African Cyberpunk, DNA Hacking, and the Problems of Transnational Regulation

by Chris Borgen

There’s a post that’s been making the rounds in the science fiction blogosphere that warrants note by those interested in international law, especially in regards to issues of international trade, development, and regulation. The piece is by Ghanaian writer Jonathan Dotse and it concerns the rise of African cyberpunk.

Before getting to Dotse’s post, though, a couple of words on cyberpunk itself. Cyberpunk is a sci-fi style that arose primarily among U.S. and Canadian writersin the 1980′s. Setting aside the optimistic science fiction of earlier generations (think Star Trek) and the grand themes of “space operas” like Dune, cyberpunk instead focused on the street-level effects of technological change and imagined a gritty, dystopian, future. Good-bye Star Wars, hello Blade Runner!

This original iteration of cyberpunk reflected the concerns of the U.S. of the 1980′s: the development of computer networks (and especially of hacker culture), the rise of corporate power (and especially Japanese corporate power), the relative decline of the United States, the rise of crime and gang culture, and so on.  Science fiction is not really a crystal ball for peering into the future; it’s more like a funhouse mirror reflecting the present. Nonetheless, science fiction writers, in extrapolating from the present, can sometimes spot important trends earlier than many other writers.

Fast forward from the 1980′s to today. Cyberpunk is no longer the hip new style; it is well-known and pretty well-worn. Some of its images of the future now seem as fanciful as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.  But, more importantly, many of its then-revolutionary themes (hacking, cyberwar, illicit genetic engineering, private military contractors run amok) are no longer revolutionary but rather common. And note– I don’t mean these topics are commonplace in sci-fi literature (though they are) but rather that they are (or are becoming) commonplace in serious policy discourse. We’ve got a drone war in Pakistan, debates over “cybersecurity,” and marketbots gone wild. Yesterday’s avant-garde is today’s daily brief. (But see this cautionary note.)

So now we get to Dotse’s post. Dotse is focused on how the literature of cyberpunk, which pre-figured some aspects of life today (but mis-analyzed others), may be especially relevant in Africa (and, I would add, in the developing world more broadly). Dotse writes:

 The Internet counterculture of the West went mainstream faster than anyone could have predicted and the grim forecast of the cyberpunk movement became a self-defeating prophecy…. [snip] …

However, this power didn’t come without regulation. The surveillance capabilities of the West have been well orchestrated to secure a significant degree of control over its citizens’ virtual lives. Its law enforcement continually strives to gain jurisdiction over the ever-expanding boundaries of Net, making it a far stretch from the lawless frontier cyberpunk predicted.

But here in Africa, development has been dangerously asymmetrical. By the time any product hits our soil it’s already fully-developed and ready to be abused by the imagination. Technology designed for vastly different societies invariably trickles down to our streets, re-sprayed, re-labeled, and hacked to fit whatever market will take it. Regulation? You can forget about regulation.

Whatever rules the creators imagined fly out of the window as freighters are crammed to bursting with the second-hand remains of their creations, damn wherever they’re heading as long as they can be cleared from port.

What Dotse describes is familiar to anyone who’s read some William Gibson (the Neuromancer William Gibson, not the Miracle Worker one): tech innovation hits the street and then it is hacked and re-hacked. Or just re-purposed. Turntables become musical instruments. Text messaging gives rise to flash mobs. Street tech.

Consider a recent Wall Street Journal article on the rise of do-it-yourself genetic engineering. The WSJ article begins:

In Massachusetts, a young woman makes genetically modified E. coli in a closet she converted into a home lab. A part-time DJ in Berkeley, Calif., works in his attic to cultivate viruses extracted from sewage. In Seattle, a grad-school dropout wants to breed algae in a personal biology lab.

These hobbyists represent a growing strain of geekdom known as biohacking, in which do-it-yourselfers tinker with the building blocks of life in the comfort of their own homes. Some of them buy DNA online, then fiddle with it in hopes of curing diseases or finding new biofuels.

But are biohackers a threat to national security?

Exciting and frightening stuff, all at once. And, when we internationalize this phenomenon, we map the frayed edge of regulation. Twisted programs, ripped DVDs, knock-off pharmaceuticals, and biohacked DNA are the bane of corporations from the relatively rich countries. They are also thriving in the poor places of the world (well, maybe not the hacked DNA). Dotse writes:

It’s no surprise then that lawlessness is the rule on our end of the networks, ‘do what thou wilt’ the full extent of cyber-regulation. This will remain the case as long as Africa continues to wear hand-me-down systems; until she acquires her own truly tailor-made networks. With the huge logistical frameworks that need to be implemented, spanning vast swathes of geographical terrain, political regimes, and language barriers, a cyberpunk future for Africa seems all but inevitable.

Larry Lessig has written about the rise of remix culture and the challenge that it poses for copyright rules in the U.S. But what Dotse and others are pointing to goes beyond the remixing of culture in the U.S. to the reworking of technology on a global scale. It implicates not only copyright but patent, trade regulation, and a variety of regulatory schemes. While we as international lawyers focus (and generally laud) the rise of transnational regulatory networks, cyberpunk reminds us that innovation in areas of desperation will probably far outpace the work of bureaucrat. Necessity is the mother of invention. And necessity is especially sharp in lesser developed countries.

In thinking about the future of regulation, we need to keep in mind the interests, needs, and motivations of this new generation of innovators, hackers, and remixers in the global South. Science fiction writers are increasingly framing their stories in this landscape.  Ian MacDonald has River of Gods in India and Brasyl in, well, Brazil.  Paolo Bacigalupi’s award-winning The Windup Girl imagines Thailand in a world were the oil economy has collapsed and errant biotech has decimated populations. And there are others.

However, I am especially interested, as is Dotse, in what writers from the developing world imagine their futures may be like. What are the threats that they see? What gives hope? What should we try to regulate and where should we let things grow wild? It is a staple of cyberpunk (borrowing from William Burroughs) that every society needs its interzone, its night town where regulation isn’t quite so strict and innovation– to good and bad ends–flourishes. But, in our globalized economy, the new interzones may be the bloc flats of Lagos or the favelas of Rio de Janeiro.

Whether or not the visions of the future of the African cyberpunks prove to be prescient or as inaccurate as a Hugo Gernsback pulp fiction remains to be seen. (Most likely by our children or grandchildren.) But, as an inspiration to break out of rote thinking about technology, trade, economics, and the role of law, you could do a lot worse. 

Hat tip: Futurismic

http://opiniojuris.org/2010/05/18/african-cyberpunk-dna-hacking-and-the-problems-of-transnational-regulation/

2 Responses

  1. But from a historical perspective, hasn’t most new and truly innovative science come from strange places?  Bill Gates dropped out of college to start his own business.  Albert Einstein was working in a patent office, not a university or lab.

  2. Joe:

    I basically agree, but in the past these “strange places” were (usually) geographically within developed economies that had robust regulatory structures.  While the garages of what would become Sillicon Valley were a sort of Interzone, once  the product of those garages became noticed, they began to come under regulatory scrutiny and also legal protection (in terms of intellectual property rights).  Thus, Dotse argues, the hacker aesthetic became mainstreamed.

    When you go to the developing world, though, there are two factors that Dotse highlights. First is the issue of asymmetrical technology development, where much of the tech is first produced in developing countries and then sent to Africa. This tech is then hacked and the next question is whether a similar mainstreaming is likely in regards to the results of the tinkering in garages in Cairo or Accra (or Bangkok, I would add, going beyond Africa)?  Here regulation may be much less effective. 
    Chris 

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