own backyard” (Oxford, 2012).

[12] Other than in reference to biological entities, MAKE is an important channel promoting the semantic displacement of the term ‘hack’ as a synonym of ‘make’ to describe other activities. For instance taking macro pictures by mating lenses together is referred as a macro lens hack (Cullings, 2008) and hack can be performed on knitting machines (Stern, 2011).

[13] Synthetic biology is a recently emerged discipline aimed to apply engineering principles in biology to enable a more standardized manipulation of living organisms (Endy, 2005).For and ethnographic account of synthetic biology and Endy’s role see Roosth (2011).

[14] See also Rabinow (1992), Helmreich (2000) and Fox Keller (2002).

[15] Garvey designed a rotor with open source software CAD, printed it in 3D with his Makebot, screwed it to the spinning head of his Dremelfuge and used is as centrifuge.

[16] The Open Gel Box is an open source hardware used to ‘run’ agar gels.

[17] The OpenPCR is an open source hardware used to produce the poly chain reaction (PCR), a chemical reaction used to duplicate samples of DNA.

[18] Since September 2010, Gentry and Jankowski were invited to regularly post on MAKE blog as Citizen Science Guest Authors (Branwyn, 2010).

[19] Interview, 12th October 2011.

[20] Interview, 29th October 2011.

[21] In a personal conversation on the 19th October 201, Garvey mentioned that he produced his homemade hood by following the instruction in MAKE Backyard Biology (Ross, 2006).

[22] Interview, 29th November 2011

[23] Interview, 12th October 2011.

[24] The registry of standards biological parts developed by students and researchers in the field of synthetic biology (Registry of Standard Biological Parts, n.d).

[25 ]Interview, 30th October 2011.

[26] Interview, 30th October 2011.