Exploring Digital Culture

2. Tinkering with Life

Strategies for 'literacy' in the age of biotechnology

Mon 03 Nov 2014
Stephanie de Smale 


Increasing interest is directed towards practices and equipment in biotechnology. Rooted in hacker culture and open source ideology, biohacking can be seen as a critical voice within an emerging Do-It-Yourself-Biology (DIY-Bio) culture that on the one hand critiques, and on the other hand tinkerers with, technologies from the life sciences. How is it possible to be informed by and have critical discussions of the impact of biotechnologies? Literacy comes in many shapes and sizes as an important concept in media studies. Building on the work of scholars like Henry Jenkins (2006), Michel Resnick and Eric Rosenbaum (2013), this article explores possible strategies of ”bioliteracy”, which have become important in an age with the pervasive presence of biotechnology in the fabric of our everyday life.


Patent #8,543,339 grants 23andMe exclusive rights to genetic and computer technologies that would enable prospective parents to handpick a sperm or egg donor with whom they would be likely to produce a child born with certain traits that they desire.”

(Dov Fox, The Huffington Post 2013)

As a critical citizen it is important to always ask yourself the question what happens to your data? In the case of 23GenesandMe, a commercial company that analyses DNA-samples and then generates a personal report, that question becomes vital. Users can order a DNA-kit that collects your saliva. This kit is then sent back to the lab, where it is analysed. Your genetic data is organised into genes, short segments of DNA that represent certain features, for instance the colour of your eyes. 23GenesandMe has been collecting and analysing DNA-samples, collecting data from every user. On the basis of this data, scientists at their lab have gained new knowledge about the genetic make-up of their users. However, returning to the patent application, it can be questioned whether or not their database has been used as a playground for genetic research. Furthermore, besides the privacy issues this patent raises, other concerns are raised about the ethical side of commercially exploiting the building block of lifee.

But in order to really engage with the questions raised here, it is necessary to know how this technology works. A growing group of enthusiasts is beginning to experiment, either in their own home, or in public labs by tinkering with life. By tinkering with life I mean working with biological material, or even analysing DNA in public labs that have these kits. Do-It-Yourself-Biology (DIY-Bio) is an emerging culture of interested amateurs, artists and non-professionals, which experiment within biology, science, design and art. Driven by the need to share ideas, knowledge and products, most practitioners are advocates of open source design, either hardware or software (Delfanti 2012, 163). In different cities around the world, public labs are formed, which create a physical space for these people to engage with biotechnology. Conversely, questions are raised about the different practices of DIYBio, and what types of skills are needed in order to understand the pervasive presence of biotechnology in everyday life.

Hence, this chapter explores the latter by answering the question: what is the practice of DIY-Bio, and how does it encourage literacy? The concept of literacy needs to be adapted in order to fit the specific skills needed to understand and experiment in biotechnology. Scholars like Henry Jenkins argue literacy on new technologies are facilitated informal knowledge communities, which shift the focus from ‘individual expression to community involvement’ (Jenkins et al, 2006,4). Participatory culture stimulates different media practices by enabling informal mentorship and contributions to a specific group (ibid.). Voicing something similar are scholars Michel Resnick and Eric Rosenbaum from the MIT Media Lab, who argue maker cultures enable a playful approach to teaching literacy skills (2013, 163). Debates on media literacy involve understanding how technology works, for instance by learning how to program or working with hardware. It seems that biotechnology, and working with wetware is not on the agenda. Although, Resnick and Rosenbaum develop a method for literacy based on the idea of “tinkering”, which is based on a playful iterative engagement with material, which is seen in DIY- and maker cultures (ibid.). Subsequently, tinkering as a concept seems to depart from a similar mentality, since both cultures have a strong connection to making and practiced-based learning. Thus using the concept of tinkering as a frame I aim to discover how different practices of DIY-Bio in public labs create different skills for its participants.

Extending the scope of literacy from social skills to a material approach literacy shows the importance of teaching a range of techno-scientific skills. Besides focusing on software and hardware, I argue to take wetware into consideration as well. Play as a characteristic skill in tinkering, may prove to be complementary in the analysis of different practices in biotechnology. In the next paragraph I will zoom into the culture of DIY-Bio and its practices. Using tinkering as a lens, this article zooms into different practices of DIY-Bio in public labs. I have drawn from my own experience of participating and doing research at the Open Wetlab of the Waag Society in Amsterdam.

