Reordering Life: Knowledge and Control in the Genomics Revolution. Book Review

Review by Maximilian Fochler

Stephen Hilgartner
 Reordering Life:
Knowledge and Control in the Genomics Revolution
 Cambridge, Mass., The MIT Press, 2017
Who controls access to and use of knowledge? Which different entitlements and obligations are connected to specific knowledge and data, even those seemingly openly available to wider constituencies? Who stands to profit from specific kinds of arrangements, and who might stand to lose? 

At a time in which open access is a controversial topic and in which the term big data seems to signify an ongoing revolution in many research fields, the relevance of these questions seems obvious. Stephen Hilgartner shows that they are by no means radically new. Building on 15 years of fieldwork, he studies these questions in one of the most significant scientific endeavours of the recent past, the sequencing of the human genome in the Human Genome Project (HGP).

Hilgartner’s book demonstrates that questions of control are inextricably woven into the fabric of scientific practice, ranging from everyday work in the laboratory to policy imaginaries of the future impact of the knowledge to be produced. Following the development of the HGP, he traces how questions of control over knowledge are central to the complex co-evolution of new epistemic and technological approaches on the one hand and the social arrangements in which knowledge is produced and shared on the other.

The central concept guiding the reader through the book is that of the “knowledge control regime”, which Hilgartner defines as “a socio-technical arrangement that constitutes categories of agents, spaces, objects and relationships among them in a manner that allocates entitlements and burdens pertaining to knowledge” (p.9).

Hilgartner analyses the emergence of new knowledge control regimes, such as most prominently around the pre-publication of genomic data in sequence databases. But even more interestingly, he traces how the emergence of such new regimes always is in potential tension with existing regimes, such as that of publication in scholarly journals or that of policing information to maintain advantage in a traditionally highly competitive field. This allows him to explain why some forms of organizing genome research were more successful than others, as well as to show that the success of epistemic shifts even as radical as the genomic revolution depends on building carefully orchestrated relations to other regimes rather than on radical breaks with existing conventions.

The structure of the book loosely follows the chronology of the HGP, but each chapter has a specific focus. Single chapters discuss the initial vision of the genomics vanguard, the control of information in the dynamics of cooperation and competition between laboratories, the success and failure of different approaches to organizing the new forms of cooperation required by genomic sequencing, the contested regimes of control forming around new epistemic objects, the evolution of rules and procedures of sharing data and attributing credit, as well as the management of the public perception of the competition between the HGP and its private competitor Celera.

The advantage of this structure is that the reader both can follow the HGP as it unfolds over time as well as look at it from different analytical perspectives held together by Hilgartner’s overarching research interest. A necessary consequence, however, also is that changes over time cannot be addressed from all of these focal perspectives in the same depth.

The book is exceptionally well written and readable also for those with no specific prior insights into genomics and genomic technology. Throughout the text, Hilgartner skilfully uses interview quotations and ethnographic vignettes to provide a lively reading experience. The book is of interest to different audiences. Those not yet familiar with genomics will receive a highly knowledgeable introduction. Specialist audiences will meet both a sophisticated new theoretical approach as well as some unique gems of ethnographic data. But for those with a specialist focus, there will be questions about the HGP the book cannot (and does also not aspire to) fully answer – for example, regarding the complex dynamics of intellectual property rights or a critical analysis of the hope-and-hype dynamics accompanying the project.

It is the concept of knowledge control regimes that renders the book relevant to even broader academic audiences. Hilgartner’s theoretical framework has potential to be applied to a range of topics of burning contemporary relevance, both in the public communication of science and the study of the culture and organization of knowledge production – with big data and open access being only two cases in point. My humble guess is that most academic readers interested in the dynamics of knowledge in contemporary societies will put this book aside with a new inspiration for their own work.

Stephen Hilgartner: Reordering Life: Knowledge and Control in the Genomics Revolution. Cambridge, Mass., The MIT Press, 2017, 368 pages; £27.95 (hardback) 

Maximilian Fochler is assistant professor at the Department of Science and Technology Studies of the University of Vienna, Austria. He is currently president of STS Austria and programme director of the Masters in Science Technology Society at the University of Vienna.