Who really shapes our bioengineered future?


When is biotechnology democratic?

Our blog is a quest towards democratic biotechnology. But why is democracy of value in technological development? Should we even pollute labs with the ambivalent needs of citizens? It seems reasonable since what labs produce could pollute our lives. And there seem to be proper ways to mind the public. Let’s consider the perspective of two philosophers.

Technology as politics by different means

Reasons for making technology democratic have a lot to do with how it affects our lives. The impact of technology goes far beyond making our lives easier, more comfortable and more productive. From a user perspective it may seem that simple, but technologies function thanks to the way society is structured. Your smartphone itself does not make sharing stories easier. Only thanks to 4G infrastructure, Chinese factory workers, and friends who also have Snapchat, it beats meeting somewhere to chat. Technology shapes social systems, much like legislation. To the point where you could wonder who have more impact on our lives, politicians or engineers?

The difference is, of course, that politicians are elected. It is their duty to represent the interests of the people. Engineers do not bear such burden. Autonomy is the ideal of the lab. Eureka is king; what counts is what works. Doesn’t good technological research need to be unbiased, free from opinions and politics?

Yet philosopher of technology Andrew Feenberg stresses that technology was never free of politics. “The autonomy of the technical professions has less to do with their separation from politics than with their capacity to translate politics into technical terms.” This becomes most visible when technology is realized. Famous are the bridges at Long Island, which were purposely built too low for public transport. This prevented poor and often black citizens from visiting the beach. A political bias can thus be materialized in a piece of technology, as pointed out by Langdon Winner.

The bridges at Long Island were purposely built too low for public transport.

Bias-free technology is a myth, there are always motives that guide research. In a way, engineers represent the interests of those who fund their research (see Erik’s piece on the three funding flows). Richard Sclove, writer of Democracy and Technology, described in 1992 how development was “guided primarily by market forces, distant bureaucracies, economic self-interest, or international rivalry.” This 24 year old explanation still sounds uncannily familiar. State and business alike parade with innovation motives to ‘boost the economy’ and ‘keep ahead of the East’. Are GDP and international reputation really of primary concern to people’s lives?

When Sclove’s characterization is right, citizens do not really have a say in guiding the course of technology. Rather than democratic, this sounds technocratic. Politicians and entrepreneurs as the experts on what is valuable, scientists and engineers as the experts on what works. Still, how could lay people even add to that? Why is democracy something to pursue?

Sclove has an answer. “It provides the necessary background for being able to decide freely and fairly what other considerations to take into account.” Unlike a panel of experts, a democratic procedure “can supply both the intersubjectively balanced impartiality and full range of social knowledge that legitimate determinations require.” Democratic is thus more a clearing for values than a value itself. It can be seen as the procedure that ensures the fair consideration of citizen concerns.

Consider the bridges of Long Island. In a democratic process, the needs of poorer people would have been heard. Besides, higher bridges could have benefits for the living environment of the rich as well. As Feenberg puts it, “public intervention may actually improve technology by bringing significant issues to the surface.”

When technology affects the lives of many, it should answer the interests of many. That sounds fair. So when can a technology be labeled democratic?

M.C. Escher – Drawing Hands. Feenberg uses it as a symbol for the way technology and society are intertwined. “The democratic paradox: the public is constituted by the technologies that bind it together but in turn it transforms the technologies that constitute it.”

Made and used democratically

Roughly said, something is democratic when it accords to citizens’ interests. When a majority would agree that something is as it ought to be. With technology, this can mean different things. Richard Sclove makes a helpful distinction between two ways of democratizing technology: procedurally and substantively. How it is made and how it functions.

“Procedurally, there must be expanded opportunities for people from all walks of life to participate effectively in guiding the evolving technological order. Substantively, the resulting technologies ought to be compatible in their design with democracy’s necessary conditions.”

In other words, technology is democratic when firstly people’s needs play a role in the invention and secondly the end product functions in line with how a democratic society functions. For the second point, recall how technology shapes social structures. Still, this does not mean that a technology should just ‘fit in’, according to Andrew Feenberg.

True democratic technology might actually be the opposite. Feenberg compares technology with a game. It both opens a space for action and introduces rules that restrict action. In technocratic technology, these rules exercise control from above. Think of how a speed bump forces a maximum speed. Yet in democratic technology, the space empowers people from below, to act against imposed rules of the game. Think of the freely available information of online encyclopedias.

Technology that fits too smoothly in current power structures can thus be technocratic. In practice this comes to light in the dominant fixation on “the goal of profit and power”. To unravel the potential for democracy, technology should allow people to behave against the grain. Something which is often labelled ‘misuse’ can thus be seen as an act in the name of democracy. This behaviour is not just rebellious, it can point the way to potential new technology. The worn-out shortcut in a park might become a new path.

Misuse as a political act. It is one way for citizens to make technology more democratic. But synthetic biology is not yet in use, let alone misused. Influence has to be focused upstream, on research and development. So how could citizens have a say in the development of synbio?