Making hardware, software, wetware

This section analyses different theories regarding media literacy. Scholars have different interpretations when it comes to media literacy, which seems dependant on how the term media is defined. There seems to be a shift from mass media, to participatory cultures, which according to Jenkins et al. (2006) stimulates social skills developed by networking technologies. Other scholars such as Mirko Schäfer, or Michel Resnick and Eric Rosenbaum emphasise the material aspects of media, which as an object has to be examined, picked apart and rebuild. Broadening the scope of defining media into the materiality of technology and its presence in everyday life directs attention to the importance of taking into account the pervasive presence of

Social Skills for Critical Citizens

When defining a strategy for living in a society where technology is part of the fabric of everyday life, media literacy is an important concept which comes to mind. As voiced by many scholars, defining the concept of media literacy largely depends on how the terms media or literacy are defined (Hobbs 1998; Livingstone 2004; Potter 2010). One challenge in defining media literacy is determining its scope. ‘Media literacy is a term that means many different things to different people—scholars, educators, citizen activists, and the general public.’ (Potter 2010, 675). Sometimes it refers to ‘the process of critically analyzing and learning to create one’s own messages in print, audio, video, and multimedia’ (Hobbs 1998, 16). However, this seems to be a strategy focusing on mass media. Or more recently, the Dutch foundation Mediawijzer.net conceptualises media literacy as the collection of competences citizens need in order to actively and consciously participate in a mediatised society (2013, 224). Here we see a shift in a broader conceptualisation of what literacy is. More importantly, it directs attention to the pervasive presence of different media. In ‘Confronting the challenges of Participatory Culture’ (2006, 19-20), media scholars Henry Jenkins, Katie Clinton, Ravi Purushotma, Alice J. Robison, and Margaret Weigel stress the importance of teaching skills that create an understanding of how media structures our perception of the world, and more specifically how digital media expand the notion of media literacies.

Platforms for participation make it relatively easy for participants to engage, where other more experienced members of this group mentor them. One example is a forum, where new members, or “newbies”, are mentored by more experienced members, who often have a higher status such as moderator. In their article, the authors mention several conditions to maintain an active community for informal knowledge sharing. Participatory culture is community-driven, so in order to maintain an active group of participants, members of a network need feedback that contribution matters. More importantly, contemporary participation culture is a group of individuals who share a common interest, and express themselves in groups by creating or remixing media, such as videos, photos, or other media texts (Jenkins et al. 2006, 6-8). Using platforms such as forums as an example shows that this type of practice sees literacy as a collective effort, instead of an individual act. The practice of participating in online communities where users make, share and comment on ideas fosters different media literacy skills.

Some scholars focus their attention on acquiring soft skills through media literacy. Jenkins et al. stress the importance of social skills developed through networking and collaboration (2006,4). Some skills vital according to the authors are collaborative problem-solving, or play, since it stimulates ‘the capacity to experiment with one’s surroundings as a form of problem-solving’ (2006, 4). Their attention is directed towards creating opportunities for people to become an active participant in online communities, using online tools, shifting attention from ‘individual expression, to community involvement’ (ibid, 3). In other words; the importance of informal knowledge communities, something which is conceptualised as participatory culture. Although this collective engagement is important, it also directs attention to the material practice as a vital part in a strategy for critical citizenship. Thus I would rather focus more on the practice of ”making”, creating hardware or software as is seen in maker cultures, as an important part of media literacy.

Programming & Hacking the System

A specific type of community is the maker culture. Recently, a lot of interest seems to be invested in physically making things. There are maker spaces such as fab labs, Maker fairs, hackathons, or game jams, which are focused on creating something physical or digital. Maker culture and DIY practices are closely related, and seem to indulge a specific type of learning. Whereas scholars like Henry Jenkins focus on social skills in media literacy, others focus on material practices and fostering technical skills. American scholars Mitchel Resnick and Eric Rosenbaum from the MIT Media Lab, use play as an approach for teaching programming skills. Where Jenkins et al. focus on fostering skills for inclusion though informal knowledge communities Resnick and Rosenbaum advocate for a more individual exploration based on a playful approach of making things. Hence, on the one hand Jenkins et al. emphasise knowledge transfer through peer-to-peer learning, and on the other hand Resnick and Rosenbaum argue the practice of making affords a specific type of learning. This specific type of learning is iterative learning, which is materialised in the tinkering process.

