Public Participation in the Life Sciences

I’ve been spending the last month organizing a symposium at UCLA called “Outlaw Biology” on public participation in the life sciences. There is much to say here about organizing a mini conference (on which see the recent post by G. Downey that Jay directed us to ), especially one that involves an active participatory component, especially when that involves doing biological experiments of some sort.

Outlaw Biology?
Outlaw Biology?
The whole goal of this symposium was to draw attention to the ways public participation is changing what the life sciences are (whether that means DIY Bio, recreational ancestry genetics, patient advocacy, or ‘open source science’). But what I wanted to draw SM reader’s attention to is the strange way that “public participation” is changing too. Publics are being “organization-ified” in new ways. The easier it becomes to constitute new affinity groups, the more difficult it becomes to be an unaffiliated member of the public. I blame FB and Twitter. But I’m a curmudgeon. Regardless… I’ve written an essay about it and am curious what people think.

Christopher M. Kelty is an associate professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has a joint appointment in the Institute for Society and Genetics, the department of Information Studies and the Department of Anthropology. His research focuses on the cultural significance of information technology, especially in science and engineering. He is the author most recently of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Duke University Press, 2008), as well as numerous articles on open source and free software, including its impact on education, nanotechnology, the life sciences, and issues of peer review and research process in the sciences and in the humanities.

2 thoughts on “Public Participation in the Life Sciences

  1. I blame the Internet itself, for both adding to the information explosion and making it possible for people to find and communicate only with those of similar opinions.

    Before the advent of radio, TV and newspapers and magazines with national distribution, most opinion was local, and those with a broader view of the world shared a similar education based on a relatively small set of classical texts. The first great wave of modern media combined with compulsory education to create a larger national, mostly middle-class public. Widely shared educational standards and media with limited bandwidth restricted the range of public discourse and enabled the creation of the mass public on which advertisers and governments both depended. With the Internet’s introduction of virtually infinite bandwidth and easy ways to hook up with likeminded individuals, we are seeing a proliferation of virtual publics, most of whose members imagine that everyone must think and feel the way they do, since they never encounter exceptions.

  2. I blame the Internet itself, for both adding to the information explosion and making it possible for people to find and communicate only with those of similar opinions.

    Before the advent of radio, TV and newspapers and magazines with national distribution, most opinion was local, and those with a broader view of the world shared a similar education based on a relatively small set of classical texts. The first great wave of modern media combined with compulsory education to create a larger national, mostly middle-class public. Widely shared educational standards and media with limited bandwidth restricted the range of public discourse and enabled the creation of the mass public on which advertisers and governments both depended. With the Internet’s introduction of virtually infinite bandwidth and easy ways to hook up with likeminded individuals, we are seeing a proliferation of virtual publics, most of whose members imagine that everyone must think and feel the way they do, since they rarely encounter exceptions.

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