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SyntheticHow Life Got Made$
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Sophia Roosth

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780226440323

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: September 2017

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226440637.001.0001

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Biotechnical Agnosticism: Fragmented Life and Labor among the Machines

Biotechnical Agnosticism: Fragmented Life and Labor among the Machines

(p.103) Chapter Four Biotechnical Agnosticism: Fragmented Life and Labor among the Machines

Sophia Roosth

University of Chicago Press

Chapter 4, “Biotechnical Agnosticism,” enters the lab of a Boston start-up company that built what members term a biological “assembly line” following the principles of Taylorism, the late-nineteenth-century management theory that tried to maximize labor efficiency. This company is compared to a larger, for-profit synthetic biology company in the Bay Area, in which the corporate ethos is also suffused by management theories emphasizing efficiency. Both companies subscribe to the “Toyota Way” production cycle forged in Japanese factories and popularized in American manufacturing philosophies such as General Electric’s “Six Sigma.” This chapter observes the deskilling of PhD benchwork in favor of undergraduate labor in one company and short-term manual laborers operating robots in the other. Juxtaposing these two companies shows how engineers have imported not only technical principles of manufacture (such as standardization, decoupling, and abstraction) into biology but also the labor relations and forms of alienation that underwrite mass production in late capitalism. As a result, synthetic biological work is fragmented, divided between the high-prestige work of biological design and the automation of biological manufacture. In some cases biological design is evacuated from industrial synthetic biology, which instead is feverishly spurred on by ever-increasing speeds and scales of production.

Keywords:   Taylorism, Toyota Way, decoupling, design, manufacture, agnosticism, automation, labor

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