Biohacking Trash Flavored Trash

 

I’ve done my addition.
And I’ve done my division:
trash into trash equals trash flavored trash
-The Blood Brothers

 

Why now? That’s one of the questions that I hear when I’m being prodded by journalists. Why is biohacking blowing up in the media? What confluence of forces is making this the hot summer topic that everyone is raving about while flailing in their sensory deprivation tanks?

This is the way it works, and it’s mostly about standardized narratives and access to hardware. Historically, parents had a job. They brought that home. Always figured Jenny would take up the family business. Taught her what they knew. Works pretty ok when your father was a carpenter. Gets a little interesting when mom is a microbiologist and dad worked for NASA. An educated parenting populace means an empowered kid. We have more parents that went through college and took STEM classes than at any other time in history. This means more college educated parents in a household with some lucky kids that have the support of someone that isn’t just waiting for them to have the Noodle Dream.

However biology itself, despite what people like to say, is not like learning to code. By that, I mean that the overhead can’t be emulated. The physical world requires physical hardware and biology is nothing if not physical. No running a bacteria in a sandboxed Win95 virtual machine. Time to buy a flow cabinet.

 

Luckily for us, we love consumerism, and all the excess that comes with it.

 

Do you ever wonder if someone is buying up all the old phones you threw away to make a computing cluster? Wonder no more. It’s a thing. Your garbage can live again in the cloud. As the cloud.

A PCR machine is basically a science grade easy bake oven. Some people even made one from cardboard and a few supplies you can buy online. The PCR machine from the 80s that you find online is the exact same thing as the one you’ll find in a fancy new lab at university. The only difference is the front end. Touch screens. The internetting of the things for hardware updates. Software for making sure you’re not violating some sort of end user agreement.

This means there are oceans of old hardware that are rattling around, in garages and back rooms, bought from universities or collected at auctions. A whole Pacific Gyre of someone else’s trash that gets shifted around. And you know what they say about one man’s trash…

This being the case, why are we trying to build every single piece of hardware from scratch?

The biohacking community and the maker community have a serious Venn overlap, and that’s mostly ok. When I worked at the University of Washington, there was a glassblower. You could go there, give him a very specific set of instructions, and he would design custom glassware for you. Usually there was a backlog from all the other researchers because when you’re doing research, sometimes you need to make tools that didn’t exist. Strange glassware for really weird chemistry projects.

But we don’t need to make tools that already exist.

The key is knowing which tools to build and which tools to just buy. If you build a PCR machine from scratch, you end up being a person who builds a PCR machine. You spend countless hours troubleshooting, tinkering, adjusting. Heck, some people even buy a commercial PCR machine to use it as a benchmark for calibrating their built PCR machine. Once you’ve gotten that far, you now have a PCR machine, and that kinda defeats the point. If I buy a used PCR machine off the internet, it usually works. If it doesn’t, 9 times out of ten, it needs to have a fuse replaced. So, I learned how to replace a fuse. I didn’t have to learn to code, I didn’t need to learn to solder. Not that these aren’t useful tools, but seriously, the diy hardware feels in the biohacker community are looking like a room full of hammers and everything else is starting to seem suspiciously nail shaped. There’s a fetish about having every tool. Also, let’s be honest, some biohackers talk about their tools like gun owners in America. Gubmint is gonna come for mah centrifuge. Gonna 3d print one. Gotta keep biology free.

 

Get a grip, people.

 

We need to walk the line between the hyper-specialization that comes with getting a PhD, and the fact that maybe you just want to do biology and that shouldn’t mean that you need to learn a entire industrial production stream to do your work.

Conceptually, knowing that your chef has built his stove from scratch and can repair it at whim, hand-smelted his own cast iron pans, smithed out his own knives, runs his own farm where he raises chickens to make your poached eggs… this sounds lovely. It’s the most masturbatory, hipster version of the kitchen, ever.

This person will make one plate of eggs benedict a week. It will be sub-par. You can get the smug satisfaction of rubbing on the list of reasons why it’s so great, but at the end of the day, the chef isn’t doing his job. Because he has every single job ever, and he’s spread too thin. That hollandaise sauce will suck.

Part of what I dislike about the ‘let’s make our toys out of garbage’ mentality is that it is basically saying, you have to use trash because that’s all you’re going to get. It’s either classist or defeatist, depending on which side of the median income you’re sitting on. It’s ‘let them eat cake’, and the cake is made of plastic bottles and duct tape.

 

Open science. You can make this bio system from junk at Walmart. How egalitarian.

 

You really want kids to have an erlenmeyer flask? Buy a crate from Alibaba of, like, 1000 with some cash and then give them away for free, instead of teaching the poor kid in middle of nowhere to make do with a soda bottle because that’s all you’re ever going to get, Jenny.