Tinkering as a concept is practice-based, and participants learn by experimenting. ‘Tinkerers start by exploring and experimenting, then revising and refining their goals, plans, and creations. Then they are ready to start a new cycle of exploring and experimenting, then revising and refining, over and over. The quicker the iteration, the faster the generation and refinement of ideas’ (Resnick & Rosenbaum 2013, 176). Iterative in this sense means a creative engagement by interacting with objects, and can be seen as an effect of this tinkering approach. Either online or physical, it seems that the ability to make and create something is vital in transferring knowledge. One example is Scratch, an educational game with building blocks that stand for strings of code, designed to teach children programming skills in a creative and playful way. The game can be seen as a digital LEGO, where stacking blocks together create different lines of codes and commands. Focusing specifically on maker culture, Resnick and Rosenbaum stress the importance of tinkering as a form of ‘open exploration’ in the design process (2013, 176). The authors assume a singular frame of user appropriation. It supposes that participants want to create a new project from scratch, while co-creation in an experiment with different stages can also be considered as a form of tinkering. For Resnick and Rosenbaum literacy can be transferred through making; either in its digital or physical form. In their article, the authors focus on strategies for designing activities and technologies that encourage a tinkering approach to making and learning. This iterative engagement invites users to build or break open machines, and invites users to play around with designs and systems.

Where Scratch is a form of digital tinkering, other practices such as building a device - or breaking it - can be seen as a form of tinkering with hardware. Even though tinkering is also a mind-set, Resnick and Rosenbaum argue it is possible to design for a tinkering experience. They mention several principles for a tinkering experience: immediate feedback, fluid experimentation, and open-ended exploration (2013, 174). For instance, early consumer 3D printers such as the RepRap were based on open source designs, which had to be put together by the users themselves. This type of physical tinkering creates a deeper understanding of the machine, and how it works since users have to physically build the device (de Smale 2014, 14). However, tinkering comes in many shapes and sizes, but heavily emphasises the experimentation process.

Focusing on hardware shows how the design of the device may affect its affordance. Critical media scholar Mirko Tobias Schäfer (2011) argues for a material understanding of participatory culture, in which the affordance of technology, the design of the medium in which it is presented in, and how the user appropriates the technology & design are all interrelated. To Schäfer affordance is the technology’s specificity. These are all the possibilities of a technology could do (Norman 2002). However, these affordances can be limited or stimulated by the design in which it is presented. Furthermore, the user can choose to appropriate the design in a certain way that may or may not be intended by the designers. Of course there are many examples of hacks where users appropriate a technology, which was not intended by its producers. In 3D printers such as the Ultimaker Original, several improvements were made to the machine’s software and hardware. One hack is the Ulticontroller; a small controller that enables users to use the 3D printer without connecting to the computer. This hack was created originally by a member of the Ultimaker community. Ultimaker adopted the design, which is still present in the model as well.

Need for ”bioliteracy”

Although Jenkins et al. aptly analyse already existing knowledge communities, their research proves to have little value when it comes to analysing public labs and bioliteracy. As we will see later on, practices in DIY-Bio also work with hardware and software, but practices are more complex because biological material and life science experiments require different skills. Furthermore, embedded in their findings Resnick and Rosenbaum provide a practical understanding of participatory culture, but in spite of these practical usages, there is the ideological underpinning of participatory culture that is focussed on a media centred approach. It takes into account skills needed for hardware and software, but leaves little room for an expansion of technology into the realm of the life sciences. Hence, I would argue the tinkering approach can also be applicable on wetware, a term which is used to frame the practice of working with biological material. In understanding biotechnology, it is important to understand how software, hardware, and wetware are integrated in experiments and the practice of DIY-Bio. Informal knowledge communities surrounding DIY-Bio become an online space for like-minded users to discuss and show their work. However, physical spaces such as public labs are vital in setting up experiments, since many devices needed in a lab are costly, and take up a lot of space.

