Reviewer: Francis Lee
The Making of a Hackable Biology shows how a network of bloggers, editors, and publishers through a journal issue and a series of fairs have created a connection between digital hacking and biological hacking. The subject matter of the paper is interesting in that it makes clearer the links between digital and biological hacking in the network around Make:Magazine, Makers Faires, and DIYbio. In its choice of subject matter, and exploration of the links between different hacking cultures, the paper makes a compelling contribution to understanding the ongoing implosion of the digital and biological in
However I believe the paper can make a stronger contribution by revising a number of points. To begin, the authors state that there is no previous research done on their specific subject matter relating to DIYbio and Make:magazine. Therefore they do not situate the paper in relation to any empirical body of literature. As a reader I ask myself if there is no previous research done on other types of hacking that could be relevant? Is there other research done on Make:magazine which might have been relevant?
My opinion is that the paper is in need of a literature review. There are links, throughout the paper, to studies on personal genomics, new media studies, biobricks, syntethic biology, genetics, orchid biology, hacking, personal fabrication, network entrepreneurship, and cultural studies. This is a rich but disorganized set of intellectual relatives, which leaves me wondering where this paper wants to make its primary contribution. Another point where this becomes relevant is when the authors say that ”this work engages with Donna Haraway and Evelyn Fox Keller works on the ‘implosion’ of communication sciences and biology”, but without making any comment on what they take away from these authors. By integrating the arguments of these texts into the discussion, it would also be clearer where the authors situate the paper. My suggestion to the authors would be to systematically situate the paper in relation to the literature which is already cited, especially Haraway and Keller, as well as in relation to literature on hacker culture and/or the open source movement. There have also been a number of works published that explore the links between genetics and computation that could be of use.
Another issue is the unsystematic way in which the authors treat their theoretical tools. The concept of culture is invoked repeatedly in the paper, but seems to be taken very loosely. It is used to define the organizational culture of O’Reilly media, the editorial culture of Make:magazine and Makers Faires, as well as the culture of the DIYbio network at Makers Faires. The broad use of ’culture’ does the article a disservice – I get the impression that an organizational culture can be investigated through marketing materials on the Internet; that an editorial culture equals a published issue of a journal. However I think that ’culture’ is an appropriate term for the last case study, which is investigated through participant observation.
My suggestion to the authors would be to be more specific and more critical of the marketing messages published on the internet, and statements about Make:magazine being part of a legacy. It is quite evident that O’Reilly media, ”one of the largest computer book publishers” (p. 1), wants to cultivate a public image of hacking. If I were the authors I would leave it at this. Rather than seeing O’Reilly media as a part of a counter culture, see them as a global publisher that caters to this market. This also goes for the links to The Whole Earth Catalog. Rather than seeing Make:magazine as being part of a
tradtion, write about how the network of people situate themselves in relation to Techno Libertarian Media and ideologies. As I read the paper these statements are not analytical conclusions, but the statements of informants about themselves. I would say that the paper explores the links between the public “personas” of a network of publishing entrepreneurs to a DIY culture. In my view it is crucial to point out that the internet-sources cited are almost all about self-presentation.
This brings me to the treatment of sources. The authors draw on internet sources, a magazine, and participant observations to analyze the phenomenon at hand. In my view the article would be more stringent if it acknowledged the public nature of the internet sources, and analyzed them critically as evidence of a strategic public performance of hacker culture. (In a more cynical description of O’Reilly media one could call them publicity stunts). This move would let the authors see the founders of Make:Magazine as strategic and active constructors of a specific DIY message, which draws on historical precedents, such as the Whole Earth Catalog. And would also make it possible to write a more nuanced, if not distanced, story of the Hackable Biology.
The article is well-written and makes some interesting linguistic points, showing that the authors are sensitive to matters of language and expression. The story and organization of text is mostly easy to follow, but there are some sections that I would find easier to follow if they were rewritten in a less condensed and more organized style, especially in sections 3 and 4. I also think that the paper is in need of a professional and native-speaking proof-reader. This would remove any unfortunate mistakes from an otherwise very readable and interesting piece.
