Monday, February 11, 2008

Janet Hope

Janet Hope is the author of Biobazaar: The Open Source Revolution and Biotechnology.

Two exchanges from a Q & A with Hope at's Technica newsletter:

Describe your latest project.

Biobazaar explores the idea of developing and distributing all kinds of biotechnology inventions in a way that parallels the production of open source software programs such as Linux. The point of open source biotechnology would be to shore up competition in an industry (or collection of industries, since biotechnology is a broad enabling technology) that is becoming increasingly dominated by a few powerful players, with adverse consequences for ongoing innovation. Open source gives people access to the tools they need to innovate for themselves, but because software and biotechnology are so different, it's not obvious exactly how the open source approach would translate from one context to the other. Biobazaar teases out all the challenges and implications of applying open source principles in a new setting.

Part of my motivation in writing the book was to give practitioners (scientists, investors, policy makers and others) an opportunity to assess the potential of open source biotechnology in relation to their own individual circumstances. More broadly, I wanted to expose the many assumptions — some justified, others not — that underpin our current understanding of how technological innovation works and how best to support it. Even if you don't buy my argument that open source biotech would be both feasible and desirable in some areas — even if you aren't that interested in open source or biotech per se — the topic offers a vehicle for examining those assumptions in a fresh light.

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What new technology do you think may actually have the potential for making people's lives better?

Pretty much any new technology has the potential to make people's lives better (for a given value of "better" — easier, healthier, more fun, more aware, more connected to other people, etc). Of course, it's not the technology itself that brings about the improvement so much as the way it's deployed within society. This means it's crucially important who can gain access to new technologies and on what terms, who reaps the benefits, who bears the costs and risks (there are always some), and so on. Too often the groups in society that introduce or advocate for new technologies are not the same as those that will cop the consequence if things go wrong. That's not an argument against change — it's just that we should be prepared to take broader, non-technical issues into consideration when we're trying to assess whether change equals progress.
Read the full Q & A.

Learn more about Biobazaar.

--Marshal Zeringue