What tools or literacies are needed in order to learn about biotechnologies? According to humanities scholar Rosi Braidotti, such questions are rooted in techno-scientific structures. In other words, asking questions about literacy is part of a broader humanist question of what it means to be human. Braidotti branches out to the outer rims of programming and coding, and urges her readers to recognise the influence of biotechnology in shaping the self and everyday life. ‘[T]he four horsemen of the apocalypse: nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology and cognitive science’ (Braidotti 2013, 59). For Braidotti, science and technology has already converged in everyday life. She argues for an understanding of humans as post-humans, hence recognising their techno-mediated nature. Voicing something in a similar manner are scholars such Kathrine Hayles (2011, 4), or Peter-Paul Verbeek (2011, 11), who argues we understand ourselves through technology. The posthuman perspective shows how biotechnology is not something out there, but rather is something which is already present in our everyday life. Hence it increases the need for including biotechnology within the broader scope of media literacy. Returning back to the earlier mentioned example 23genesAndMe, taking a saliva test, and getting results about your genetic structure alters the way you perceive yourself. There is a risk in understanding your body through seemingly harmless tests such as this one, especially since its consumers often lack an understanding of how the results were created, and what technology is used.

More importantly, I have argued how conditions for participatory culture are overgeneralising participation, mainly because these theories are focussed on digital media practices, which favour media literacy. Although digital media are used as a mode of communication, remixing, creating or sharing digital media are not key to understanding participation in public domain. Participatory culture can be used as a basis for understanding participation in public labs, however in these descriptions there is a need for understanding how the process of creating and stimulating participation works.

Strategies for Bioliteracy

This section presents different practices of DIY-Bio, which originated as a counter voice with regard to the neoliberal development of biotechnology such as 23GenesAndMe. As such, a group of non-professionals and amateurs have started to experiment in their own homes and public labs. The practice of DIY-Bio is diverse, and its main practices can be categorised in four frames, which work interchangeably. I will zoom into these practices and explore their tinker-ability.

Biohacking lab equipment

More often than not, DIY-Bio is framed as a social movement, advocating the liberation of science and biotechnology by bringing it outside the lab. The few scholars who have written on DIY-bio argue it can be seen as a movement that enabled the formation of amateur DIY-Bio groups worldwide (Delfanti 2013, Landrain et al. 2013, Seyfried et al. 2014). Most scholars are clear in the broad definition of DIY-Bio. There is more confusion about what the movement accomplishes, and what they stand for. Whereas some scholars frame the movement as a ‘responsible and transparent citizen science movement’ (Seyfried et al. 2014, 548), others argue DIY-Bio is a group that ‘fosters open access to recourses permitting modern molecular biology and synthetic biology among others’ (Landrain et al. 2013). Some of its confusion may have to do with the concept of biohacking, a container concept for specific activist ideology and hacker culture.

Biohacking can be seen as a hybrid of open source ideology and hacker practices in the scientific realm of biology, life science, and biotechnology. Actual experiments with hacked lab equipment are done at home, or in public spaces where many DIY biologists come together to tinker with life. One such example is the Open Wetlab, which is part of the Waag Society in Amsterdam. Although, not all practices in DIY-Bio originate from hackerethos and activist values. Pieter van Boheemen (2014, 49) presents the model as presented in figure 1 and has categorised DIY-Bio activities into four quadrants: hobbyism, activism, science, and art. These frames overlap and converge, nevertheless they will be helpful in structuring different activities in public labs, and provide some examples of practices and skills.

Some activities of DIY-Bio are political practices, actively voicing their concern about the commercialisation of the life sciences and its effect on governing the body and life from a broader perspective. This activist ideology is conceptualised as biohacking, and is represented in popular discourse in two ways; on the one hand it refers to a group of participants who create open source lab equipment, and on the other hand it refers to people who modify their own body. For the purpose of this article, I refer to the former group of participants who create their own lab equipment. Journalist and media scholar Allesandro Delfanti (2013, 1) conceptualises DIY-biologists as ‘life scientists whose practices exhibit a remix of culture that update a more traditional science ethos with elements coming from hacking and free software’. The information analogy with software and DNA seems to play an important role in the narrative of biohackers in ‘sharing of genomic data through open access databases, the cracking of DNA codes’ (ibid.). Biohackers strive to create open source lab equipment, and in a broader sense, to claim the right for an open source ownership of genetic structures. In Delfanti’s description of biohacking, hacker ethic, and open source ideology are important factors in the development of public labs.