The implications of building tools out of garbage reinforces a culture of scarcity that is fed upon by those who manufacture the tools, and those who profit from selling them, as well as maintaining the class divide between those who have the ‘real’ tools and those who do not.

Giving someone a pile of legos doesn’t actually change this.

I understand that “teaching a man to fish” is a thing, but that metaphor breaks down under the constraints of time and the pressures modern civilization. The ability to make tools stems from access to time. The freedom of time comes from having money. There’s a reason all those Renaissance dudes knew 7 languages, had spare time to write poetry, write essays on philosophy, and built their own laboratories. It’s because someone was doing their dishes and laundry for them. Someone else was subsidizing the overhead.

Since I have rent to pay and need kibble for the kittens, if I can goof off with with molecules, it’s because someone paid. Mostly, that’s been me. Working a job that isn’t biohacking. One day, maybe other people can subsidize my overhead and I won’t be cooking eggs for rich people.

The concept of being money poor but time rich is inherently flawed in as much as it implies that if you don’t have money, you must have lots of time. Most of the ‘working a job while going to college while driving Uber at night’ people in my city might disagree with this. Given that this is a problem, that most people are both broke and crunched for spare time, maybe all of these people don’t have a lot of free tinker in the workshop moments. Only rich people have time and money. Some lucky in-betweeners just have money. Most of us are broke on both fronts.

Let’s address the justification I often hear for DIY hardware. Building your machine from an *insert your favorite micro controller* and this cnc plywood makes it easy to repair. My question is, what terrible things are you doing to your hardware? If having a system that needs to be edited and repaired is an issue, maybe try using a tool that works. I expect a PCR machine to work for 30 years with minor attention. For instance, the PCR machine I bought online for 100 dollars that was made in 1985 and still works once I reattached a small wire that had come loose. Beyond that, if I invested in a CNC machine to make a PCR machine… why didn’t I just invest in a PCR machine? I get the whole, you can make all the things now vibe, but I just wanted to do some biology.

What are we trying to accomplish here? Right now it’s a mish mash of we’re innovators, with a dash of screw the man, and a hefty dollop of I have no reasonable concept of the infrastructure that supports my activities. And let’s not forget the cult of personality. Wanting to be the Rickest Rick.

 

uh um gee Rick, that just seems like tenure with more steps.

 

We need to accept that we’re each just one person. We’re not cowboys. We’re not high tech lowlifes. We need to let go of the Emersonian concept of being self reliant, and acknowledge that everything’s better with friends. And usually, friends are equals. This means elevating people. Sometimes ourselves, so we can be better friends. Sharing solutions is what makes us awesome.

Currently, everyone is in their own silo. Actually doing science means standardized parts, standardized tools, standardized measurements. Even in America the scientists use metric. Your exciting ceiling fan centrifuge makes you feel good about being diy and a maker. You’re a biohacker now, Harry. This doesn’t actually make you a scientist. If you can’t use materials that create repeatable results using standardized protocols, you aren’t doing science.

Adam Savage only had it half right. Documenting your projects is good, but the scientific method relies on repeatability. In our enthusiasm to be doers and makers and creators, we’ve developed a fractious culture that loudly replicates the same issues as labs we are so proud of not being a part of.

Jenny doesn’t need a 3d printer, a soldering iron, a cnc machine, a bioreactor, and nanopore. At least, not made from things you can buy at the 7-11. Jenny needs some friends and some standardized hardware and protocols.. We need to be better friends to people like Jenny. Get good at what you do and share quality work. Build a lab that other people can use. Be that person who got their aunt to buy them a nanopore and then runs samples for everyone else. The story of the lone hacker in his garage that built an entire industry doesn’t resonate anymore. It just sounds selfish. And lonely.

Filling a gap is good, but making tools out of garbage shouldn’t be a goal. It should explicitly be a stop gap. Otherwise you get, as they say, “garbage in, garbage out”. The work created will be of the same quality as the materials that made it. This doesn’t mean things have to be expensive. Foldscope can be printed out on paper. I can download that printout. It’s standardized and shown to work. It’s simple, straightforward, and doesn’t require that I learn how to code. On the other hand, that’s not a solution with my CO2 incubator for mammalian cells.

There is a great game about building toys. But you can’t actually do good science with bad tools. It may make you feel good, and it may make those less fortunate feel better, but it doesn’t actually do the thing. Empowerment without follow through is a selfish act. It develops a cargo cult culture of spinning toys and glow in the dark snap together kits that don’t actually bring the big metal science bird.

The important conversation we need to be having is about learning which tools we have to buy, which tools we can repair, and which tools we should build. Building these things, developing protocols.

And then sharing those lessons with others.