Latest Entries »

Term Paper for Dr. Gary Marchant, LAW 691: Biotechnology, Law, and Society, Arizona State University, 2012



The Goldilocks Dilemma and Polycentric Governance: Risks and Regulation in Synthetic Biology


Table of Contents


Introduction. 2

I.         What is Synthetic Biology?. 3

A.       Risk Categories: Biosafety and Biosecurity…………………………………………………….. 6

II.       Governance of Biosafety Risks: 7

A.       What is Biosafety?………………………………………………………………………………………. 7

B.       Biosafety: Historical Development and Limits. 8

C.       Government: Existing US Regulations for Containment and Risk Assessment 10

C.       Governance: Other Biosafety Considerations. 15

III.      Governance of Biosecurity Risks: 17

A.       Introduction: Biosecurity and the Sociology of Risk. 18

B.       Polycentric Biosecurity Governance. 19

C.       Street-level Governance and the Internet………………………………………………………….. 22

A.       Federal Efforts at the International Scale. 24

B.       NSABB: Oversight, Science Advising, Interdependence……………………………….. 25

VI.      Conclusion: Goldilocks and Governance. 26

V.       Endnotes…………………………………………………………………………………………………………….. 29………




This essay is a survey of how basic risk categories associated with synthetic biology are defined, assessed and actively managed. The inquiry is motivated by “the…

View original post 12,209 more words

(((((This is not necessarily a satirical issue brief. It was written in good faith.)))))

New reports from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) offer assessments and policy recommendations regarding two types of geo-engineering research: Solar Radiation Management (SRM), which involves reflecting some of the sun’s radiation back into space; and Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR), which involves reducing the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Both approaches aim to cool down the planet in response to ongoing climate change.

Both reports rely on comprehensive literature reviews, interviews with senior scientists, science policy experts, and surveys of public opinion. Most participants view SRM and CDR technologies as legitimate options of last resort, for emergency use in the event of low-probability, catastrophic climate change. Because responsible climate engineering strategies could take 20 years to develop, both reports recommend immediate appropriations for a coordinated, national geo-engineering research agenda, beginning FY2013.

The Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) is uniquely equipped to administer such a program in collaboration with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The BPC report recommends an OSTP advisory commission composed of “natural scientists, engineers, social scientists, lawyers and others…to develop parameters for climate remediation research.” This commission would recommend an adequate budget “commensurate with the scale of the problem” to the OSTP Director, including funds for exploring social, ethical and legal dimensions of geo-engineering research.

Alternatively, the BPC report considers a less coordinated research agenda, without OSTP oversight, in which new funds are added to existing agency budgets for SRM and CDR research. This approach fulfils the minimum recommendations of both reports, but lacks the budgetary coherence and oversight of an OSTP/OMB partnership. OSTP oversight provides a much-needed platform for establishing international standards that can deter other nations from deploying geo-engineering technologies prematurely.

A third option is to increase funding for basic climate science (comprehensive environmental sensor networks, increased computer power, and other tools required for SRM and CDR technology assessments) without allocations for SRM and CDR research. This option ignores GAO-BCP expert opinion.

A coordinated program through OSTP/OMB is the best option; but expect intense debate. Recall that assessing and developing SRM and CDR technologies may take decades. Climate mitigation and adaptation remain top research priorities. Also, commitment to research is not a commitment to future deployment. OSTP oversight puts the US where it needs to be, in a position to set international standards that deter others from premature implementation of geo-engineering technologies.

With a sword of uncertainty and bitter resolve I witness Zarathustra’s irrelevance. In celebration of my 30th year I thought it fitting to open a text which alleges to present the fruits of ten years atop the proverbial mountain. On the whole, perhaps because of a diamond-precision foul mood, I found Zarathustra himself nearly as superfluous as all those whose superfluity he loves and hates. Early on he points to the coming lightning of the overman. He holds in his heart only the possibility of an adjacent possible bridge. Having received the message in many previous readings, my soul perhaps going under, I am as pleased with setting the book on fire as with consuming the text with critical rage. The best line to take from him is not a great help: “Flee into your solitude!” And some good advice about when to get married and have children (answer: not yet).