The relationship between software, hardware and wetware seems obvious in biohacking. One example of hacking lab equipment is the open source Thermocycler for Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR), or the OpenPCR. The PCR technique was invented in 1985, by scientist and Nobel Prize winner Kart B. Mullis. The PCR is “a biochemical technology in molecular biology to amplify a single or a few copies of a piece of DNA across several orders of magnitude, generating thousands to millions of copies of a particular DNA sequence” (Select Science 2014). In other words, the device enables users to analyse DNA by copying select strands. Unfortunately, the average price of a thermocycler starts at 5000 dollars. However, tinkerer Josh Perfetto among others created an open source version of this thermocycler that costs around 600 dollars.

In order to create the open source thermocycler, its creators had to hack the traditional device, understand its design and mechanics, and then rebuild it using low-cost open source material. For instance, the software for its operating system is available on Github.com, an open source code platform. Also, users can download the designs for the body, which can be read by laser cutters that can print out the design using plywood. As for the hardware of the OpenPCR, it is made with many parts. The body is made out of a diverse range of nuts, bolts, screws, rubber feet, which support the laser cut plywood casing. Furthermore, “The Brain” is an Amplino motherboard, and an LCD screen. Other materials, such as the heater lid, constitute the rest of the body. The lid heats up the organic material, and is vital for the process of thermocycling (Jankowski & Perfetto 2012, 38). This open source design can be bought, but is delivered in parts, which means its users have to put everything together themselves. Interestingly, tinkering with the hardware and software by putting everything together creates a better understanding of how the device works.

Users can experiment with DNA analysis after the device is put together. In public labs equipped with OpenPCR’s users can perform experiments in order to analyse samples of DNA. However, in order to conduct such experiments, users have to follow a protocol where DNA is cut, amplified, and then compared to other samples by pouring it into a mixture of Agar Agar, which performs as a medium. Once the results are shown under a UV light, users are able to see the difficulty in determining which DNA matches. This experiment provides a better understanding of how biotechnologies such as PCR actually work, and what their limitations are. Experimenting with PCR shows how vulnerable the technique is, and how hard it is to successfully copy and analyse specific strings of DNA. In everyday life, this technique is used to analyse samples of DNA, for instance in analysing court when analysing blood samples in murder trials. One example is the famous murder trial of O.J. Simpson. Questions can be raised about the validity and consequence of using such techniques as empirical evidence in trials.

Kary Mullis was especially critical of the DNA analysis conducted in the murder trial of O.J. Simpson, as he describes in his biography Dancing Naked in the Mind Field (2000). ‘LAPD labs had some of the right tools but by no means all the right tools. People had been hired to follow the written instructions on the boxes of DNA investigation kits available from various manufacturers’ (Mullis 2000, 49). Experimenting with these DNA techniques creates a vital understanding of the pervasive presence of biotechnology. Furthermore, hacking lab equipment stimulates technical skills such as programming or engineering.

Citizen Science in Genspace, NY

A second frame related to DIY-Bio relates strongly to specific science related practices. DIY-Bio activities are also used for educational purposes, science communication, and amateur science, called citizen science. In a recent event hosted by the Open Wetlab called ‘DIY Neuro Cyborg’, participants were educated about electroencephalography (EEG), a method for measuring brain activity. In this event, participants listened to a lecture about visualising brain activity, EEG and its applications, and participated in low-tech EEG experiments. Education about the science of EEG was central to the event, and is in a sense a form of lo-fi neuroscience. Especially since brain imaging investigating PhD researcher Martijn Steenwijk was invited as a keynote speaker.

On the other end of the spectrum there is citizen science; which is the practice of science by non-professionals. Examples are measuring air quality with the aid of your smart phone, or what participants of New York based public lab Genspace are doing: mapping genetic make-up of different plant species in Alaska. DNA Barcoding is a technique to extract DNA and compare it to other barcodes in an open database called ‘Barcode of Life’ (Jorgensen 2013, n.p.). Interestingly, this project has campaigned for funding on Experiment.com, a crowd source website for scientific experiments. It is distribution channels like these that enable smaller scientific projects to be realised.