In conclusion, I think the paper addresses an interesting topic in a relevant field for Critical Studies of Peer Production, although I feel there are a number of issues which need to be addressed for the paper to reach its full potential.
It was with great interest that I read this article, submitted for inclusion in the “Expanding the Frontiers of Hacking” special issue of Critical Studies in Peer Production. After a close reading of the paper, I advise major revision and resubmission as a new submission.
As I see it, the author’s central contribution to social studies of amateur biology and biohacking is positing that Make Magazine and Maker Faires made early and significant contributions to the development of biology as a “personal technology.” Tracing amateur biology’s origins in multiple locales, including Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog and the ideologies of the “digital generation,” adds some historical depth to amateur biology, situating it squarely in online cultures. The author further posits that amateur biology is an example of a larger social phenomenon – the resurrection of the “maker” – a figure who engages, as the article describes it, in “homemade innovation.”
While I agree with this claim, the author fails to describe or analyze this “maker.” What historical and social circumstances have shaped the ideal of the “maker” at the present moment? Offering an analysis of this notion and attending to, e.g., how the figure of the maker is presented in gendered, class-specific, and nationally inflected ways, would do much to strengthen the author’s argument. As it stands, the “maker” feels more like an actor’s category that is taken at face value without further critical exploration and examination. How is the “maker” in amateur biology different from other kinds of makers posited by Make Magazine and Maker Faires? That is, is there anything specific to amateur biology in this context, or is it just one further iteration of a new cultural trend that includes home canning and urban chicken coops?
The author’s primary claim – that in order to understand how amateur biologists pose biology as something that is “personal” and “hackable,” one must attend to Make Magazine and Maker Faires – is interesting, but insufficiently examines what the connection between the two movements actually might be. Is one just a mutation or elaboration of the other? Is there a direct lineage the author is trying to demonstrate, or is this more a claim about multiple cultural excrescences emerging from a favorable epistemological terrain? More to the point, are amateur biology and general “maker” culture simply two examples of phenomena conditioned by similar circumstances? If so, what are the conditions that shaped the development of maker culture and amateur biology, rendering them not only thinkable but somehow unsurprising?
The main body of the text skips over some information that feels crucial while dwelling in great detail on other examples or issues that seem less central. For example, the author seeks to draw a connection between Brand, O’Reilly, and Frauenfelder. A few issues arise: the author does not describe Brand in enough detail for the reader to get a sense of the analogy being drawn. Further, it is unclear what exactly is being compared among these authors: biographies? Interests? Outlooks? Further, what does the comparison of these three figures add to his primary claim? Certainly amateur biology can draw on Make Magazine and the Whole Earth Catalog without the individuals responsible for such movements also being somehow similar in character or disposition. Second, the section in which the author analyzes a single issue of Make seems to put too much analytic weight on a single issue of a magazine. If the author wishes to rest much of the argument on this issue, more work will need to be done to demonstrate that this issue is representative of something larger. To my eye, the paper begins to pick up in the third section, which is based on firsthand accounts of Maker Faires. Nonetheless, without a clear statement establishing what the author could conclude based on his or her observations, the stakes of this section are unclear.
Some of these analytic and theoretical issues might be solved by a greater engagement with secondary sources and literature. A great deal has been written by anthropologists, historians, sociologists, and allied scholars about, e.g., amateur science, hacker culture, free software and open source movements, online movements, synthetic biology, biosocialities and biocitizenship, participatory science, scientific countercultures, and self-experimentation, among other topics. However, such scholars are not quoted, cited, or acknowledged by the author, who offers three in-line citations: to Fred Turner, Sarah Franklin (her name is misspelled), and Jennifer Reardon (the article lacks a list of works cited to complement these citations). Situating the author’s claims in the larger social science conversation about such topics, showing how he or she is building upon, departing from, or elaborating on the arguments already made in the literature would help sharpen and specify the paper’s argument. Further, a brief description of the author’s methods — fieldwork? Participant observation? Where? For how long? How many interviews? With whom? When? Etc. — would bring the text in line with social science conventions. Finally, the paper suffers from problems of structure (especially with regard to the construction of paragraphs), as well as multiple spelling, grammatical, stylistic, and orthographic errors, which weaken the paper.