Coltrane and King

I cry when I hear recordings of John Coltrane’s April 1967 Olatunji Concert. As I’m crying there are reasons why, tangled in jazz, and reasons are in the room in 1967, I am a lost recording of someone weeping in that hall, someone who knew of John’s liver cancer and felt the spirit of God that John’s friends felt that afternoon, divine anger and man’s quest to huff and vaporize death’s religious lie. A structured deluge of entwined reasons stiffens into prose, but John’s gone beyond, portal music, layers of percussive shock secreted through space between bodies and rafters, this gold-colored tube and its buttons, great wicked drone celebrations of struggle that cannot be discriminated into social and personal senses, mystic and tribe and lover have filled a hall with ouch and fuck and holy fuck, I cried because somehow this man found an authentic path, and there he is doing an inexhaustible source meditation, trickster Coltrane having sax’s last supper, eating his own liver, one of my favourite things, eroding surface and bedrock with sudden unpredictable breath,  he and Rashied Ali coping with forces stolen from gods of interstellar space, generative mischief devices, Alice and Pharoah and Jimmy on bass staying glued to the flame of the kitchen. I cry with joy for this lost recording of tears and dank mist from ’67, reasons for crying pressed into vintage pivots in a world line, space and time a vinyl press. High John de Coltrane, far away inside life, beyond waking and dreaming, arms and breath.


After hearing the Olatunji concert I heard PBS use Kind of Blue as a soundtrack to the early 60s. Davis and Coltrane’s horns function as background for images of Kennedy riding through bright streets shortly post inauguration. I change the channel when the sound bite ends, we who devour Coltrane’s entrails, tolerable pieces of meat. Some minutes later I return as PBS paints a scene of the massive grassroots organization that crowdsourced the March on Washington in 1962. Very soon I again cry tears — MLK is having a dream. And again the lost recording of the scent in that crowd, history measured in phatic units now to seep through pores that he created.

Apparently Coltrane made sax with the cadence of King’s speech in the aftermath of the 1963 church bombing at 16th Street Baptist, producing an October 7th love-child called “Alabama”. I wonder if we ever witness King going beyond his role, moving into free jazz land. I’d like to find a speaker that does something like Coltrane does at the moment when the bell is tolling.

In previous posts I have documented some scholarly work on the transhumanist imagination. Specifically, I focused on recent lectures at Arizona State University in which speakers charted the genealogies of transhumanist discourse on the future. These speakers emphasized the family resemblance linking today’s “exponential thinking” (with its expectations of eradicating poverty and disease while enhancing human performance) with yesterday’s apocalyptic imagination. For example, one scholar charted a genealogy connecting 9th century St. Athanasius (“God became man so that man could become God”) and 13th century Joachim di Fiore to today’s leading exponents of technological apotheosis (he focused on Ray Kurzweil and Ted Chu). 

This line of thought got me thinking about ways that transhumanist imagination might innovate new forms of scriptural exegesis. To use an admittedly tenuous example, I am amazed that no one has yet offered a novel interpretation of the David and Goliath typology applied to Christian readings of the end times. In the Old Testament, David incapacitates the giant Goliath with a slingshot technology, but then uses Goliath’s own sword to behead the giant. When I see the Singularity University’s platform (individual entrepreneurs developing tech-based strategies that will transform life for a billion people in ten years’ time) I notice a potential family resemblance: David shocking Goliath with a slingshot invention and then using Goliath’s own sword (socio-technical systems, actor-networks, etc) to liberate mankind from a legacy of technocratic giant-ism.

Ok, it’s an admittedly awkward story to tell. Nevertheless, if we want to deal constructively with the religious aspects of transhumanism, we might ask, for example, how a religious transhumanist might answer some unasked questions raised by the long-standing Protestant tradition of viewing the life of David as a typology for the life of Christ. Would a Second Coming scenario perhaps involve a redeemer figure utilizing contemporary global, ‘satanic’ socio-technical systems as instruments of redemption? It’s a fascinating question to me, anticipating novel exegetical techniques that would  pre-suppose a transhumanist technological imaginary.

It would be good to provide an anticipatory reading of the uneven geographical diffusion of “exponential thinking”.

This week I participated in a workshop on “the Transhumanist Imagination” with scholars from Harvard, NYU, UC San Diego and Arizona State University. Workshops like this are an opportunity for articles-in-progress to receive communal critique. One of the essays was framed historically within the philosophy of aesthetics from Edmund Burke and Kant’s work on the sublime to recent formations of “the technological sublime.” After the reading, I proposed an alternative logic for the paper that would emphasize the aesthetic experience of terror that preoccupied the sublime for Burke, Kant, Schopenhauer, Hegel, and others.

Burke and Kant emphasize the realization of one’s smallness and limitations in the presence of a massive landscape or mathematical notion of infinite space and time. Schopenhauer’s typology emphasized the awareness that the massive aesthetic object beheld could crush you and kill you at this very moment – for example an erupting volcano. Historians of modern technology like Thomas Hughes studied Duchamp and the Soviet realists to emphasize that 20th century technological systems became artistic objects that induced complex feelings of optimism and dread. Hughes was also concerned with the origins of anti-science counterculture after WWII possibly springing from a growing awareness among people like Rachel Carson that technological systems were affecting natural landscapes that had once been considered pristine aesthetic objects with their own hidden skill of equilibrium. My sense is that the notion of the sublime can be utilized to accommodate the co-existence of technological utopianism and anti-technology counterculture in the 20th century.