In a setting such as Genspace, users become knowledgeable about the procedure of taking samples of organic material, barcoding DNA, and comparing the findings in a database. If there isn’t a barcode for the species yet, this means the participant aided in creating more knowledge about the DNA structure of a type of species (Jorgensen 2013, n.p.). However, each public lab has to fund their own organisation, for instance there are lab managers and assistants needed in order to instruct amateurs how to create a proper experiment. Hence participants in the Genspace lab have to pay a membership fee when they want to make use of the lab itself, which does create a threshold for participation.

Do-It-Together at Waag Society’s Open Wetlab

Third, as mentioned above, DIY-Bio is also strongly related to hobbyism. It is in a sense a form of tinkering with science. Hobbyism also overlaps with biohacking in the sense that it is working with methods and practices from the life science outside the lab. However, its ideology is less radical than hacking one’s own body. The Open Wetlab also organises DIY events on a regular basis, called Do-It-Together-Biology (DIT-Bio). The purpose of these events is to tinker with science based around specific themes. The Open Wetlab in Amsterdam hosts a series of Do-It-Together series, where the objective is to play around with science in an informal setting.

The Open Wetlab in Amsterdam is a maker space for biotechnology, which hosts several seminars, workshops, and public events. One of their serial events is called Do-It-Together-Bio, where the goal is to tinker, or to informally experiment with biotechnology and related topics. The Open Wetlab is an area of research between artists and scientists started in 2012, and is led by Lucas Evers and Pieter van Boheemen. The roles between the two employees are clear. Evers is head of the lab, and has a broad scope of tasks, ranging from mediating collaborations between artists and scientists, to speaking at conferences and organising events like ICT and Art Connect: Economies of Art and Technology Collaboration organised in March 2014. Van Boheemen runs the lab itself and focuses on the DIY activities and events, such as the do-it-together (DIT)-Bio series.

The DIT-Bio workshops are recurring events where artists, scientists, and interested public are invited to participate in hands-on activities. One recent example where I was present is ‘DIT-Bio #9: Super Foods & Air purifying plants’, where participants learned about plants and urban agriculture, and growing Spirulina (eatable algae) in their own home using a DIY bio-reactor. On this night the Open Wetlab invited both artists and scientists to create an informal discussion on the role of plants in everyday life. Young Scientist Tim van Koolwijk discussed his project about growing Spirulina in DIY-bioreactors in Indonesia in order to stimulate healthier diets for local children, and artists from Urbaniahoeve, a collective which tries to reconceptualise public spaces into eatable gardens. Participants learned how to build their own bio-reactor in order to grow Spirulina algea, and analysed some specimens under the microscope. For some participants, this was their first experience peering in the looking glass of the microscope.

The do-it-together mentality is also strongly present in the Fablab Amsterdam and other maker spaces around the world. It is not uncommon for a wetlab to be part of a maker space, for instance the Open Wetlab in Amsterdam or DIY-Bio in Manchester are both part of an already existing maker space. These spaces already have strong ties within the DIY community, where spaces are filled with 3D printers, or laser cutters. The Waag is a cultural institute that focuses on bringing science, art and technology to the public and creating social innovation through technology. It is strongly tied to the Fablab, both physically and ideologically. Fablab is a maker space and global concept that stimulates open source innovation by providing a physical workspace. Open source ethic is based on the notion that everybody is free to use the ideas and knowledge that are created, as long as the appropriated product (either physical or digital) is also shared. This open source ideology is also present in the Wetlab.

Designing with Wetware

Lastly, artists and designers seem to be active within the DIY-Bio movement, they are ‘interested in applying the critical approach of DIY to biology’ (Delfanti 2013, 116). Designers are taking steps into the life science with speculative design, conceptual ideas of science, or actually performing science from an artistic point of view. Much of this work is made in private or public labs. ‘The use of these living materials, or moist media in artistic practice also implies the application of the tools of the life sciences in the arts’ (Zwijnenberg 2012, 1). In public discourse this is conceptualised as bioart. A recent example of the latter is Australian artist Guy Ben-Ary, who was an artist in residence at the Australian research centre SymbioticA. Ben-Ary made an art piece based on induced-plurypotent stem (iPS) cell research, where stem cells were created out of human skin cells, and transformed into neurons. These neurons were kept alive in an art installation that served as an incubator. This art piece was made to question ethical issues surrounding this technology.

