Andrew Hessel in MungBeing Magazine, quoted (approvingly, to my astonishment) by Jonathan Eisen:
Twenty five years ago, kids flocked to computers, pushing the limits of what they could do. Similarly, the next generation of genetic engineers won’t need laboratories or even PhD: they’ll have laptops, cheap mail order DNA synthesis, and, thanks to Google and Wikipedia and open journals like PLOS Biology, access to mountains of free biological data. They’ll work in basements, garages, and cafes, and they’ll trade ideas and collaborate on genetic designs the same way open source programmers now write computer code. Keep in mind that it was only 30 years ago that a little company called Apple started out of a California garage.
Which reminds me of Freeman Dyson in the NYRB a while back:
Every orchid or rose or lizard or snake is the work of a dedicated and skilled breeder. There are thousands of people, amateurs and professionals, who devote their lives to this business. Now imagine what will happen when the tools of genetic engineering become accessible to these people. There will be do-it-yourself kits for gardeners who will use genetic engineering to breed new varieties of roses and orchids. Also kits for lovers of pigeons and parrots and lizards and snakes to breed new varieties of pets. Breeders of dogs and cats will have their kits too.
Most of that is, in my opinion, complete and utter bollocks.
Despite the attractive and often useful analogy, genomes are not really software, and bio-tinkering is nothing like coding. It takes a lot more time and equipment, for one thing. There’s a reason you don’t see many people building jet airplanes for fun. When is “cheap DNA synthesis” going to be available to the general public? Who is going to sell J. Random Teenager a PCR machine? Don’t wave your hands and airily declaim that everything is possible and it’s someone else’s job to make it work (as Dyson did while he was flogging his book in the NYRB): describe for me the business model. Sure, in theory you can do those experiments in your kitchen — but have you ever actually tried it? Take it from someone who does them for a living, you don’t have the patience to make it work. No one does. It’s one thing to hack away at a piece of code until it runs the way you want; it’s quite another to “hack” something in which every change requires several weeks’ worth of complex and time-consuming manipulations, to say nothing of a generation or ten.
And then there’s regulatory oversight. We let people hack away at computers as much as they can stand, but a computer is not a living thing. It’s not cruelty if you get mad at your linux box and pound it into flinders. Those pigeons and lizards and parrots and cats are not toys; they can suffer, and if you let Joe Public futz with their genomes they will — horribly. (I happen to think a good percentage of pet breeders are scum, too. What kind of despicable arrogance is required to manipulate a living genome for nothing more than your own twisted aesthetic pleasure? You people with the dogs and cats whose faces are so squished they can barely breathe — you’re sick.)
Further to the question of oversight, let’s think about consequences. You’ve seen computer viruses: think about a world in which Kevin Mitnick meets Dylan Klebold at a smallpox swap-meet. How do you like your brave new world of garage biology now? And that’s just the potential for malicious success — the dangers of stupidity and failure loom considerably greater. Get your syntax wrong or wire your motherboard the wrong way around and, well, nothing much happens. Fuck up a genome, though, and see how you like the result — especially if it survives.
The Hessel/Dyson version of our biotech future is not going come into being. Not in a decade, not in a millennium, not ever. Quite apart from its being about as likely in practical terms as me learning to fly by flapping my arms, we — as a society — will not let it happen. Not if we have any bloody sense at all.