To make this claim we first need to liberate the experience of the sublime from its commitment to the pleasant.  For Burke and Kant especially the feeling of terror is associated with a sense of enjoyment that comes with discomfort. While the perceiver is somehow belittled in the presence of the infinite, there is aesthetic value in understanding ones actual place within larger systems. My suggestion is that, clearly, this is only one of many legitimate personal responses to the terror of the sublime. Schopenhauer began to separate himself from Burke and Kant’s focus on noble character-building responses to the sublime. In fact, the image most people have of Schopenhauer is of a man entrenched in the acute discomfort and demoralizing consequences induced by a vast cosmos and mathematical infinity.

My sense is that 20th century experiences of the sublime that focused on technological systems as art objects were performing a new economy of feeling that problematized Burke, Kant, and Schopenhauer’s typologies. Because the object of analysis was man-made, the category of the sublime with its sense of terror also communicated an awareness of personal and collective agency. Whereas previous typologies emphasized natural events and mathematical objects that could not be controlled, the metropolitan sublime emerged precisely alongside the ambivalence of city-dwellers who were aware of the ability of individuals and collectives to alter modes of production and relations with the built environment. Burke was of course conservative, which may explain why his perceiver utilizes the sublime to reinforce aristocratic sensibilities. Kant was devoted to cosmopolitan intent and utilized the sublime to reinforce the perceiver’s participation in scientific and cultural advancement. In the 20th century these responses to the sublime are still available. But there are other responses also available, including revolutionary impulses and romantic impulses to return to earlier forms of relation with the sublime.

My sense is that 20th century anti-science counterculture and technocratic optimism can both be described through a shift in the experience of terror that marks the sublime. This was not the tack that the presenter from NYU chose. I brought up this alternative logic in discussion and the writer seemed interested.  

I do not wish to aestheticize everything, so I am not committed to this line of thought as an explanation of historical events. The point of the discussion is to situate the Transhumanist Imagination, with its emphasis on human interiority as a design space.

The UCSD professor interviewed 180 religious persons and charted middle-class attitudes toward transhumanism. Almost all of the respondents emphasized either dread and fear or optimism and hope about the future of technological interventions into human genetic design and cognitive or emotional “enhancement”. My sense is that these are precisely the sorts of responses that are salient today when perceivers are confronted with the technological sublime.

Viewing the body as a site of the sublime is a considerable departure from the time of Burke and Kant, Schopenhauer and Hegel.  Molecular genetics, biophysics and medicine have rendered the body an uber-complexity, while self-improvement and advertising industries call upon us to discipline the body. It is now a truism that the human brain is the most complex object in the known universe. It is odd to suppose, in keeping with the aesthetic logic of Burke and Kant, that one should be belittled by the infinitude of one’s body, but we do see this attitude implied in reliance on pharmaceutical interventions. Whitman celebrated the infinite body as if to suggest that the appreciation of his own cosmos was the image of health of political liberation. New Agers celebrate this awareness as if one’s thoughts were a revolutionary political force. But there is still the experience of terror here, for example, in the common suggestion that a subconscious economy of desire is infinite in comparison to the conscious perceiver.

The technological sublime is typically described in terms of digital communications technologies. What the Transhumanist Imagination workshop emphasized was the body in its genetic and biophysical complexity as a design space and site of political futures. My sense is that portrayals of the  technological sublime could benefit from considering the multiplicity of justifiable responses to  growing awareness of the modification potential of the human body.   

The Poverty Maintenance Model


The Center for Science and Technology Policy Research released an issue brief today evaluating World Bank and International Energy Agency metrics of “full energy access.” Various firms and policymakers consult these metrics when setting targets for humanitarian intervention, technology transfer, and foreign direct investment. These WB and IEA 30-year projections of global energy availability and carbon emissions provide a self-fulfilling ”poverty maintenance” prophecy whereby 4 to 5 billion humans living in 2040 are consigned to abject poverty. The minimum threshold for “full energy access” in rural Africa, as codified by the World Bank, is 250 kW/yr, equivalent to three 60 watt light bulbs running at 8 hours per day. The minimum threshold for the urban poor is twice that amount.

The World Bank’s mission statement enshrined in the late 1940s was to eradicate poverty. Applying techniques of calculation that arbitrarily define acceptable levels of energy access to 250 kw/yr does not strike me as an acceptable goal for the year 2043.

I’m amazed at how inexplicable even simple misunderstandings in social situations can be. You know the kind: tiny emotional explosions occur on someone’s countenance in response to an ambiguous utterance. It seems easy enough to explain: person A interpreted a sentence structure to mean something that person B did not intend to convey, and person B feels as misunderstood as person A feels wounded. But it’s always more than that, and it always will be. James C Scott famously writes that large scale social events will always exceed in complexity any schema we devise to explain them. But it’s even the case for small social events. We are small things on the surface of the earth.

