The Kickstarter Culture Wars

kickstarterPlans to grow genetically modified plants ignited a firestorm at Kickstarter. They shouldn’t have

Whether lit by Fairies in a children’s book or special-effects magic in Avatar, the sight of plants glowing in the dark has a special charm. We respond to lighted plants with wonder and joy.

So it’s not surprising that a plan to produce glow-in-the-dark plants proved wildly popular on Kickstarter, the crowdfunding website. In 44 days, the project raised more than $484,000–more than seven times the goal of $65,000–from 8,433 donors. Using genes from bioluminescent bacteria or fireflies, the project aims to create a glowing version of a small, inedible plant called Arabidopsis, often dubbed plant biology’s lab rat. The organizers then plan to move on to roses.

To reward donors, they offered seeds, plants and glowing roses for different amounts of money. Although Kickstarter steadfastly maintains that it’s not a place to sell products, most successful projects attract donors who want a version of whatever the organizers are producing, whether that’s the DVD of a documentary film or a watch made from an iPod Nano. Thousands of people, it turned out, wanted seeds for glow-in-the-dark plants.

The result was a culture war that has nothing to do with the usual red state–blue state split. It’s a conflict between two cultural tribes within the generally left-of-center “creative class” that constitutes Kickstarter’s core audience. On one side are the expansive techies, represented by the organizers and backers of the glowing plant. This tribe believes in the power of ingenuity and artifice to solve problems and generate delight. They embrace world-changing entrepreneurship and DIY tinkering. They tend to favor open-source solutions that share intellectual property–whether computer code or new DNA sequences–so that others can build on and improve new creations. This tribe supports such big-money Kickstarter projects as the 3-D printer that raised $2.9 million, and it accounts for Kickstarter’s frequent coverage on such high-traffic websites as Wired and TechCrunch.

On the other side are the hipster artists, represented by Kickstarter’s founders. While the techies hack bits and atoms, the artists hack culture, telling stories, making pictures, singing songs, cooking meals. They too have a DIY ethos, but it’s driven less by a desire for mastery (though that’s there) than by a suspicion of distant specialists. They value localism and small-scale enterprise, instinctively opposing disruptive technologies and global commerce. One of their most lucrative projects, which raised more than $1 million, was a hoodie designed to last a decade–an antifashion statement about history, craft and permanence. Among this tribe, genetically modified organisms are a food taboo, embodying anticorporate values and ideas of natural purity common in their circles, not the next wave of DIY innovation.

Until recently, the two tribes coexisted peacefully on Kickstarter. The techies didn’t wage a campaign to wipe out a documentary opposing biotech food, and the artists didn’t attack 3-D printing. But when the glowing-plant project came along, antibiotech groups sprang into action, calling the project “genetic pollution” and charging that its organizers had “hijacked” Kickstarter from its artistic intent. DIY genetics, they warned, could be dangerous. Even worse was the project’s seed giveaway–the “deliberate release into the environment” of a product of synthetic biology.

Never mind that arabidopsis isn’t a dangerous plant or a weed, and that the genes for luminescence are benign and well understood. In fact, the project’s biggest pitfall is that the light may not be bright enough for today’s light-accustomed eyes to notice that the plant is glowing.

But the hysteria had the desired effect. It blew up Kickstarter’s modus vivendi. Although the company, which takes a 5% revenue cut, let the glowing-plant project proceed, its management has quietly slipped a new no-no into its ever-growing list of prohibitions: “Projects cannot offer genetically modified organisms as a reward.” In the company’s only public comments on the controversy, in an interview with The Verge website, co-founder Yancey Strickler suggested that the change is modest, because it limits only rewards, not projects themselves. But everyone knows that rewards are crucial to success. People don’t want T-shirts of glowing plants. They want glowing plants.

The truth is that the company has picked sides. Instead of maintaining a neutral forum or hiring enough staff to screen projects one by one, Kickstarter has chosen to pander to fearmongers. With its blanket prohibition, it has betrayed the technologists who embraced it, promoted it and accounted for some of its most successful and profitable projects. It may be happy to take their money, but it isn’t comfortable with their kind.

[Source: Virginia Postrel @ Time],9171,2149613-1,00.html

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