As I navigate to page 99, trouble arises. Adobe Acrobat assures me that I am on page 99 out of 329, but the number at the bottom of the page is 85. How many page 99’s can my dissertation contain? Two, it seems: one circumscribed by Acrobat’s digital scheme that assigns equal value to each page, and another circumscribed by Columbia’s traditional scheme that assigns value only to certain pages. Whose numbering scheme counts here?
My dissertation draws on two years of fieldwork in Silicon Valley Do‑It‑Yourself biology (DIYbio) laboratory. The DIYbio movement’s self‑announced goal is replacing the hierarchy of academic science with the egalitarian work of “citizen scientists.” The first page 99 contains a summary of Chapter Two, which discusses safety measures within synthetic biology, starting with the 1976 Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA. The second page 99 is bisected by a section heading titled “What Kind of Scientists?” which describes the sentimental education of DIYbiologists in 2010. In the interval between 1976 and 2010 the table was set for the disruption of traditional laboratory expertise by a new form of expertise emerging from DIYbio laboratories. My dissertation describes the formation of this new expertise.
The new expertise took form materially and symbolically. A new design language regulated interactions between laboratory members and the public. The logic of human resources governed interactions among laboratory members and supplanted the laboratory apprenticeship. New literary and material technologies for witnessing experiments were instituted by a class of entrepreneurial experimenters. Publicity and hype replaced findings. Experimental safety, the concern of the 1976 Asilomar conference, came to be underwritten by the FBI’s WMD directorate and enforced through surveillance. As we navigate the contemporary scientific landscape, the trouble with page 99 reasserts itself in a new key: whose expertise counts, and when?
Michael Scroggins. “‘This is a New Thing in the World”: Design and Discontent in the Making of a “Garage” Lab. ” Ph.d. dissertation, Columbia University, 2016.
Michael Scroggins is a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Knowledge Infrastructures at UCLA. He is currently working on labor, repair and maintenance in data-intensive science, a book manuscript about DIYbio in Silicon Valley, and planning a project on the intersection of DIYbio and cellular agriculture. You can reach him at email@example.com.