Timothy Morton’s essay from 2009 “Thinking the Charnel Ground (the charnel ground thinking): auto-commentary and death in esoteric Buddhism” suggests that contemplative practice is for becoming more object-like. He repeatedly points to Zen writings that compare enlightenment to the interiority of a stone.

I’m thinking: how about the subtle energy channels as fault lines? It’s a better, more object-like image than the Zen stone. It also brings out the sense in which contemplative practice is actually for becoming more hyperobject-like. In an ecological age, becoming a stone is not enough. The world does not need stones, for one; and we should want what the world needs. If not fault lines — which are earth-like and actively engaged in complexity — then perhaps some stellar imagery would work as an active image of enlightened energy, e.g. interpersonal field concepts.

earth sun mag field 2


For me it’s all about “the constant composition of consciousness” — which is the title of an essay I’m drafting that explores themes from a recent laboratory ethnography I conducted in Japan these past months. A dominant theme in that venue was investigating how pattern-based energy transfer self-organizes the cellular cytoskeleton. Basically it’s a continuous process where simultaneity and synchronization are key explanatory concepts. From birth to death, I was told, my organism is experiencing a constant computational stream of self-organizing arguments and perceptual gestalts.

By day 2 in the laboratory we were already talking about the empirical status of claims about Rainbow Body transformation from the eastern traditions of Dzogchen. The conversation emerged from fluent discussions of Jagadish Chandra Bose, the early pioneer of plant biophysics and microwave science. According to my lab director, Bose believed the laboratory itself should be experienced like a temple where nectar of wisdom is manufactured. From questions about the role of the scientist’s body in the production of truth, I was referred to the writings of “Rishi Aravind” — known as Sri Aurobindo to western audiences. Specifically, we discussed the importance of continuous concentration as a key criterion for experiencing enlightenment. “If someone can focus continuously on a single object for 12 cycles of 12 seconds, Rishi Aravind calls this enlightenment,” said the senior scientist at the world’s greatest materials science institute.

[Note: these are recollections of early conversations that were unfortunately not recorded (I started recording on day 3), and thus may not be 100% accurate.]

“But what about physiological transformation,” I asked? “As a materials scientist studying neurons and cellular cytoskeletons, you are surely aware of the piezoelectric properties of these biological structures. Pressure translates into electrical energy, right? Well, think of it — the banda exercises in esoteric yoga are intense prolonged muscle contractions. What if someone could train themselves to generate an absolutely immense pressure through such exercises?”

He was sceptical. “I am a physicist at heart,” he said. “I cannot just believe these things.”

I let it go — it was only day 2, after all. (By day 14 he mentioned to me over tea that after considering it further he did in fact think Rainbow Body transformation is likely possible.)

Note: not just any kind of pressure will do. For example, the best explanation I can think of for spontaneous human combustion is the untrained application of immense pressure to piezoelectric cellular materials. This is a hypothesis, actually — it could be studied. The electro-mechanical properties of the cellular cytoskeleton should permit calculation and testing of what level of generative force is required to ignite tissue.

My thesis is that spiritual traditions hold anatomical codes for turning human bodies into hyperobjects.

Although Timothy Morton practices Dzogchen, he has yet to take the leap to the other shore and discuss the physiological transformations discussed so intensely by the great masters. Chogyal Namkhai Norbu writes:

Of all possible rebirths…birth in a human body is the most favourable for working towards Total Realization; and to be truly human, to fulfil truly one’s humanity, such realization must be one’s goal. Otherwise, one lives one’s life, as the Buddha pointed out, like a preoccupied child playing with toys in a house that is burning to the ground.” (The Crystal and the Way of Light, p 164)

Morton’s continuous meditation on a flat object-oriented ontology is not consistent with what I consider the real heart of Dzogchen. To think the thought of bodily enlightenment without ever acknowledging the epistemic and ontological status of empirical claims about esoterically transformed bodies is to roam a flat ontology with no care for the potency and potential of the human hyperobject. And that’s a shame!

Now, aside from viewing the nadis as fault lines, I also suggest thinking about duration as weathering and erosion. Duration is a category of philosophical thought that goes back a long way. It is concerned with perception and causality and touches adjacent notions of temporal flow, tempo, memory, repetition, etc. Weathering is a concept that evokes many sizes and scales of interacting objects. Erosion sculpts distinct features that have character and history. These are thus two concepts that are useful for ecological thinking.

Nadis as fault lines, and duration as weathering and erosion. Those are my big ideas.

And coming to terms with the actual possibility of becoming a hyperobject.