Disassembling the World (1)

MCMTuesday, June 9, 2009

At the end of July, 1889 Books will be releasing The Vector, a science fiction novel about people trying to survive a slow apocalypse. When we start the book, things have already been deteriorating for some time, and no time is wasted explaining why. Over the next few weeks, I'm going to writing a series of background articles here that fill in the back story. You don't need to read these to understand the book, but if you're like me, you'll probably want to know.

Part I: Curing the Common Cold

The root of the problem can be traced back to good intentions gone wrong. Indeed, as Ad Janssen remarked at the launch of the Russian plagues: "I don't think anyone would have imagined, the start, that our decisions could have caused all this suffering. We thought we were being careful."

The technology itself existed for several years before the right minds came across it. Take the gene sequences, the chemical compounds, the logic and the math and the biology of pathology, and wrap it in a computing language. Stop worrying about the execution of diseases and focus on the articulation. How does Malaria work in the body? Can we model it? If we can model it, can we take it apart, examine the pieces, and build a cure?

The answer was "yes", but it was so slow-going. Four years to find a synthetic cure for Malaria was a watershed moment, but there was a sense that if the tools were in more hands at once, greater things could happen. With more eyes, all "bugs" become shallow.

The Genesis Incubator software was re-released under an MIT license the next year, after the original sponsoring universities were bought out for a handsome fee. The code and hardware specs were distributed to other schools worldwide, with e-learning video streams running constantly, bringing new professors and grad students up to speed. Almost as a game, a contest was set up to see who could fully cure full-blown Tuberculosis first, with a $3M prize.

Two weeks later, an undergrad in Amsterdam named Ad Janssen cured AIDS.

The reactions were swift and diametrically opposed. Janssen, a computer science major with no formal training in biology, was offered jobs in pharmaceutical companies across the world, all hoping to cash in on the new prodigy's talent for "biohacking". Meanwhile, the University of Amsterdam came under close scrutiny from the government for potentially dangerous security breaches, and eventually collaborated with police to charge Janssen with criminal mischief. The case was dismissed twice, though Janssen's ability to travel outside continental Europe was severely curtailed as a result.

By the time Juan Rios cured Tuberculosis three weeks later, the world was cracking down on incubators. Competing governing bodies were established to give certification to technicians, with two-year schedules packed with "stakeholder meetings" to ensure a fair and thorough implementation. When Rios died from a flaw in his own cure, the European Union Parliament put a moratorium on all incubator projects until new safeguards could be put in place. Even the twenty-seven Piratpartiet members, long the champions of open and free communication of incubator specs, conceded that further examination was needed.

The World Biological Programming Certification Board (WBPCB) had spent one year developing its initial findings on "Incubator Best Practices" when the San Jose Avian Flu outbreak began. Within five days, the world of biohacking was turned upside-down, and the groundwork was laid for the virus age.

Read Part II here.

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