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Tech Q&A

Janet Hope

Describe your latest project.
Biobazaar explores the idea of developing and distributing all kinds of biotechnology inventions in a way that parallels the production of open source software programs such as Linux. The point of open source biotechnology would be to shore up competition in an industry (or collection of industries, since biotechnology is a broad enabling technology) that is becoming increasingly dominated by a few powerful players, with adverse consequences for ongoing innovation. Open source gives people access to the tools they need to innovate for themselves, but because software and biotechnology are so different, it's not obvious exactly how the open source approach would translate from one context to the other. Biobazaar teases out all the challenges and implications of applying open source principles in a new setting.

Part of my motivation in writing the book was to give practitioners (scientists, investors, policy makers and others) an opportunity to assess the potential of open source biotechnology in relation to their own individual circumstances. More broadly, I wanted to expose the many assumptions — some justified, others not — that underpin our current understanding of how technological innovation works and how best to support it. Even if you don't buy my argument that open source biotech would be both feasible and desirable in some areas — even if you aren't that interested in open source or biotech per se — the topic offers a vehicle for examining those assumptions in a fresh light.

What inspires you to sit down and write?
I used to think it was fear of unemployment, until I spent some time pursuing a personal growth agenda (ie unemployed) and found myself spontaneously researching and writing despite the lack of any external motivation. It's weird because I find writing really difficult and painful but also kind of obsessive. I guess it's a bit like picking up a necklace and finding the beads all tangled up — if I see a mess of complex, interconnected ideas I feel the need to disentangle them and lay them out as clearly as I can. But I don't pick up the necklace in the first place unless the tangle has some practical significance.

Describe your favorite childhood teacher and how that teacher influenced you.
Two of my high school teachers were actually quite important to me in connection with writing Biobazaar, though I haven't been in contact with either of them in nearly twenty years. My chemistry teacher was one. She was something of a legend at our school; she taught me briefly in my first year of high school, but it still felt like a coming-of-age to finally join her class for matriculation. She had high expectations of her students and a very dry, somewhat sarcastic sense of humour, but she always treated us with consideration and respect. She was the person who sparked my interest in science and technology in the first place. The other teacher was someone who gave me a lot of affirmation about my writing ability. At the time I found this excruciatingly embarrassing, but later it gave me a boost of much-needed confidence to pretend I was addressing my words to her instead of to an imagined audience of unforgiving expert critics.

Douglas Adams or Scott Adams?
I'm a big fan of both. If their work were to be erased from existence, I think I'd miss Dilbert first, but Ford Prefect and Dirk Gently more. I probably identify more with Douglas Adams: Scott seems to find his writing enjoyable and fairly easy, whereas Douglas apparently had to be all but tied down and systematically deprived of all the good things in life before he would actually produce a book for his publishers. I deeply admire the simplicity and elegance of Scott Adam's writing, but one of the best pieces of writing I've ever read was a brief travel article by Douglas Adams about a trip to Australia's Great Barrier Reef to test some new diving equipment. Douglas Adams had a soft spot for Australians and I find that very appealing in a person.

What was your favorite book as a kid?
As a primary school (ages 4 to 11) kid I enjoyed Asterix and Obelix, Lord of the Rings and anything involving time travel, especially going backwards in time. I still have a time travel fetish and will indiscriminately lap up any narrative with a time travel premise. I also remember consuming Watership Down from start to finish in one day, huddled up under the eaves of a boathouse in the rain while my Dad and older brothers went sailing on Lake Burley Griffin in Canberra, Australia. This memory is of historical significance because that day in February 1982 was probably the last time it ever actually rained in Canberra.

What new technology do you think may actually have the potential for making people's lives better?
Pretty much any new technology has the potential to make people's lives better (for a given value of "better" — easier, healthier, more fun, more aware, more connected to other people, etc). Of course, it's not the technology itself that brings about the improvement so much as the way it's deployed within society. This means it's crucially important who can gain access to new technologies and on what terms, who reaps the benefits, who bears the costs and risks (there are always some), and so on. Too often the groups in society that introduce or advocate for new technologies are not the same as those that will cop the consequence if things go wrong. That's not an argument against change — it's just that we should be prepared to take broader, non-technical issues into consideration when we're trying to assess whether change equals progress.

What was your best subject in high school? Your worst?
Best was Modern History, closely followed by Maths and English. Worst was Home Economics (cooking and sewing).

What are some of the things you'd like your computer to do that it cannot now do?
Despite advances of the past decade or so, using a computer is still pretty much a sedentary, indoor occupation. I want to be able to hop on my bike, head to a field somewhere and spend the day under a tree writing or surfing the Web — without having to drape a light-excluding blanket over both myself and the monitor, which not only defeats the purpose of getting outdoors but also tends to attract undue curiosity from passersby.

Indoors, I would like to be able to interface with my computer in a variety of ways so as to minimize the physical and mental toll taken by long periods of enforced inactivity. I picture walking around talking to the computer while I do the housework, maybe manipulating 3D objects as a substitute for a keyboard and mouse when the voice method fails. I've used voice software for many years and it's great, but these sorts of technologies have a long way to go before knowledge workers are really freed from having to work hunched over a desk in a darkened room — which is so bad for your health and really constrains your imagination.

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Janet Hope has published in the fields of constitutional, criminal, administrative, environmental, human rights, intellectual property law, and biotechnology regulation. She is a member of the Australian National University's Center for Governance of Knowledge and Development.

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