Several art schools in The Netherlands have programmes focusing on the relation between design and the life sciences, such as the Royal Academy of The Hague which have their own design and nature track. Another example is the Next Nature Lab in the Technical University of Eindhoven. ‘The extent with which new technologies are intervening in the constructive, material, aesthetic and social practice of everyday life can hardly be underestimated. Today design starts at the level of bits, atoms, neurons and genes. We seem to be living in a time in which the ‘made’ and the ‘born’ are fusing’ (Next Nature, n.d.).The framework and network of a public lab seems to influence the type of participants that come to experiment. For instance, the Open Wetlab has strong ties to different cultural institutions and previously mentioned design schools. Evers and Van Boheemen often speak at conferences, but also teach bioart minors in (art) schools, and co-organise multiple expositions and awards. One example is the Bio Art & Design Award, and Trust Me I’m an Artist, events that promote the production of artistic works focusing on Bioart.

The public lab serves as a maker space for bioart, where artists and designers come to experiment and use the lab equipment to work with wetware. However, often artists or designers have little know-how on how to work in a lab, or how to work with specific lab equipment. Hence, the role of a mentor is important in the conceptualisation of a specific experiment. Questions like: what is the desired output; what techniques have to be used in order to conduct the experiment; what protocols have to be followed; is it possible to do this experiment using the equipment we have; is it possible to obtain the media and materials we need and more importantly, is it legal? These are questions I often heard in the Open Wetlab, increasing the need for a systematic approach as to how participants are trained to become DIY Biologists.

Challenges for public labs

Witnessing different participants in the Open Wetlab, it seems most participants have little knowledge about specific techniques and methods in the life sciences, and also lack the practical skills for working in a lab environment. For example, in order to work with bacteria it is important to work sterile, otherwise the petri dish will get contaminated and other bacteria will also grow. If a participant does not know how to work sterile, he or she will never be able to experiment properly. So teaching basic knowledge on how to work with wetware is vital. More importantly, it seems that new platforms such as Kickstarter create vital distribution channels for educational kits and open source lab equipment. Further research can be done in investigating the creative economy around biotechnology and DIY-Bio practices.

Even though I agree with the importance of informal learning from a participant’s own interest and ideology, in maker spaces such as the Open Wetlab, participants need basic skills and formal knowledge. Biohackers often have some skills and background in technical science. However, in my experience artists and designers, and the general public often lack the required knowledge to work with hardware and wetware individually. In other words, specific practical knowledge is needed, and the way to teach this is often set in a protocol, which is a universal and safe way to work. However, experiments in public labs need to be mentored by lab managers and assistants, or other skilled participants. This proves to be a challenge. Iterative processes in DIY-Bio communities need to provide practical knowledge of working and experimenting in labs. One major stepping challenge for tinkerers in the life sciences is the limited knowledge and practical hands-on experience. This challenge is also present in tinkering with technological tools. However, working with wetware faces specific challenges, such as health hazards. In my experience as a researcher in the Open Wetlab, there are several challenges a participant will face when doing experiments in a public lab.

Learn how to work safely in a lab;

Understand how to set up an empirical experiment;

Understand the specific protocols in order to perform the experiment;

Learn how to work with biological material, for instance dissecting.

These explorative skills within the framework of bioliteracy are transferred by creating an environment where participants are stimulated to create their own research. However, more research needs to be done surrounding the type of skills needed to become a critical DIY-Biologist. From their extensive research, Resnick and Rosenbaum have conceptualised a framework for learning by making. Although this model is focussed on media literacy and learning skills like programming, it can serve as a basis that can be translated to the earlier mentioned skills that are needed in the lab. In short, these conditions are necessary for play tinkering with life. Further research can investigate this model for tinkering further. While this setup may serve as a basis for designing an experience for bioliteracy, as I have stressed earlier, this is dependent of the presence of experts in transferring this knowledge.

