The ARC Studio is a multimedia, web-based venue designed to facilitate rigorous, conceptual, experimental and pedagogical work. It proceeds from the experience of shared problems taken up as a collaborative exercise of inquiry within specified temporal and media parameters. It is designed to encourage diverse modes of work as well as testing and evaluation.
We have been working on the problem “what is a case?” for the last several years.
Cases are especially pertinent and problematic for ethics and anthropology today, as existing forms have been put in question by globalization, science, informatics and capitalism. Our use of cases follows in the tradition of casuistry in its various ramifications from ethics, to law, medicine, and other domains. We distinguish cases from examples. Whereas examples function to illustrate theory, cases are specific while also having ramifying analogical relations to other cases. The significance of a case turns neither on its singularity nor on its universality. Rather, it turns on a productive relation between the necessity of taking into account the particularity of a given case as well as the relevant metric that specified that case and directs inquiry to pursue a series of analogical cases.
SynBERC is funded by, and falls under the governance of, the NSF’s Engineering Research Center Directorate
All NSF Engineering Research Centers (ERC) are mandated by Congressional legislation to integrate industrial goals and partnerships into the running and financial maintenance of the ERC. These partnerships are legislated to follow an arc from minimal involvement and financing in the initial years through paid membership on the Industrial Advisory Board (IAB), to total financing of the Center by year ten through the creation of IP and the direct transfer of valuable technologies into industry.
For its first two years, the SynBERC IAB was chaired by Todd Peterson of Life Technologies. The IAB only took an active hand in the review and management of SynBERC during the Center’s fourth year of operation (2009-2010), including review of proposed projects and participation in official annual evaluations.
In law and medicine there are settled forms and venues by way of which and through which what counts as a case can be taken for granted. For a contemporary case it is not a question of a totally new invention or even a considered validation of past forms and venues. In this studio existing forms and venues are taken as a problem to be addressed. Thus the work needed to establish a case is a question of identifying episodes & events, parameters & metrics, by way of which cases have been constituted and mobilized in these other venues such that the salience of those dynamics and practices for contemporary problems can be identified, designed and tested. The pertinence of our conceptual tool kit—concept work, diagnostics, pathways, and inquiry—all bear on the question of the work to be done in order to establish what counts as a contemporary case.
Life Technologies is a multi-billion dollar material supplies company for work in biotechnology.
From April to October 2010 the company announced their intention to begin investing on the order of $100 million per year in a range of technologies grouped and arrayed under the brand synthetic biology. On April 13 2010 Life Technologies announced the acquisition of a premier DNA synthesis company, Geneart. On June 2 2010 the company announced a major equity investment in Synthetic Genomics Incorporated, a company attempting to transform the platform technologies of synthetic biology into commercializable applications. On October 11 2010 Life Technologies signed an exclusive license agreement with Novici Biotech for use of Novici’s synthesis error checking technology.
In working to establish a case we have relied on several aides–equipment–which both prepared and equipped us to take up this task.
Equipment is a translation of the Greek term paraskeue (παρασκευή). It means both to prepare, to equip (παρασκευάζειν) and the preparation and equipment (e.g. the day of Preparation, ἡμέρα παρασκευῆς). Equipment, though conceptual in design and formulation, is pragmatic in use. Defined abstractly equipment is a set of truth claims, affects and ethical orientations designed and composed into a practice. Equipment, which has historically taken different forms, enables practical responses to changing conditions brought about by specific problems, events and general reconfigurations.
In the course of the case work, whose preliminary determinations are developed in this studio, the equipment we have found helpful consists in: those that have reminded us to transform theory into concept work, examples into cases, discourse into practices, experiences into problems.
Authority relations and standard of judgment switch from PIs and SAB to IAB
One of the chief governance mechanisms that ERC Directorate uses to manage its programs is an annual site visit review and report. This report is intended to provide background and orientation for a team of reviewers. Two months after submission of the report this team comes to Berkeley to conduct a 48 hour review of the Center’s research and progress.
By the third year site review (2009) the IAB’s participation and position, as well as their financial contributions, they were substantially consolidated and the NSF afforded them a formal role in deliberations. The chair of the IAB served as a session moderator, and members of the IAB actively participated in the NSF Site Visit Team’s (SVT) questioning of the research presentations. More importantly, the IAB had closed-door meetings with the SVT during which the industrial members articulated expectations and priorities for SynBERC researchers.
Valuation comes into view
During the first three years SynBERC administration was concerned that the Center’s core research initiatives were still too preliminary to attract major commercial investment. These initiatives, broadly conceived, consisted of the proposal to fabricate libraries of “standard biological parts”, to be used in constructing “complex devices” which, in turn, would be functionally activated in designed cellular “chassis”.
