In short, the method which we try to develop is based on a study of the dynamic changes in society that may be observed at the present time. We refrain from the attempt to solve the fundamental problem of the general development of civilization until we have been able to unravel the process that are going on under our eyes. (Boas 1940 : 285)
We now focus on the assembling of another “next best thing”: Do It Yourself Biology. DIYbio, as it is usually called, has a well developed presentation of self. In various glossy settings, it tells itself as inspired by the libertarian origin myths of firms like Hewlett Packard, or Microsoft. In that world, it is said, people who free themselves from the strictures of universities, corporations, or the State, were able to produce much of what we now take for granted, from personal computers to the apps that make them useful for the masses. If the libertarian spirit worked for computing technologies, why not for biology?
Continuing with our method in this book, we work off a few ethnographic vignettes from recent field investigation to bring out some of what it takes for an imagined artifact to become an object with consequences, a Thing. This Thing came about at a moment in history, but its appearance was neither inevitable nor functionally necessary. Various emerging technologies made it possible. It made sense and continues to make sense for people caught within its gravitational field, whether they enthusiastically work at reconstructing it, or at destroying it. As usual, we pay close attention to the temporal sequencing of the acts that make any particular DIYbio lab into some thing that stands in the way of various persons who may get in contact with it. This production takes time. It involves many steps, each staffed by different people. To simplify, the production can be presented as a syntagmatic progression, where various parts have to be performed in a particular order. A simple time line might look like:
1. A small group meets and decides to design a lab;
2. They design the lab;
3. They implement the design;
4. They announce the opening of the lab and invite people to come and do biology;
5. They administer what has now been institutionalized.
Such a sequence is wide open to trouble-making that may or may not lead to serious consequences for some, if not many, of the participants, or for the sequence itself. People disagree. They do not follow instructions. They play. They repair. In this case the repairs were successful enough that, in February 2018, the web site for the lab is still up.