A regular wet lab for bio-based research, in Shanghai

A regular wet lab for bio-based research, in Shanghai

Philosophy helped to get an idea of what democratic technology entails. Both development and functioning should be in line with citizens’ interests, and this functioning should give citizens control. For how this ideal could be realized though, philosophers are not the best companions. In the Biopolitics project we try to map out ways to democratize technology.

Roads to democracy

This working document shows ways for citizens to influence the lab.

This working document shows ways for citizens to influence the lab. Click for full resolution.

In the visual above we sketch four ways for Dutch citizens to influence what happens in the lab. (The visual will be regularly updated, the latest version can always be found here

  1. First the most famous democratic act: voting. The people we elect will determine safety regulations, available budgets for research, and agreements on a European or global scale. 
  2. In rare occasions we get to participate. Not necessarily in doing science ourselves, but in actively engaging through for instance workshops and open policy discussions. Through a recent public poll, called the National Science Agenda, Dutch citizens could voice their priority subjects for research. The results are expected to steer the assignment of research funding. How exactly is the topic of an upcoming post.
  3. Some will argue that technology is already democratic, through the invisible hand of market mechanisms. What people buy is what companies make. Vote with your wallet, and everyone will get the products that fit their needs. There are some pitfalls though. For a fair consideration you would need to be fully informed. To what extent are our needs created by marketing departments? Man is not the rational agent that classical economists thought he was. It becomes even more opaque when you consider future products that still have to be designed. Is it the CEO’s vision that rules? Or the conclusions of a market researcher?
  4. This brings us to the fourth and most fuzzy way of exercising influence: through discourse. Just think about it. What is it that market research measures? What is it that civil society groups and NGOs represent? What is it that politicians listen to when they hear the voice of the people? Everything that people talk about. From lunch talks to social media, from Whatsapp groups to demonstration. With every video you share, with every book you read, with every like on Facebook, you influence the discourse of society.This collective consciousness, this Zeitgeist, is the arena of art and speculative design (see my previous post). Through provocations and inspirations, they tickle the mind and broaden the boundaries of what is thought and talked about. On the other hand, it is also the arena of marketing, mass media and pop culture.

The four ways of voting, participating, buying and discussing are how we think people can influence the labs. Along with synthetic biology itself, these ways of influencing are gradually developing over time.

How can citizens influence labs

Research in biotechnology is already influenced. We voted on politicians who pose restrictions and regulations on what can be done. Consider the debates around genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in agriculture. Through the European program of Responsible Research & Innovation, researchers are encouraged to take civil considerations into account. (Read more about this in Duuk’s thread)

Waag Society's Open Wetlab in Amsterdam

Waag Society’s Open Wetlab in Amsterdam

Participation is difficult when biotech is not on the public agenda. The National Science Agenda mentioned above will probably also cover biotech subjects. But will people even mention new research directions in a field they do not know? The wetlabs that popup have a different tactic; they allow people to do science themselves. What happens there could have impact on ‘real’ labs as well, directly via inspiration or indirectly by prompting new regulations for instance.

Since synbio has not yet entered the market, there is not much to buy. Still our consumption can influence the direction of development. When organic bio food is hip, high tech food will not be a priority. Consumer behaviour influences trends and trends influence development.

The discourse around synthetic biology is still relatively young. Bioart and biodesign provide fresh perspectives into the possible futures. Spectacular projects or movies may circulate on social media. In a similar way, vignettes like those of the Rathenau Institute make our bioengineered future more tangible. These could help to develop a stance towards what happens in the lab.

In all four directions there seems to be potential ways for citizens to voice their concerns. But do these ways actually influence research practice? In other words, is democratic research in synthetic biology even possible? And is citizen input even helpful for such a complex subject? Expect some perspectives from people in the field soon.

What do you think? Do you agree with the philosophers that technology should be democratic? Or should labs have their autonomy?


We have a new feature: short definitions of unfamiliar terms. We often use terms like synthetic biology and speculative design. From now on, you can click the blue links to see what they mean, or go the Vocabulary in the menubar for an overview. So when you happen to forget the content of this article, find our definition of democratic technology in the Vocabulary!


Inspiration | Blue-Eyed Me


Inspiration | JCVI-Syn3.0, a revolutionary life form

1 Comment

  1. Invitation from 3rd Global Congress on Advanced Biotechnology scheduled on May 22-23, 2018 in Rome, Italy. On behalf of our Organizing Committee, we are glad to invite you as a plenary speaker at Biotechnology Congress 2018. This conference is a guideline gathering for Directors, CEO’s of Organizations, Professors, Association Presidents, Researchers, Scientists, Graduates, Post Graduates and PhD Scholars working in the field of Biotechnology and its related studies.

    Theme – Novel Trends in Advanced Biotechnology

    For more details, kindly visit:

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