On June 2nd 2010, Forbes.com reported:
“We want to replicate what we’ve done in molecular biology which is provide the tool kits for scientists who do this kind of work,” says Peter Dansky, president of molecular biology at Life. What kinds of products? Through Geneart and Blue Heron, with which it has a distribution deal, it will sell access to synthetic gene sequences. Then it will sell the cells into which those genes are put, and the chemicals used to put the genes in the cells.”
Serialization requires preliminary work of identifying objectsby way of analytic distinctions.
Analytic distinctions, being general, help to distinguish between registers of power, legality and ethics. By this means ethical objects in the situation can be fore-grounded as objectives to be inquired into.
Work on a case of ethics begins with the experience of a situation as discordant. A range of affect such as breakdown, irritation, confusion, will indicate that rectification is needed. In order to proceed towards these experiences and affects as an ethical situation, experiences must be identified and ordered as things and elements.
We make a distinction between episodes and events as a way of orienting ourselves to the question of how to constitute an anthropological case of inquiry into ethics? Anthropological inquiry is experience based and durational. It consists in the specification of a determined situation which is both the object and objective of inquiry. One arrives at a determined situation, not just an example, through second order formulation of experiences as episodes and events.
The informal becomes formal: Use of BioBrick Trademark
In 2002 researchers at MIT developed an assembly standard for connection functional sequences of DNA which they termed the “BioBrick assembly standard”. Subsequently, these researchers with colleagues at Harvard and UCSF established the BioBricks Foundation as a clearing house for the open development of the BioBricks assembly standard. Over the course of a number of years the diverse researchers who become connected to the work of the BBF and the brand synthetic biology, begin to use the term BioBricks as the informal name for any modularized sequence of DNA that can be shared and distributed, at least in principle. To bolster its stated commitment to an “open source” approach to synthetic biology the BBF trademarks the term BioBricks promising to make use of the trademark available to researchers, regardless of their commercial or non-commercial goals and status.
As Life Technologies began to develop its plan to produce and circulate catalogues of genetic sequences, it reportedly, informally, made use of the BioBricks name and therefore put itself in violation of the trademark. Todd Peterson and Drew Endy, President of the BBF, subsequently had an exchange over how this could be resolved or not.
Within a case, a metric functions as the highest level principle determinative of inclusions and exclusions. A metric is also the ultimate basis of judgment, both veridictional and ethical. Given a metric, parameters function within a case so as to restrict the range and scale of elements to be included in the determined situation.
Through our preliminary period of inquiry in Synthetic Biology and Human Practices we have specified three metrics: amelioration, prosperity and flourishing. The way in which we have arrayed materials in relation to these metrics is through a series of parameters: trust, confidence, truth-telling, care, negligence, self-justification.
Ask parametric questions
Is there trust?
Is there truth speaking?
Is there confidence?
Parametric questions enable the process of form giving. However they do not determine it. Only attention to the specifics of the situation can satisfy that demand.
An ethical case requires a determined situation. A determined situation is formed through a relationship between parameters, experiences, objects and objectives.
In order to achieve this, specific parameters need to be brought into defined relations with the element of a situation which can now be determined as pertinent.
One way of binding together the general, the specific and the singular is to constitute a case.
Once a case has been constituted, then a casuistic practice can be taken up and judgments made. The work of ethical discernment opens up the question of metrics.
Students Seek Reassurance
A number of SynBERC graduate students did not want to produce posters as they did not know whether the IAB had signed non-disclosure agreements and whether they meant anything.
The response was: Don’t presume you’re working on anything of interest to them and they have first rights to the work.
Diagnosis proceeds through the specification of a set of analytic distinctions that provide a structured if preliminary orientation to what is pertinent to the case at hand. Diagnosis has two functions. The first is analytic. That is to say, a diagnosis serves to establish a limited set of variables. This limited set helps orient initial stages of inquiry in a problematic situation and thereby provides a critical function. In diagnosis, the analytic work cannot be an end-in-itself. Rather, analysis must be followed by experiential engagement and inquiry guided by the purpose of reconstruction.
In this case the set allowed us to differentiate jurisdictional, legal and ethical vectors. This analytic distinction enabled us to foreground ethical problems set against the background of jurisdictional and legal constraints in the situation of Synthetic Biology and Human Practices.
Reminder: Science Must Be Commercialized
Leonard Katz, the Industrial Liaison Officer, is told by NSF Directorate that SynBERC must provide successful examples of open source business models that are commercially viable, or drop the commitment to “open source” as part of the SynBERC strategic aims. The need to provide such models was pressed in relationship to the BioFAB in particular. This insistence echoed the IAB’s request for assurances that materials produced within SynBERC would be available to commercial use.
A pathway functions to orient inquiry. It picks out and connects elements across a heterogeneous and dynamic contemporary problem space. A pathway genealogically reduces historical complexity to a path-connected set of nodes.