Biopunks and cultural change

Razib Khan has a good response to my post yesterday about biopunks, including this:

I obviously support this movement and its intents (I’ve met a few of the people who are prominent in it). But we need to keep perspective here. This will probably be analogous to the free or open source software movement; the base of tinkers will be much larger than corporations and academic institutions, but it isn’t going to expand to cover the majority of the public. But so what? Most us can probably agree that the ad hoc decentralized elements of the software engineering community have done good just by putting pressure on the margins of staid institutions. Similarly, a minority of biology enthusiasts and hobbyists are going to shape the production and consumption of the plethora of new products we’re going to see coming online within the next few decades. There is often someone in the family who you turn to for tech advice. Now there may be someone in the family who you turn to for personal genomics advice. This is the democratization and decentralization of specialization!

And I’d note that, while free and open source software hasn’t taken over the desktop to the extent Linux advocates once hoped it would, key aspects of it have taken over. Apple’s MacOS is built on a BSD kernel, which is open source, and the OS running iPhones, iPads, and iPods is based on the same work. Windows has a Unix-like base layer. Android phones use open source software. Free and open source software is the dominant platform for web servers. Open source web browsers dominate internet traffic. Businesses are thinking about the openness of new software they buy.

Linux hasn’t taken over the world, and most Firefox or Chrome users don’t fix the bugs in the software themselves (e.g., I’m simply sitting out Firefox 4 until someone else fixes it so I can view PDFs in webpages on a Mac). But knowing that I could hack the software if I needed to, and knowing that there’s probably an open alternative to a locked-down file format, is a sort of freedom, even if I never exercise it. Knowing I could exercise that freedom changes how I see software, and how I interact with computers.

Biopunks aren’t going to turn everyone into molecular biologists or gene geeks. Nor should we expect them to. Maybe it’s enough that people know they could explore their genome if they wanted to, that they could hack up a bacterium that would excrete fluorescent Silly Putty or a microarray to test whether a kid will like broccoli. Knowing that they could do so if they really wanted to will change how they interact with doctors, with medicines, and with their own bodies. And that’s powerful.

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