Concluding, different practices in DIY-Bio work with hardware, software and wetware interchangeably. Bioliteracy can be seen as an extension of media literacy. It is based on the same framework, but has different skills that need to be learned. It creates a better understanding of different biotechnologies and its practice. Furthermore, participants become critical citizens by knowing what the limitations and politics of the life sciences are. In some ways it is an iterative style of learning by tinkering with life. Another challenge would be to understand and find a balance between different approaches to DIY-Bio and its practices. For instance, the topic of entrepreneurship has not been researched explicitly in this article, but seems to play a role in the development of (open source) hardware and design.


Returning to the main questions that drove this research, namely; what is the practice of DIY-Bio, and how does it encourage literacy? I have argued how current definitions of community-driven literacy often generalise, and over-emphasise the central role of media (Jenkins et al 2006, Schäfer 2011, Resnick & Rosenbuam 2013). Even though scholars like Schäfer conceptualise participation as a process, it is centred around reception of media companies on digital creation. Rather, the practice of participation in public labs is centred on the social movement of DIY-Bio, where each lab has their own strategy for participation. Besides working with hardware and software, something which is seen in Biohacking, participants also work with wetware. This process of participation in DIY-Bio is dependent on the organisational structure, the equipment present in the lab, but more importantly the knowledge of experts. This can be either knowledge from employees, such as Van Boheemen, or the staff in Genspace, or knowledge from expert participants. Participants with life science expertise prove to be vital in transferring knowledge in public labs.

There are many different practices in DIY-Bio, which can be broadly categorised into four main frames: activist, scientific, hobbyist and artistic. Further research can look into the role the institutions play in framing such practices. The activities in public labs are organised to redesign instruments and methods used in the life science, inform on its affordance, and re-appropriate biotechnology in order to create discussion, create citizen science projects, and connect artists, scientist and citizens. High-tech lab equipment is re-recreated in low-tech environments and citizens, scientists, artists and designers conduct experiments. As a prerequisite, new platforms for distribution such as Kickstarter or Experiment prove to be vital in funding these (often) independent projects. Conversely it would be interesting to do further research into creative economy around DIY-Bio practices.

On a broader level I would contend that public labs like the ones discussed here prove to be a vital instrument in the understanding of what biotechnology and how it works. I advocate that participants will learn the basic skills needed to become literate on biology, something that is a big challenge in the development of biotechnology like synthetic biology. The next step would be to research further what the notion of bioliteracy would entail, and to what extent citizens could benefit from basic knowledge of biotechnology. Understanding how DNA analysis works, may shed light on companies such as 23GenesAndMe, and may help critical debates about the notion of truth society tends to ascribe to methods used in the life sciences.


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Figure 1

Boheemen, P., van. & Vriend, H., de. (2014) Categorising different DIY activities. In Do-It-Yourself Biology: Een verkenning van ontwikkelingen in Nederland, pp. 46.

Mara Vandorou Editorial: The Public Human Strategies of living in the transparent society
Carmin Karasic 1. Hacktivism in My Words Becoming a hacktivist through electronic civil disobedience
Ben Borrow 3. The (in)convenient surveillance device The Mobile Phone as both Enabling Surveillance yet Empowering the Individual
Marina Turco 4. In the Shadow of the Matrix A strategic approach to the transparant society
Alexandra Woelfe 5. Surveillance of the state Connections to identity, autonomy and Foucault's notion of biopower
Dr David Barnard-Wills 6. Stanza An artist's engagement with surveillance, privacy, technology and control
Joeri Taelman 7. Biopolitics through the internet of bodies The act of looking back might sound appealing, but it might very well mean the disappearance of disappearance
Suze Krijnen 8. Waarom je online privacy kunt vergeten (Tenzij we als publiek onze verantwoordelijkheid nemen)
Hans de Zwart 9. Privacyrede 2014 Deze rede werd op 2 september 2014 uitgesproken voor SETUP en Studium Generale UU in de Senaatszaal van het Academiegebouw in Utrecht.
Nienke Huitenga 10. Mijn Digitale Schaduw Ooit ging het om je persoonsgegevens. Nu geven we iets veel waardevollers weg.